Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an interesting story about the deterioration of the mansion at Carter’s Grove, a 1750 James River plantation whose opulent mansion now faces ruin due to neglect. This story, which I would otherwise recommend, begins with wrong history that perpetuates plantation nostalgia and stereotypes about Native American savagery.
The lede describes the exquisite detail of the plantation master’s mansion, considered one of the finest examples of plantation architecture. The author then states that Carter Burwell, of the Virginia gentry Carters, wanted his mansion “to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.”
This sentence is problematic, to put it mildly. For one thing, the writer ignores and/or mistakes from what, or more accurately whom, Burwell and his fellow gentry extracted their wealth. While an English visitor in 1750 may have thought that the Virginia Tidewater was a wilderness, what could legitimately be considered that loaded term was much further west by then.
Most importantly, this statement, combined with the lede, romanticizes plantation life. Burwell wrung his wealth–note the article’s passive voice–from the enslaved persons (47 in 1783) who lived and toiled at Carter’s Grove every day for undernourishing rations and pitiful housing.
Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve seen such romanticization of plantation life in The Post‘s pages. Last year the paper ran a travel story about a 1778 plantation-turned-inn near Orange, Virginia, where the writer imagined herself and her husband as “lord and lady of the manor,” talked about the other “buildings” on the “estate,” and included a joke that a mannequin in a tux was “the original butler.” Never mind that while Virginia’s gentry fancied themselves as English, they were running (sometimes) profitable slave-labor operations; some of the buildings on the plantation may be former slave quarters, if such flimsily-built housing even survives; and that the original butler would not be the well-paid and attired Mr. Jeeves but an enslaved person.
This year’s magazine story further presents a faulty interpretation of Virginia’s past when it discusses Wolstenholme, a colonial settlement that “was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.” The Encyclopedia of Virginia‘s blog tackles this point. The individual act could be described as a massacre, as it was the opening act of a war. The Powhatan leader Opechancanough led his tribe in an attack upon English settlements, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Again, though, the context that the article’s statement lacks is important. The Powhatans’ 1622 uprising came after 15 years of continuous depredations on the part of English colonists. Omitting that portion of the story perpetuates the trope of savage Indians.
Both articles are not specifically about the history of the places. This week’s magazine story focuses on the destruction by neglect of what is not just an architectural gem but a significant archaeological site. I would otherwise recommend it as an interesting look at historic preservation issues. To be fair, the author does write further in the article about the former slave quarters, formerly maintained (along with the big house) by Colonial Williamsburg, and mentions excavations of a Powhatan village on the site. Meanwhile, the travel story from last year is a light-hearted look at an inn.
Nonetheless, the tone of both of these stories presents a whimsical look at plantation life–a life that was hardly whimsical for the majority of a plantation’s inhabitants. The historical pictures presented in both stories lack context, perpetuating toxic myths that form the heart of this country’s fraught racial and ethnic relations.
I realize that the writers of both stories were likely working with limited word counts, and the scopes of their stories were beyond these historical statements. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying many more people will read these articles than will read the latest monographs on colonist-Indian relations or slavery in colonial Virginia. As such, these statements matter. It behooves any writer to get his or her history right.
Update: The Encyclopedia Virginia’s blog rightfully responded to this post by pointing out the important difference between getting history right and certain interpretations of history right. An important distinction here, and one that the Encyclopedia Virginia makes well. Thanks!