berry hill plantation
SANKOFA'S SLAVERY DATA COLLECTION
Location: Woodbourne, Halifax Co., VA
History: In ante-bellum days the Berry Hill plantation comprised over five
thousand acres, and included most of present-day South Boston. Its various tracts
were acquired partly by James Bruce of Woodbourne, one of the wealthiest men of
his day, and partly by James Coles Bruce, his son by his first wife, Sarah 'Sally'
Coles, daughter of Walter Coles, Esq., of Mildendo. James built the great family
fortune through what was then a very modern medium--a system of chain stores.
At the early age of sixteen he left the relative comfort and security of Soldier's
Rest and went to Petersburg, where he began his career in the mercantile house
of a Mr. Colquhoun. He easily won the confidence of his employer, and was sent
to Amelia County to open a branch store, in which he was made a partner. After
a few years James found that the more remote areas of Halifax County offered far
greater business advantages, so settled there 1798 and began setting up his stores,
not only in the county but in the surrounding counties of both Virginia and North
Carolina as well, to supply the needs of the rural planters. To furnish his stores
with their wares, Mr. Bruce also operated a series of wagon trains.
The late Dr. Kathleen Bruce, family historian and a noted writer, made an exhaustive
study of her great-grandfather's papers, and revealed that between the years 1802
and 1837, James was the owner or dominant partner in, among other enterprises,
twelve country stores, several flour mills, a fertilizer-plaster manufactory,
a commercial blacksmith shop, several lumber yards, a cotton factory and two taverns.
When he died in 1837 James Bruce was the third wealthiest man in America, his
estate being valued at nearly three million dollars. Death came to James Bruce
in Philadelphia, where he had gone for medical treatment, and as it was impractical
to transport bodies such great distances in those days, he was buried in the yard
of old St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. (Nearly one hundred years later his great-grandson,
Malcolm Bruce, had his remains brought back to Halifax County and interred at
Berry Hill.) The widowed Elvira Cabell Henry Bruce (James Bruce of Woodbourne's
second wife) soon left Woodbourne and moved her family to Richmond, where she
built a house on fashionable East Clay Street.
On 28 March, 1865, while the fighting around Petersburg was signaling the
beginning of the end for the South, death came to James Coles Bruce in his chamber
at Berry Hill. He was buried in the family cemetery beside his wife, Elizabeth
Douglas Wilkins Bruce. The daughter of William Wyche Wilkins and Elizabeth Judkins
Raines Wilkins of Belmont, Northampton County, North Carolina, she had preceded
him in death in 1850.
Associated surnames: Bland, Byrd, Carrington, Coles, Bruce, Harrison
Associated Plantations: Berkeley Plantation (Williamsburg
Associated Free White Names
- (1728 - ) William Byrd II (of Westover): original owner of land;
granted to him in 1728 by the Crown for his services in helping to draw the
dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina
- ( - 1751)son William Byrd III: inherited the land from W. Byrd
- (1751 - ) Richard Bland: bought the land from W. Byrd III
- ( - 1769) Gov. Benjamin Harrison: owner of Berkeley Plantation (Williamsburg
Co.); bought the land from Richard Bland
- (1769 - ) Isaac Coles: purchased the 1,020 acres, for 800 pounds;
founder of the Isaac Coles house (1770)
- ( - 1830) Gen. Edward Carrington: inherited the land from Isaac Coles
- (1830 - ) James Bruce (of Woodbourne): founding father of the Berry
Hill Bruces; purchased from Gen. Edward Carrington, nephew of his first wife
Sally Coles, the old Coles-Carrington estate, Berry Hill, situated near the
- wife-1 Sarah Coles Bruce
- son (1833 - 1865) James Coles Bruce: son of James Bruce
and Sarah Coles Bruce; founder of the present mansion at Berry Hill
- ( - 1850) wife Elizabeth Douglas Wilkins Bruce
- wife-2 Elvira Cabell Henry Bruce
Associated Black Slave Names
- Alek Bank: The great silver collection was buried deep in the woods
on the plantation, and when James Coles tried to tell Aleck Bank the faithful
old butler, its location, he asked not to be told, saying that he did not want
to be unfaithful to his master, nor did he want to have to lie about it. "Uncle"
Aleck was, however, ordered to burn the mansion if Union troops should come and
try to occupy it.
- Tobacco, corn, wheat, oats, hay
- Gardens: The gardens laid out in the early 1840s under the direction of
Mrs. James Coles Bruce, covered about six acres, and stretched eastward from
the mansion toward the cemetery. The large greenhouse was behind the office.
As many as forty slaves at a time were required to maintain them, supervised
by Mrs. Bruce and her gardener, a Mr. Graham.
Description of Associated Architecture
- Carrington-Cole Mansion: Erected by slave labor at a cost of nearly
$100,000, the present day mansion at Berry Hill contains seventeen rooms and
a great entrance hall. The lack of visible support for the stairs has puzzled
architects for decades.
- Billiard Room: The Billiard Room at Berry Hill is one of two four-columned
miniatures of the "Big House" which flank the mansion on each side of the
wide, circular drive. Like parts of the mansion itself, they, too, are 200
years old (in 1970).
- Other Outbuildings: Connected to the back of the main house are a
glass walled conservatory, built at ground level to allow for the growth
of the large plants, and the colonnade containing the house servants'
rooms. A dozen or so dependencies, including the smoke house, ice
house, ash house and stables, are in and around the back
- Overseer's House: Just to the side of the River Road entrance to Berry
Hill, in the midst of aged ailanthus trees, is the original overseer's house.
The house dates, like Berry Hill itself from about 1770.
- Family Cemetery: The family cemetery is located about 500 yards east
of the mansion in what was a corner of the gardens. In its thirty graves rest
six generations of the Carrington and Bruce families.
- Berry Hill Church: About two miles away, on the road to South Boston--the
Berry Hill Road--stands the Berry Hill Church, built about 1900 by Mrs. Alexander
Bruce to replace an earlier one built in 1840 by James Coles Bruce and torn
down by her husband because the "colored people" were no longer
attending it. A talented black carpenter, Willie Bowmer, drew the plans and
supervised the construction of the new church.
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