Today, the story of Wilton House, a 1763 Virginia Plantation House on 25 Acres in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, can be told more readily than that of the family that rose to prominence to build it and live in it for the first 70 years of its existence. Because the house has come down to us today in very much the state it was 250 years ago, it is quite capable of speaking for itself to anyone who wishes to look and listen. Read on to learn the history of well-preserved Virginia Plantation Wilton House.
The story of the Churchill family, in contrast, is known only in the broadest strokes. It is waiting to be to be re-discovered and told anew. What will this story tells us about daily life at Wilton, about the means and manners of Virginia’s colonial elite? About the economy of Tidewater Virginia on the eve of the American Revolution?
The Churchill Family & Wilton Plantation House: A Working Historical Timeline
He arrived sometime in the 1670’s, the first of the Churchills in Middlesex County. And although he died in 1710 and never lived at the Wilton House we know today, which was completed in 1763, William Churchill generated the wealth and patrimony, hand in glove with the power and the influence, that made the construction of Wilton House possible some 50 years after his death. William Churchill likely came to Virginia first as a factor for English merchants. He would later become a merchant in his own right, a lawyer, a landowner and a planter as well as a prolific public office holder. William’s son Armistead, born in 1705, followed in his father’s footsteps in terms of holding local public office and he may have, for a time at least, increased the family patrimony through the extensive marital relations of the Churchills with other with prominent Virginia families, most notably the Carters, and through his landholdings and dealings and income generating activities as a high ranking office holder. But he did not cut the same high voltage profile as the elder William Churchill, and may not have engaged in any of the merchant and trading activities of his father. Armistead died in 1763, the very year Wilton was completed, his resources apparently diminished, and it may well have been Armistead’s first-born son, William Churchill II, who was the leading force behind the building of Wilton. Like his grandfather William and his father Armistead, William Churchill II was much involved in local county office, but the younger Churchill, it appears at first blush anyway, was content to live the good life of the landed gentry, a planter who managed – and we know not how well or poorly — what he had inherited. Wilton was sold out of the Churchill family in 1829 by William Churchill, II’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Edmonia Churchill, beginning several new, and quite different, chapters in its long history.
William Churchill is baptized on December 2 in the parish of North Aston, Oxfordshire, the youngest of eleven children of John and Dorothy Churchill.
It is not known when William Churchill immigrated to Virginia, or in what capacity, though given his subsequent activities, it may have been as a factor for an English merchant. Churchill’s rise to prominence in the colony appears to have sprung from his commercial success. He practiced law and may have continued to engage as a factor, or agent, for London merchants, but he also became a merchant in his own right, trading in tobacco and perhaps slaves, speculating in land, extending credit and collecting debts.
The first recorded evidence of Churchill’s presence in Middlesex comes in 1674, when he witnessed a document in the county. According one
20th century account, “[b]y 1675 William Churchill had built his gracious and fascinating plantation mansion on the south side of the Rappahannock River, near what today is Mill Creek; first called ‘Churchill’ but later changed to ‘Bushy Park.’” It seems unlikely that Churchill had managed to build a substantial mansion house by this early date, but his rise to prominence in the county and the colony was clearly underway.
Churchill is appointed deputy sheriff of Middlesex County. This is the first of many positions Churchill will hold in the county, from Sheriff, Justice of the Peace, Vestryman, Church Warden, Colonel of the County Militia, and Clerk of Court.
William Churchill obtains the land on which Wilton was built from the estate of Richard Perrott.
Churchill wins election to the House of Burgesses for the sessions meeting in the spring of this year and in 1692. He served as a Burgess again in 1704 and 1705 to fill a vacancy.
Churchill marries his second (or third?) wife, Elizabeth Armstead Wormley, widow of Ralph Wormley of Rosegil and daughter of Col. John Armistead of Gloucester. They eventually have three children: Elizabeth, Priscilla, and Armistead.
Churchill owns 1,950 acres in Middlesex County.
William Churchill is appointed to the King’s Council serving there until his death.
Armstead Churchill, who will be the principal heir of William Churchill, is born at Rosegill on July 25.
William Churchill dies. He is the owner of 2,280 acres in Richmond County as well as his considerable Middlesex properties and perhaps others, elsewhere in the Colony.
Elizabeth Armistead Churchill, wife of William Churchill, dies. Her will instructs Mr. Bartholomew Yates [minister of Christ Church, Middlesex County, later Professor of Divinity at William and Mary College] “to instruct my son Armistead in his own house in Latin and Greek.”
Armistead Churchill is married to Hannah Harrison, daughter of Col. Nathaniel Harrison, of Wakefield, Surry County.
William ChurchiII II is born, the first son of Armistead Churchill and Hannah Harrison Churchill.
Armistead Churchill is appointed Justice of the Peace, Middlesex County
Armistead Churchill is nominated for the Council by Lt. Gov. Gooch, but not appointed.
Armistead Churchill is Sheriff of Middlesex County
Armistead Churchill is appointed to the position of Naval Office of the Rappahannock District, a highly remunerative post bringing in as much as 60 pounds a year. It is an office he will hold for 27 years. He replaced in that position Charles Carter of Cleve, son of Robert “King” Carter, whose daughter was to marry Armistead’s eldest son, William. Charles Carter, in turn, had replaced his brother Robert Carter of Nomini, who was married to Armistead’s sister, Priscilla, on June 17, 1725; their son Robert would become a Councilor. Priscilla’s second marriage was to John Lewis of Warner Hall, Gloucester County, also a member of the Council. Armistead Churchill’s other sister, Elizabeth Churchill, married William Basset of “Eltham,” New Kent County, and he, too, was a Councilor. Thus, although Armistead Churchill never served on the Council, his father, his father-in-law, two brothers-in-law, and a nephew did.
Armistead makes a deed of gift to his son, and heir apparent, William Churchill, of 410 acres of land in Middlesex County, the nucleus of William’s later extensive holdings.
“Bushy Park,” the home of Armistead Churchill on the Rappahannock River in Middlesex County, appears as “Churchill” on the Jefferson and Fry map, published this year.
On June 7, the marriage is recorded of William Churchill, II, the son of Armistead Churchill, to Elizabeth (Betty) Carter, eldest daughter of Charles Carter of Cleve. The following day Charles Carter pays 1,000 pounds to his new son-in-law.
The will of Armistead Churchill is recorded in the Middlesex County Will Book. He names his sons William, John, Henry, and Armistead as executors. John is to have 2,000 acres of Armistead’s property in Prince William County, Armistead, 2,000 acres of same, and Henry 400 acres with the remainder of that property to go to his daughters Hannah, Lucy, Priscilla, Judith and Betty. Although not named in this document, William, the first born son, is apparently the heir apparent of the bulk of Armistead’s estate, including the land where Wilton is built.
Bushy Park, seat of the Churchill Family, burns to the ground.
Armistead Churchill loses the Naval Office, and writes to William Pitt in London to recover the post, or secure another “since,” according to one contemporary account, “he had fallen on hard times – his house had burned and most of his slaves had perished of a fever.” Thirty-eight prominent Virginians support his petition.
Armistead Churchill successfully sues his sister, Elizabeth Dawson of Williamsburg, for 302 pounds for money owed him by her first husband, Col. William Bassett.
Armistead Churchill dies.
The construction of Wilton House, as presently configured, is completed by William Churchill II.
William Churchill II is Clerk of the Middlesex County Court, 1772 to 1799.
Will of Charles Carter of Cleve bequeaths 2,000 pounds to Betsy Churchill, wife of William Churchill II, less the 1,000 pounds already paid to William “the day after his marriage”
Hannah Harrison Churchill, wife of Armistead Churchill, dies, aged 70.
William Churchill II dies.
Thomas Churchill, sole or at least principal heir to William Churchill II, marries Elizabeth Berkeley.
A premarital agreement is entered into between Thomas Churchill and Carter Berkeley, brother to Elizabeth, providing that Wilton is to pass on the death of Thomas to any issue of Thomas and Elizabeth Berkeley.
Elizabeth Edmonia Churchill, daughter of Thomas Churchill and Elizabeth Berkeley, is born.
Elizabeth Berkeley Churchill dies. Thomas Churchill re-marries, to Lucy Burwell Lily.
Thomas Churchill dies. By previous agreement, the Wilton estate goes to Elizabeth Edmonia Churchill. Her guardian is Carter Berkeley.
Elizabeth Edmonia Churchill marries Thomas Nelson Berkeley of Hanover.
Elizabeth Edmonia Berkeley sells Wilton and 650 acres to James Jones for $3,250. Jones subsequently acquires additional acreage, including a portion of neighboring Barn Elms, the “Priams” property, and the island in the River, now Berkeley Island, making the Wilton estate under Jones’ ownership in excess of 1,500 acres.
James Jones dies and the Wilton estate is inherited by his son, Elliott Pope Queensbury Jones, whose holdings are said to total 1600 acres.
Wilton is sold by Elliott P.G. Jones, who is said to be deeply indebted and without slaves to work his land, to W. G.R. Gemill.
Gemill conveys Wilton to Charles L. Fears, who farmed up to 300 acres at Wilton for 30 years.
Early 20th Century
Clarence Palmer, a dairy farmer, at Wilton.
Harold T. Casterton owns Wilton.
Antique dealer Gerald L. Ballantyne, Sr. acquires Wilton and some 400 acres.
Wilton is added to the National Historic Register.
Preservation Virginia acquires Wilton and 25 acres from Gerald L. Ballantyne, Jr. and attaches historical easements to the property.
Preservation Virginia sells Wilton into private hands. Preservation and modernization work begins.