Friday, May 7, 2010

Lost History & Lonely Chimneys

Friday, May 7, 2010

Susan reporting:

Regular people stop and smell the flowers. Nerdy History Girls stop and look at old stuff: houses! barns! graveyards! battlefields! stone walls!

And chimneys.

Meandering about the countryside is an occupational hazard of being a NHG, which is why I always drive Rte. 301 through Virginia and Maryland instead of the faster but less picturesque 95. There's always much more to be seen when one is not dodging semis doing eighty.

These brick chimneys stand in the tiny town of Port Royal, VA, just shy of the bridge that crosses the Rappahannock River, and though I've passed them many times, this was the first time I actually parked and ambled over to take a look. Dating back to the 17th c., the chimneys are supported by wooden scaffolding and respectfully surrounded by a small fence. There's a small plaque, too:

ROY CHIMNEYS
Port Royal was first settled in 1652 and was chartered in 1744.
Tradition says that Port Royal was named after the Roy family.
John and Dorothy Roy owned a warehouse chartered by the crown,
a ferry service, and a tavern.
Dorothy Roy was the first woman entrepreneur in the colonies.
These chimneys are all that remain of the Roy home.

Now that was worth stopping for, and thoroughly impressed, I drove home, mulling over this interesting history ("the first woman entrepreneur"!) that was new to me. I was eager to learn more beyond tradition.

Trouble is, however, that there doesn't seem to be that much more to learn. Through genealogy sites, I've discovered that Dorothy Buckner was born in Port Royal about 1657, that she was first married to William Smith, widowed, and then wed John Roy, who was born in England in 1659. Dorothy had several children with each husband, including a daughter who married into the famous Chew family. John Roy bought Dorothy's father's tobacco warehouse, established in 1673. When John died, Dorothy inherited all the family businesses, which is how she earned that entrepreneur status.

But beyond those few tantalizing facts (and I'm not even sure of those, since they're from web sites rather than more trustworthy original sources), I can't find much else. What was Dorothy's life like as a woman of property in what must have still been a pretty rough colonial port town? (Port Royal's founder was killed fighting Indians in 1670, so English 'civilization' wasn't quite as firmly entrenched in the area as it might have wished.) How educated was she? Did her businesses prosper? Was she engaged in the day-to-day transactions herself, or did she turn everything over to male managers? Or, having been born in the colony, was she the one who'd always run her husband's businesses, even before she inherited them at his death?

All questions, no answers, and those chimneys aren't talking. Yet.

6 comments:

Marybeth said...

At least you had an historic marker! I can't tell you how many times I've stopped to look at some interesting old house or place without any information at all. You just know many of these places have wonderful stories behind them, but unless George Washington slept there, there isn't anything. Very tantalyzing. Great post.

Lady Burgley said...

So true how local landmarks are often remembered for the wrong reasons. I know exactly where these chimneys are, not far from the split of 301 and 17. I've never stopped in Port Royal, but I've often wondered about the chimenys, too. They always strike me as menacing, yet melancholy at the same time. Unfortunately I can contribute nothing more about Mrs. Roy. I hope you can learn more, and enlighten us.

Rowenna said...

So often I'll see remnants of foundations or half-toppled chimneys in the midst of overgrown fields and brambly forests--I always wonder! And then I take pictures the melancholy image is quite striking.

Very cool that these have been preserved!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Actually, Marybeth, there is a chance that George Washington did sleep here. Though Port Royal only has a few hundred residents now, in the 18th c. it was so bustling a town that apparently the new American government had considered it for the site of the new capitol! There was also an active Masonic Lodge in the town, which might have drawn Washington, a Mason, there as well. The site of the original lodge isn't far from the chimneys, so who knows?

http://www.historicportroyal.com/Masonic_Lodge.htm

Lady Burghley, I shall continue the hunt! (Even if my kids regard the Hornes as a much more important landmark on the trip than the chimneys. *g*)

Rowenna -- ah, another romantic for ruins! Nothing does set the imagination a-running like a ruin, does it? The chimneys have to have belonged to a sizable house/tavern for the time, maybe even the grandest in town. I want to know the story!! *g*

Undine said...

Are there any local historical societies you can contact? They would be the most likely source for information about Roy. (It's odd that you can't find anything more about her--if people thought she was important enough to erect a plaque in her honor, there must be someone in the area who can fill you in.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Undine, Port Roy does in fact have a small historical society, and I've emailed them -- nothing back so far. Their website hasn't been updated in four years, which isn't encouraging. Unfortunately, as is often the case with women of the past, much of Dorothy Roy's legacy seems to be that several of her descendants married into families who became much more important later in American history, including the Chews of Philadelphia and the Madisons of Virginia.

But I'm still looking...:)

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