THE HISTORY OF THE LAUREL HILL FARM
For untold centuries, this beautiful land along the Ararat River valley was inhabited by the Native American peoples who raised crops, hunted, fished, made their dwellings and raised their families in this unspoiled wilderness. It was only with the appearance of white settlers in the early eighteenth century and beyond that the Native American population was gradually dispossessed of the land. Evidence of their habitation of the land now known as Laurel Hill was uncovered during the archaeological survey of Laurel Hill in the 1990's. These artifacts, dating from hundreds of years past, are now preserved by the Trust.
The consummation of a marriage between William Letcher and Elizabeth Perkins in Pittsylvania County, Virginia in 1778, set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the birth of J.E.B. Stuart in 1833 at the Stuart home, Laurel Hill. Shortly after their marriage, William and Elizabeth Letcher set forth to establish a new home in the west. During those days, the west was generally thought to mean Kentucky. Why, and under what circumstances they decided to venture along the banks of the Ararat River to make their home, is not known. Given William's later role as a patriot in the cause of the American Revolution, it is a matter of conjecture that he settled on the Ararat River to become involved in that cause.
The new family, along with their slaves, nine in number, named David, Ben, Randolph, Craft, Nann, Look, Abraham, Will and Dick, began the task of home building and subsistence farming. The chosen site for the new home, was on the west bank of the Ararat River directly opposite present day Laurel Hill. The site of the original Letcher home has not, as yet, been uncovered. Some evidence exists that suggests that the present day Mitchell House built ca. 1905 is the site of the original Letcher home. No deed or title to the land in the name of William Letcher has ever been uncovered, however considering the long and difficult journey to Collinsville the then county seat of Henry County, it is possible that had a deed existed it was never recorded.
By the early spring of the year 1780, Elizabeth Letcher gave birth to a daughter on March 21st who was given the name of Bethenia. William's continued involvement in the cause of the American Revolution as evidenced by his membership in the local militia, placed him in jeopardy given the great number of Tories that resided in the area. Threats to his life and property were more and more common, and culminated in his murder on August 2nd of that same year. The perpetrator of this foul deed was a local Tory by the name of "Nichols" who was later apprehended and executed. Elizabeth and baby Bethenia returned to Pittsylvania County where Elizabeth later married George Hairston, then reputed to be the wealthiest man in Virginia. They made their home at the Beavercreek Plantation in Henry County which remains in existence, and contains the graves of George and Elizabeth Hairston.
In either late 1799 or early 1800, Bethenia Letcher married David Pannill and became the mother of two children, a son William and a daughter Elizabeth.
The children were named in honor of their maternal grandparents. The history of the fifteen hundred acre plantation that became the Stuart home is complex, in some instances vague and uncertain. Nevertheless, William and Elizabeth Pannill by reason of many different land transactions became the owners of a fifteen hundred acre tract of land which, ultimately became the property of Archibald Stuart.
In a land swap deal, Elizabeth transferred to her brother William the ownership of certain properties she had inherited, while he in turn, transferred ownership of his interest in the fifteen hundred acre tract to Elizabeth.
In the year of 1817, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, Elizabeth Pannill married Archibald Stuart. At the age of twenty-two, Archibald was just entering a career in law and politics. In the early years of the marriage, Archibald practiced law in Campbell County, Virginia where he was elected to the state legislature for the first time. In the next four years, the Stuarts had four children, three daughters and a son, none of whom were born at Laurel Hill.
It is generally assumed that construction of the Stuart home at Laurel Hill began sometime in the mid-1820's, and was completed sometime in 1830. The first child born at Laurel Hill was William Alexander, followed by six additional children which included the seventh child and youngest surviving son, James Ewell Brown Stuart who was born on February 6th, 1833.
The Stuart home at Laurel Hill has been described as an unpretentious, comfortable farmhouse, which tragically was destroyed by fire in the winter of 1847-48, and no detailed description of the house has survived. In a surviving letter, James described the fire as "a sad disaster." For a few years after the fire, Archibald and his son John Dabney set up a domicile in the outbuilding that had served as the family kitchen. Archibald died in 1855 and was laid to rest at Laurel Hill where his body remained until 1952 when it was exhumed and reburied in the Saltville, Virginia cemetery beside his wife Elizabeth. In 1859, Elizabeth Stuart sold the property to two Mt. Airy, North Carolina men, and Laurel Hill passed out of the Stuart family's ownership.
In 1845, prior to the catastrophic fire that destroyed the Stuart home, James
moved to Wytheville, Virginia, to attend school and to enter the employment of his brother William Alexander. In 1848, he entered Emory and Henry College where he studied for two years, until Representative W.D. Averitt appointed him to the United States Military Academy at West Point. James graduated in 1854 with a host of classmates destined for fame during the approaching Civil War.
The first seven years of his Army career was spent in service with the First United States Cavalry until his resignation from the United States Army to offer his services to Virginia. During this time he had risen to the rank of captain, and had married Flora Cooke, the daughter of later Union general Phillip St. George Cooke.
In 1859, while in Washington negotiating the sale of a saber device he had invented to the War Department, he was directed to accompany then Colonel Robert E. Lee to proceed to the armory at Harpers Ferry and suppress an insurrection led by the abolitionist John Brown. During the soon to commence Civil War, Stuart would achieve fame as the commander of General Robert E. Lee's cavalry, but Laurel Hill remained in his thoughts throughout the protracted struggle. In a letter he expressed these thoughts by saying how he longed after the ending of the war to "ramble over the dear old hills of Patrick, amid all the pleasures of a mountain home." The end of his life came on May 12th, 1864 as the result of a wound he received in the previous day's skirmish at Yellow Tavern.
The J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust Inc. purchased the Laurel Hill property in 1992 to preserve and interpret the birthplace of General Stuart. An archaeological survey of the property, locating the remains of buildings and other items of archaeological interest was accomplished in 1993-94. In 1998. the property was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
The visitor will find interpretive signs illustrating both locations of interest of the Stuart family's years at Laurel Hill as well as the Civil War exploits of General Stuart. The grave site of William Letcher, the great-grandfather of General Stuart along with the probable site of the old Letcher home has been purchased by the Trust and is available for visitation.
In celebration of the life of General Stuart, the Trust sponsors a Civil War re-enactment each year on the first full weekend in the month of October.
All historical facts regarding the Stuart occupancy of Laurel Hill were taken from the Historical Research for J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust Inc. by the College of William and Mary, and is a wholly owned document by the Trust, paid for by Trust funds.
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