Family history for sale

Bear Castle 1
Bear Castle house and, at left, its garage, Louisa County, Virginia, photographed in the mid-1990s.

For the second time in my life, I have the nagging sensation of not being at all in the market for a home in the middle of Virginia – but wishing that I were. Bear Castle, dilapidated and sad-looking (“livable but needs work”), is for sale (“Sold AS IS”).[1] Its interior cluttered with the incongruous collections of more than two and a half centuries’ habitation, its kitchen startlingly reminiscent of a mid-twentieth-century diner, the thousand-acre estate it once governed has been reduced to just over three acres that realtors suggest might be subdivided further still.

Dabney Carr gravesite
Dabney Carr’s was the first interment at the Monticello Graveyard in Albemarle County, Virginia.

Built near the shore overlooking Lake Anna by 1732, it was the Louisa County home of my ancestral Carr family through the middle part of the eighteenth century. Of these, Dabney Carr (1743–1773) was born there soon after the house was built. He would go on to marry Martha, the sister of his best friend, classmate, and fellow legislator Thomas Jefferson. After Carr’s early death, his children were raised under the guidance of the Sage of Monticello in the 1770s and 1780s. What is the fate of Bear Castle to be?

In the fields of genealogy, archaeology, and history, little makes us cringe more than the irrevocable loss of artifacts, sites, and other elements of our cultural patrimony. The whole world has reviled the destruction of great historical sites in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the militant Islamic State group. The destruction they have visited upon the people in their path has been unprecedented, violent, and insupportable. Outrage at the assault on people, however, has been augmented by the destruction of the places we know had roles in making us and our cultures what we are today.

Tusculum inhabitants
Tusculum and residents, late nineteenth century. Courtesy The (Lynchburg) News & Advance

A species of this same sensation, occasioned by passivity rather than violence, without loss of life or hostility toward things sacred, is still felt by hundreds or thousands when it affects an historic family home like Bear Castle. We want so much to rescue it, to restore it, to make it whole. I felt this way once before, when another estate yanked into the present from the annals of Virginia history and my own genealogy was offered for sale: Tusculum, which my ancestors David and Elizabeth Crawford built in Amherst County in the mid-1700s.[2]

Their progeny included great-grandson William Harris Crawford (1772–1834), a U.S. Secretary of War, Secretary of the Treasury, and later presidential candidate, and great-great-grandson and U.S. Secretary of War George Walker Crawford (1798–1872). Tusculum passed out of my lineage when David and Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth, married planter and militia officer Captain James Martin. Seemingly safe, seemingly preserved, the house spent hundreds of years in careful use beside the campus of Sweet Briar College, only to be disassembled in the 1990s and then offered for sale about two years ago.[3]

Tusculum on the eve of its disassembly.

Tusculum may have been rescued, reportedly having been purchased by a local couple interested in its restoration.[4] Its provenance between the Sweet Briar College founder and his family, his successors, and the Department of Virginia Antiquities/Preservation Virginia gave it a better opportunity to survive. Is there a similar future for Bear Castle? One must hope a buyer, a restorer, sees a greater cultural patrimony in a home of great interest to one family’s descendants.

 

Notes

[1] The realtor’s listing is here.

[2] The Crawfords head the Crawford-Fletcher family chart of those who owned or resided at Tusculum.

[3] “Tusculum Available for Purchase (some assembly required),” Preservation Virginia, 27 December 2013.

[4] “Dismantled Home Owned by Sweet Briar College Will Be Reconstructed,” The Roanoke Times, 30 May 2014.

About Christopher Carter Lee

Christopher Carter Lee completed undergraduate studies in international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he focused on culture and politics. He previously worked in foreign policy research, special projects and development for a U.S. Senate office, and as a political consultant, appearing on CNN's Crossfire. More recently, he built his own hired genealogical research practice while consulting in program development before joining NEHGS Research Services. He holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and has extensive knowledge of Maryland, Virginia, Southern U.S., and Southeastern American Indian genealogy, the Catholic Church in North America, and expertise in Italian, French, Polish, Russian, and other European research, nobility, heraldry, and history.

13 thoughts on “Family history for sale

  1. Great article Christopher. I too shall say a word of prayer that Bear Castle does yet survive. What a perfect place for a local history society, or indeed even as a property of the State of Virginia. – Many thanks for the insight.

    J. Record
    Lincoln, California

  2. How exciting to have a glimpse of the home of one of my ancestors. Elizabeth Crawford who married Capt. James Martin was the female who began my Allen lineage. Elizabeth and James’ daughter Sarah Martin married William Terrell Lewis Sr. Their 2 daughters
    Susannah and Anne were the beginning of two separate lines that met with my maternal Allen grandparents approximately 200 years later. Thank you for sharing this unexpected jewel in my family history.

    C. Reynolds
    Port Orchard, WA

    1. Dear Cecelia:
      We share a near kinship, then, as my line of descent from the Crawfords also includes Sally Martin and William Terrell Lewis (they were sixth great-grandparents). As Linda reports in the comment just below, Tusculum was indeed offered for sale before its disassembly but a buyer with a vision to restore and maintain it was not found. When I discovered its condition about a decade ago, neither Sweet Briar College nor Preservation Virginia was able to commit to its restoration program. Instead, it sat warehoused until two years ago when it was most recently offered again for sale. Situated a few counties to the northeast of Tusculum’s site, Bear Castle has not had the benefit of the more attentive care that the Crawfords’ old home received. Instead, it has passed from owner to owner since John and Barbara (Overton) Carr resided there in the 1730s. While I am hopeful a careful restorer or a preservation entity will take Bear Castle, many historic homes are lost forever each year, their importance in the histories of our ancestors now unknown to most descendants.

  3. Just a minor correction. Tusculum had been for sale on its original land north of Amherst for awhile with no buyer. A developer bought the land and in order to save Tusculum it was disassembled and stored at Sweet Briar with the intention of assembling it on the Sweet Briar campus because of its historical connection. I have no doubt that it would still belong to Sweet Briar, but sadly it became a casualty in the Board’s rush to close down the college. We can only hope that one day it will be reassembled.

  4. Just to add the “delicate” matter that no mentioned at all here was made of the Enslaved African population that were the real backbone behind the success of such Virginia plantations. Perhaps it should be bequeath in- kind to a Traditional Black College … such as Hampton University ?

  5. Christopher, I too am a distant relative of yours, a cousin I’m sure. My direct line is from Governor Caleb Carr from Rhode Island. I have visited a Carr home in Warwick RI. I would love to buy the Bear Castle and fix it up but the cost is way over my budget. I hate that so much of the Carr family history is lost. They all offered so much to this country. Anyway, thanks for the article.

  6. Unfortunately there are many, many homes of historic value that have been destroyed in the name of “progress.” My own family home in Wollaston, Massachusetts, built by my great grandfather, George Franklin Pinkham went down some years ago when my parents, the last of our line to own it and live in it could not afford to keep its 17 rooms and mansard roof. My growing up was spent there and now I have only memories of it, vivid as they are in the stories that I write now. Thanks for your story.

  7. Christopher, I’m envious of your Carr heritage! Until recently, I lived very near to both Bear Castle and Thomas Jefferson’s plantation at Monticello.

    Dabney Carr (born on the Bear Castle property) met Thomas Jefferson when they were boys at Rev. Maury’s school, and they later studied law together at William & Mary College. Dabney and TJ would ride their horses up “The Mountain” above Jefferson’s boyhood home, years before the house at Monticello was built, lie under a beautiful old tree on the hillside, and they made a pact that this was where they should be buried. So when Dabney died so tragically young (before his 30th birthday, if I recall correctly), TJ kept his promise and interred his best friend right in that shady spot. After TJ’s death and burial near him, when the Jefferson descendants were forced to sell the huge Monticello property to pay their debts, the family retained ownership of the small family cemetery, including Dabney Carr’s plot. Visitors can see it today, encircled by a huge grand iron fence, but the massive gate is only unlocked by permission of the Jefferson family descendants (and family burials still take place).

    Bear Castle is in a beautiful and tranquil area of Louisa County, situated between the Commonwealth’s capital of Richmond and Charlottesville, the site of the University of Virginia and Moniticello. I hope that someone buys the property intact and restores it, and doesn’t subdivide it for condos!

    1. Dear Candy:
      Thank you very much for sharing these pieces of Carr and Jefferson family history and a beautiful sense of the place these families lived. You really do know your stuff! I am familiar with the pact and the tree and I have visited Monticello and throughout that area of the commonwealth. Were I, as I said, in the market for a home there, I could do no better. I lived in Northern Virginia for years and years which, unfortunately, is losing much of that beautiful, tranquil landscape with which the Old Dominion was abundantly blessed.

  8. I know exactly how you feel. A few months ago a home went up for sale in Brooklyn Hights (NYC) which was the home of my great great grandmother’s family. It went out of family hands about 65 years ago. Unfortunately, the asking price is 7million plus. On a historic block, the outside is the same as ever though the inside has been redone. At least it won’t be torn down.

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