Pamunkey River

Pamunkey River
The Pamunkey River in 1864

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Colonial Relic on Ware Creek

Today we begin a couple of long nineteenth century newspapers pieces on the "Old Stone House" that used to sit on the James City side of Ware Creek not far from the York River. These articles are relevant for a New Kent blog not only because the site is directly on the border with New Kent, but because ill 1766 all that part of James City was part of New Kent. So the colonial history of "Stone House" is by and large measure also New Kent history.

A language warning for common nineteenth century racial terms

An Almost-Forgotten Locality- Was it a Haunt of Black Beard the Pirate?- A Treasure-Hunter Interrupted- Legends Speculations. 

[Correspondence of the Richmond Dispatch.
                                                                            WILLIAMSBURG, August 17, 1883
Stone House is a magisterial district of James City county, situated in the Upper part, and it is bounded on the north and east by New Kent county and York River. Politically noticed, it is a Mahonite stronghold- so much so that during the spring canvas the cry of Stone House was considered a talisman of success; but its claim to celebrity can scarcely be attributed to that fact. The district received its name from an old stone house within its limits, concerning which little is known and less has been written, and although there is an account of an old house, supposed to be the one in question, in Howe's history, local records fail to furnish any clue whatever on the subject. Some wild and obscure traditions prevail about its construction and original uses, in which the superstitious negroes strongly believe, as will presently be seen. The knowledge of the exact location of his interesting relic is known to comparatively few residents of the county, being continued to the lumber-dealers, the hands in their employ, and hunters whose pursuit of game among the swamps and forest of that lonely section made them accidentally acquainted with it. In Williamsburg eighteen miles distant, many know not even of its existence. To visit this hidden fragment of the early settlement had long been determined on, and the proposal of a brother-enthusiast hastened the writer to gratify his curiosity. So on the morning of the 16th these kindred spirits were seen, fittingly mounted, en route for the land of is unknown- two most zealous searchers among "the misty shades of things that were." 


Along the main road, which is intersected at short distances by the railroad, there are plenty of objects to enliven a journey. Each station forms a nucleus for a store, blacksmith shop, and dwelling, All of the land is under cultivation. New houses peep out from the clearings in every direction, and the saw-mills rasping away down in the woods tell of more to come. But as the route diverges the stirring influence of the railroad gradually disappears. The houses are further apart, and the forest is deeper. Occasionally a single horseman is met, and the measured stroke of the woodman's axe, far down in the pines, alone serves to break the monotony 


Having at length reached Mr. R. P. Wright's, the gentleman who was to conduct us to the old ruin, and to whom the reader is indebted for the information obtained, we proceeded in company. Mr. Wright's home is some miles form the old house, and excepting a negro's hut in the woods is the nearest dwelling. Signs of life became now even less frequent, the long ricks of cord-wood being the only evidence of the vicinity of man. The county road was soon abandoned for a wood road, which, in turn, was left for one still more difficult, being involved among heavy ravines. Finally we tied the horses on the border a large swamp. and continued on foot. The stone-house tract contains 300 acres, and is the property of Mr. A. P. Richardson. Much of the timber has been cut, but there is still a fine body left, in which deer, turkey, and other game abound. The old ruin is situated on a bluff overlooking Weir Creek, about three miles, air-line from York river, and so difficult of access is it that our conductor, although he had been there several times before, at first missed the approach. 


This approach is a narrow ridge between two deep, impassable swamps. At one point it contracts to a width of ten feet. the sides falling away at a steep angle into the morass fifty feet below. The ridge rises at an easy grade until it expands into a small plateau full eighty feet above the waters of the creek at its base. Here, amid the tangled undergrowth, stands what is left of the old stone house, The situation, it will be seen at a glance, is of the strongest kind, and if properly defended, was well nigh impregnable to assault with the weapons of two hundred years ago. 


The walk over had bees enlivened by relating the received traditions connected with the place, which say that it was rendezvous of the pirate Black Beard, where he deposited much of his plunder and concealed his treasure. The negroes firmly believe these traditions, and from time immemorial it has been their habit to go there secretly and dig for the pirate's money which has resulted in the almost total destruction of the old house. Indeed we came near witnessing a money-digger at his work, a veritable realization of Irving's interesting legends of the treasures of Captain Kidd and its seekers along the shores of Manhattan Island. Just before we reached the spot a negro was seen to issue suspiciously from the bushes, and passing us with rapid step disappeared in the direction from which we came. Upon our arrival we found that be had just knocked off work, leaving three big holes in the ground and the freshly scattered stones of the only remaining wall as the existence of the faith that was in him. Could we have come suddenly upon him while digging there is no doubt that there would have been a real enactment of the scenes depicted in the "Money-Diggers," in which the darky, like Wolfert Webber, Dr. Knipperhauen. and the black fisherman,* would have run himself nearly to death, and fresh stories of the terrible Black Beard been added to the already haunted reputation of the place. 


The old house is much smaller than was supposed being only 14 feet wide and 16 feet long, but it bears the stamp of genuineness that cannot be mistaken. Our informant states that upon his first visit the wall just demolished was intact; it was 10 feet from the ground to the eaves and had a sharp gable. The material used is a coarse sandstone so strongly impregnated with iron that it bears that color. The stones are neatly hewn, mortar being used to cement them. 'I'he stone was procured near by, where it may still be seen cropping through the surface of the ground, The walls are two feet thick, with a narrow doorway, facing east, and the chimney stood at the opposite end. There were originally six apertures for firearms, the best preserved of which are just wide enough on the outside to admit the barrel of a blunderbuss, and enlarged within to secure wider range. 


The place was evidently a stronghold of some kind- most probably a refuge during the Indian wars- selected on account of it natural strength. The miry swamps on the inland side, proof even against the active step of an Indian warrior, prevented approach from the interior except by the narrow ridge, which was no doubt commanded other defenses than the house. 


On the other side is the creek, with the bluff rising from it. Besides the diggings of the last prospector the ground is pitted all around, where his numerous predecessors had delved in vain. One particularly large hole at the foot of a tree is the work of an old darky who dreamed that that was the location of the treasure, and he solemnly swears that he had actually struck the gold, when a terrific whirlwind arose, accompanied by such infernal manifestation that he fled for his life. Repeated failures had led to a cessation of the practice, when a solitary dweller in that region reported that a peculiarly-constructed and foreign looking craft had anchored off the creek, sent a boat up, and sailed again immediately on its return. 


This revived the treasure-seeking, which is still kept up. Mr. Wright states that about the time of the Yorktown Centennial a strange man came to his place and slept in an out-house one night. He was miserably clad, and had the appearance of being an ordinary tramp. But the shrew questions which he put about the old stone house and the knowledge of Virginia history displayed by him was utterly at variance with the assumed character. he disappeared as suddenly as he came. Sight of the excavations for his treasures recalls some of the history of the pirate Black Beard.† He was an Englishman by birth whose proper name was John Teach, the name of Black Beard being given from his tremendous beard of that color. His haunts were were the Chesapeake, its tributaries and the Carolina sounds, and a more ferocious scoundrel never robbed a ship or made its crew walk the plank. During Governor Spotswood's administration John Spotswood, the Governor's son, assisted by an English war-vessel, discovered the pirate in Albemarle Sound. A bloody fight ensued, and Black Beard, seeing escape impossible, determined to blow up his vessel, and destroy both friends and enemies, but was killed while making the attempt. While not probable, it is not beyond possibility that the traditions connected with the old stone house may have some foundation. The water in the creek below is still eighteen feet deep, and the present bat at its mouth may have been smaller in earlier days, in which case it would not have been very difficult to warp a narrow pirate vessel to the foot of the bluff where it was as secure from detection as the dead trees in the forest around.To one disposed to linger among the relics of the pioneer settlements, or in any way given to speculating over the unwritten pages of our early history, the old stone house in James City county is particularly interesting, While one is sitting on its loosened foundations the imagination soon beings to assert itself: everything is so melancholy and still, the very solitude seems to be swelled with some fearful secret, and so oppressive is the silence that the shrill chatter of the kingfisher as he plunges into the creek below and makes off with his scaly morsel is absolutely startling


Something extraordinary, either of wild revelry or deadly strife, must have happened there once. Possibly the fierce Black Beard and his lawless crew once used it as lurking-place, and fresh from murder on the high-seas laden with the wealth of some rich galleon, they made merry over their blood-stained spoils and passed the time in maddened debauch. Perhaps the bold pioneers, standing guard around their wives and children, there awaited the midnight attack, and as the waning moon sank behind the pines, the painted warriors, tomahawk in their teeth, came clambering up the steep banks and sent the curdling war-whoop echoing through the darkness; and then, amid the shrieks of women, deafening gun-shots, groans, and all the sounds of desperate resistance, was enacted the horrors of an Indian massacre. Long before the late war, in consequence of its well-preserved condition, it was more frequently visited than now, and many names of those visitors, with dates, are to be seen cut in the stone. The only clearly-defined date was 1849. and the fragments brought away by the writer contained the initials H. H. B. and W. E. B.

 -Daily Dispatch, 19 August 1883

* "Wolfert Webber, Dr. Knipperhauen. and the black fisherman," is a reference to characters from the Washington Irving story, "The Adventures of the Black Fisherman." The "Money Diggers" is an 1832 painting depicting a scene from the story.

† All the following information about Black Beard should be treated with caution.

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