September 2021

The Future of History Lies in the Past

Shenandoah’s Belle Grove Plantation is researching the lives of its enslaved inhabitants

Belle Grove, a grand plantation in Virginia’s northern Shenandoah Valley, stands as a living monument to the myriad agrarian cultures prevalent in the area in the 18th century and beyond.

These cultures were white and Black, European and African, free and enslaved.

Today, work is underway to discover more about this unique property near Middletown, with a special emphasis on researching the lives of the enslaved people that once inhabited it.

Located in Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative territory, Belle Grove is a National Historic Landmark, a Virginia Historic Landmark and a historic property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

According to Kristen Laise, Belle Grove’s executive director, the plantation’s highest priorities are to “stimulate historical and preservation awareness among regional residents and visitors from all over the world.”

HISTORY LESSON

The history of Belle Grove begins with German immigration into the Shenandoah Valley.

In 1732, Jost Hite, with his business partner Robert McKay and 16 families, journeyed to the valley to settle on more than 100,000 acres obtained in land grants bestowed by the Colonial Council of Williamsburg.

Hite and most of his family owned slaves, who were instrumental in settling Hite’s newly acquired land and making it profitable. Following in his father’s footsteps, Jost Hite’s son, Isaac Hite Sr., was a Shenandoah Valley farmer and merchant who, in 1783, gave his son, Isaac Hite Jr., 483 acres of land as a wedding gift. These 483 acres became Belle Grove Plantation. Isaac Hite Jr. married Nelly Conway Madison, the sister of future U.S. President James Madison.

Construction began on the Belle Grove Manor House in 1794 and was completed in 1797. The mansion, built from limestone quarried on the property and facing the Valley Pike (today U.S. 11), displayed the owners’ social and financial status.

“Hite family records indicate that they owned 276 enslaved persons at Belle Grove between 1783 and 1851,” says Laise. “Research is underway about these 276 men, women and children who were responsible for making the plantation a success. Understanding and uplifting the historical contributions of this enslaved community is an ongoing effort and priority. Although no slave quarters are extant, archaeology is underway in the areas where they lived.”

RESEARCH EFFORTS

Laise says that a likely enslaved burial ground lies just 200 yards north of the Manor House. “The evidence that the area was used for the burial of the enslaved lies in the fact that it is on high ground, in an area not used for farming, and that it has field stones rather than headstones to mark the graves,” she noted.

Laise says it is possible that additional enslaved burial grounds are on the property. The official Hite family cemetery is located two miles southeast of Belle Grove. Recent research efforts have uncovered a good bit of information about Belle Grove’s enslaved population so far and continues to be an ongoing effort.

“Among the first enslaved Africans whom the Hite family owned were 15 individuals deeded to them by James Madison Sr.,” father of the president, Laise says, adding that some were at Belle Grove for three generations.

Belle Grove publishes a monthly newsletter sharing the researched personal histories of these and any newly discovered enslaved inhabitants, as they become known and available.

After the death of his wife Nelly in 1802, Hite married Ann Tunstall Maury, with whom he had 10 children. In 1815, as the family grew, an addition at the west end of the original house created the 100-foot facade that stands today. The grain and livestock plantation continued to grow until Hite controlled 7,500 acres of land.

Today, Belle Grove is composed of 283 remaining acres; much of the property is used for agriculture. The Manor House, located near the intersection of Interstates 66 and 81, offers guided tours, while a teaching garden demonstrates some of the plants grown for household use.

In addition, Belle Grove’s annual “Of Ale and History” Beer Fest in May and Wine Fest in August feature Virginia-made products. From Oct. 5-10, Belle Grove will host the National Sheepdog Finals from the United States Border Collie Handler’s Association.

“There is so much to see, do and learn here,” says Laise. “For employees, volunteers and visitors alike.”

For more, go to bellegrove.org. For more detailed information about the enslaved population at Belle Grove, go to bellegrove.org/about/enslaved.