Uncovering the Past


Yesterday, I wrote about my daughter’s attempts to reconstruct her paternal genealogy. To assist her a bit, I did some digging of my own and the material in this post is for her and anyone else who is historically inclined.

 The Rolfe-Warren House to the left stands in Surry County Virginia, and is one of the oldest houses in the Commonwealth.  Your ancestors built the house.

Surry County is located in the Hampton Roads Metropolitan area of the Tidewater of the Commonwealth of Virginia, very near the James River, site of one of the first English colonies in the New World.  The Smith’s Fort web page describes the Rolfe-Warren property thusly:

Smith’s Fort Plantation was originally part of Pocahontas’s dowry. It was presented by the Indian chief, Powhatan, to the Englishman, John Rolfe, upon his marriage to Pocahontas in 1614. There had been the beginnings of a fort, ordered by Captain John Smith in 1608 to serve as a refuge for the Jamestown settlers in the event of an attack, but the fort was never completed. For years the house, later built on the property was called the Rolfe-Warren House.

In 1928, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought the plantation, and gave it to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). In 1935, the APVA approached the Garden Club of Virginia for help in restoring the garden. A typical 18th century domestic garden surrounded by a white picket fence with the grid of walks defining planting beds. Two out-buildings for garden use were also added, as there was evidence of other buildings on the site.


When I volunteered as a docent at Gunston Hall, home of George Mason in northern Virginia, I became interested in garden restoration. I didn’t work in the gardens at Guston, I gave tours of the house. But later, I did volunteer work in the children’s garden at Green Springs, a historic facility owned and operated by Fairfax County.  See link below.


How do horticultural archeologists uncover historic gardens? 

Wilhelmina Jashemski and Frederick Meyer describe this process in their book The Natural History of Pompeii.  In the case of Pompeii, volcanic ash covered the site and preserved much that lay underneath. However, organic material deteriorates, so when they excavated the site, J & M found no items ‘preserved’ intact, except some structures, such as the frescoed walls of various buildings. In the gardens, they found the remains of garden paraphernalia such as the post holes that once acted as plant supports for grape vines and fruit trees. Everything made from wood had pretty much burned away. 

The two scientists used soil samples to ascertain the types of plants grown in the gardens maintained by the Romans.  They also used Pliny the Elder’s guide to vegetation in the area (Pliny died in the eruption that buried Pompeii, but his garden writing survived via his nephew Pliny the Younger). During the Renaissance, early scientists uncovered Pliny’s works as well as those of other Romans. The newly acquired information  influenced the design of many houses and gardens in Italy, England and the English colonies.  

Garden archeologists reconstructing the colonial gardens in Virginia used restoration techniques similar to those perfected at Pompeii.  Construction plans, deeds, land transfer and tax records, wills and their probate, as well as letters, diaries and journals, and other written material provided clues to the nature of the historic houses and gardens. Soil analysis and pollen also play a major role in the reconstruction of a garden.

Below, an aerial view of the restored grounds of the Rolfe-Warren House.


8 thoughts on “Uncovering the Past

  1. Your ancestral sleuthing was interesting, and the mix of history and garden restoration was new to me. In spite of all the negative and violent stuff swirling around us, i find this an absolutely fascinating time to be alive.


    • Interesting observation. I know that there were no stables at Gunston near the house. I think they must have been away from the house owing to the smell. I personally do not find horse and cow manure smelly, but it does draw flies.

      Me too. I am putting Pompeii on my bucket list. I love old ruins. I also have Tilly on the list.


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