English Archives and the Allen Family of Bacon’s Castle: Seeking Answers, Finding Questions

This July, with generous funding from a Charles Center Summer Research Grant and additional support from other William & Mary sources,[1] I traveled to the United Kingdom to undertake archival and field research toward my doctoral dissertation project. The primary subject of my work is a site in Surry County, Virginia, which includes Bacon’s Castle, best known as the oldest surviving brick dwelling in [English] North America, and the plantation household associated with it. While I am interested in the entirety of the site’s life-history, including its “afterlife” as a historic landmark and museum, my current focus is on the relatively elusive seventeenth-century phase, marked by early English settlement including construction of the brick house and formal garden attributed to the Allen family. [2]  I hope to both shed light on the identities and lived experiences of the diverse people who built and inhabited the site—including indentured and enslaved members of the extended household alongside the plantation owners—and to connect them to wider local, colonial, and transatlantic contexts. As a historical archaeologist, I take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the past, drawing on theories and methods from anthropological archaeology, history, and other fields, and considering artifacts alongside documents, as well as other sources like architecture, works of art, and environmental evidence.

Bacon's Castle in Surry County, Virginia today (Photo by the author)

Bacon’s Castle in Surry County, Virginia today (Photo by the author)

My trip this summer was conceived as an opportunity to essentially do “reconnaissance” in English archives to try and identify documentary sources relevant to the known occupants of the Bacon’s Castle plantation, and to explore the physical environments of places they might have known prior to arriving in Virginia. I would visit archives and examine architecture in the historic port city of Bristol, a hub of trade and migration in the early modern English Atlantic, and the county of Worcestershire, where documents indicate the founding owner was born and raised. Then, traveling to Northern Ireland, I would explore the history and legacies of seventeenth-century colonialism in a different context and from a different perspective. There, I would visit plantation period sites under the guidance of my academic advisor, Dr. Audrey Horning, whose own work has shown significant connections and contrasts between English plantation in the north of Ireland and the Virginia colony.[3] I would also meet with other scholars and professionals working on similar time periods and themes, particularly those with expertise in buildings and landscape archaeology and early modern material culture. Indeed, the trip included all those elements, and was incredibly educational in the sheer number of places visited and information encountered; but the overall experience amounted to so much more than just research and fact-finding. Coming as it did at the conclusion of my first year in the Anthropology doctoral program, and in the middle of my first summer focusing on my own research interests, it has offered a way to process and synthesize some of my preliminary ideas and questions, and to place them in a broader, more meaningful context.

Springhill House, Moneymore, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, built as an English plantation house (Photo by the author)

Springhill House, Moneymore, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, built as an English plantation house (Photo by the author)

The author standing between portraits of the monarchs William and Mary in the foyer of Richhill House, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland. (Image courtesy of Dr. Audrey Horning)

The author standing between portraits of the monarchs William and Mary in the foyer of Richhill House, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Audrey Horning)

In my second post about my trip on the SuRGe blog, I will reflect more personally on my approach to, and experience of, this exploratory phase of the research process. The remainder of this post describes some of the content I encountered and how it relates to my ongoing work. Even in the absence of locating “new,” undiscovered documents pertaining to the Allens or Bacon’s Castle, visiting archives and related sites opened up new ways of seeing and thinking about the plantation and its colonial context from a transatlantic perspective, and about the question of the identity (or identities) of its inhabitants. Context and identity are thoroughly intertwined and interdependent, both formed by, and informing one another through webs of social and material relationships. Therefore, gaining a better understanding of either one helps shed light on the other. For example, I was able to discern (or at least speculate) a few things about the personal identity of Arthur Allen I (progenitor of the Bacon’s Castle Allens), such as his age, place of birth, father’s name and likely occupation, etc. More often, however, the evidence I encountered spoke to the contexts in which he and his family existed and the kinds of relationships in which they were engaged. But just as we study specific individuals, communities, or sites in part to better understand broader historical processes, we can also look at the “bigger picture” of social, economic, and material relations in a given time or place to get a sense of “who” was involved and how their identities may have influenced, or been shaped by such contextual factors.

The most direct evidence we have as to the origins of the Arthur Allen who founded Bacon’s Castle is an unattributed 1704 letter to Virginia governor Francis Nicholson which describes Allen posthumously as “a younger Son of Mr: John Allen’s of Droit Wich in Worcester Shire a Gentleman of an antiant family.”[4]  Genealogists (generally descendants of the Allen family) have subsequently cited a baptismal record for Arthur Allen from the Droitwich parish of St. Andrews dating to 1608. So, during the English portion of my journey, I visited the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Center in the city of Worcester, and the adjacent village officially known today as Droitwich Spa. The parish register for St. Andrew’s of Droitwich exists from the late sixteenth century, and I was able to locate a microfilm copy of the original baptismal record.

St. Andrew's Parish Church, Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, England (Rhoto by the author)

St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, England (Photo by the author)

Fortuitously, “Arthure, the sonne of John Allen senior gent” born on 23 October 1608 is the only Allen with that given name; however “John Allen” is significantly more common, and, as no name is given for Arthur’s mother, it becomes more difficult to determine other familial relationships from these records with certainty.[5] Further, this remains the only known record of Arthur Allen until over 40 years later when, in 1649, he receives a patent for a grant of 200 acres of land in what would soon become Surry County, Virginia, adjacent to a later acquisition where the famous brick house now stands.[6] While locating the 1608 record did not reveal previously unknown information, verifying its existence was necessary for responsible research, and, along with the Nicholson letter, confirms (as much as possible) that this is likely the same person. But what does that actually reveal about the identity of the builder of the brick house in Surry County—much less about the identities of the other, unnamed people who lived there before and during its construction, or whose labor actually built it?

Dendrochronological dating of the summer beam from the cellar of Bacon’s Castle indicates Arthur and his wife Alice (Tucker) Allen commissioned this house with construction beginning around 1665—just four years before his death. Evidence of an earlier wooden house exists on the neighboring 1649 tract. While the brick house’s basic plan is like other two-room Chesapeake houses of the period, its two stories (plus a garret and cellar), towers in the front and rear for an entrance porch and stairwell, brick construction, and anachronistic curvilinear gables and triple-stacked chimneys often described as “Jacobean” (itself an anachronism since the house was built during the reign of Charles II) suggest something more complicated.[7] Also in the Worcestershire archive, I came across a record of a document from the same year as Arthur’s birth referencing a transaction concerning property including salt-making equipment—the defining industry of Droitwich since Roman times.[8]

Chair in St. Andrew's Parish Church, Droitwich Spa, featuring the town motto, "Sal sapit omnia" (Salt flavors all), indicating the historical importance of the salt industry in the area. (Photo by the author)

Chair in St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Droitwich Spa, featuring the town motto, “Sal sapit omnia” (Salt flavors all), indicating the historical importance of the salt industry in the area. (Photo by the author)

I learned at the archive that the original copy of the record resides in the archive of the Pakington family, lords of the nearest manor to Droitwich. The seat of their demesne is an imposing structure known as Westwood House, built in the neighboring parish of Dodderhill ca. 1612-1617—during Arthur’s childhood. While it does not directly resemble Bacon’s Castle, it does feature curvilinear gables and triple-stacked chimneys, suggesting a possible source of inspiration for the young man who may have applied a few of the more impressive elements of this grand home to the house he was finally able to build a half-century later and half-a-world away.

            I offer these examples not as a complete summary of my findings during the trip, and certainly not as conclusions of any kind. Rather, they illustrate the process of determining where the interesting questions are that connect a specific site, and the assemblages of people and things that comprise it, to the wider contexts of relationships in which it exists. This post is merely a glimpse at a part of the primary research process, but it shows drawing on both archival and material sources means that each can complement and inspire the other, hopefully leading to a fuller, richer understanding of the past and its resonances into the present and future.

[1] In addition to the Charles Center, the author gratefully acknowledges funding and material support from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Preparatory Research Fund for doctoral students, the Morton Fund, the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Audrey Horning, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, and the Zable Foundation.

[2] Preservation Virginia. (2019). Bacon’s Castle website. https://preservationvirginia.org/historic-sites/bacons-castle/. The garden is the only aspect of the site to have received extensive archaeological attention, and was determined in the 1980s to be the oldest intact formal garden present in English North America.

[3] See, for example, Horning, Audrey. (2013). Ireland in the Virginian Sea: Colonialism in the British Atlantic. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

[4] Unknown Person letter to Nicholson. (20 February 1704/5). MS43.04: Francis Nicholson Papers. Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library. Online: https://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/view/index.cfm?doc=Manuscripts\M4304303.xml&highlight=Allen

[5] Baptismal record for Arthure Allen, sonne of John Allen senior gent. (23 October 1608) Andrews Parish Register, Vol. 1. 1571-1692, p. 23.

[6] Arthur Allen Land Grant. (14 March, 1649). Virginia State Land Office Patents No. 2, 1643-1651, p. 197. Online access: http://lva-linux-temp.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com:8991/F/KASLC8G5978BB841M5T92ABKATLRE2Q5ANRQGRQXH2GMLGSGEC-11997?func=full-set-set&set_number=003080&set_entry=000008&format=999.

[7] Luccketti, Nicholas M. (2001 [1984]). “Archaeology.” In Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, Virginia, edited by Stephenson B. Andrews, pp. 22-28. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Richmond, Virginia. The Jacobean designation refers to specific stylistic elements rather than the date of the house itself, but is a common descriptor used in current interpretation, e.g. Preservation Virginia. (2019). Ibid.

[8] “Attested copy of grant from John Allen of Droitwich, co. Worc., gent., to Thomas Trymnell of Okeley [Oakley], co. Worc., gent., and Thomas Gower of Droitwich, gent., of a messuage and land in Droitwich, a salt pit and one quarter of a bullary of salt water in Upwich, in Droitwich, and part of a house in the parish of St. Andrew in Droitwich to hold for trusts recited. 30 December, 6 Jas. I 1608.” (Copy made 4 October, 1672). Online: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/d76cb7d2-5d04-4f8a-8a91-6de3f637cd17.