As Williamsburg area residents, we are familiar with the significance of the part of Virginia we call home. The Historic Triangle is one of the premier national sites for Colonial American history. But did you know that a site of historical importance can be found right here in New Town?
Take a stroll through our own Roper Homestead Park at the intersection of Casey Boulevard and Center Street and you will find historical markers identifying the parcel as the site of the Roper Homestead. In 1990 and again in 2004, New Town Associates (NTA), LLC, commissioned studies by the William and Mary Center for Archeological Research (WMCAR) as part of their permit application for development in New Town. Archeologists found the remains of two buildings and artifacts, including various quantities of kitchen and serving ware, nails, as well as oyster shells and animal bones on the site. They placed the time of occupation as roughly between 1800 and 1850. This corresponds to the eras known as the Early National Period (1789-1830) and the Antebellum Period (1830-1860). What is particularly important is that the structural remains and artifacts found have been relatively undisturbed and not superseded by other uses and time periods.
Kitchen Excavation at Roper Homestead Park
The post-Colonial period in Tidewater Virginia is an understudied timeframe. After the American Revolution, James City County experienced a period of significant decline. In 1796, British architect Benjamin Latrobe, of US Capitol fame, toured the area and remarked on the extent of the “poverty and decay” throughout the Peninsula. Between the late 1780s and 1820, after the capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, JCC population declined by 42 percent as crops failed and the average landholding gradually decreased with the sale and division of plantations.
Given the undeveloped nature of the Roper property and the availability of historical records allowing identification of previous occupants, the site provides a rare opportunity to examine habitation over time. Nearly all of JCC’s records were destroyed in Richmond during the Civil War, but some court records, including land tax entries, were prepared in duplicate, allowing ownership to be traced locally.
Indications are the Roper tract was a relatively modest farmstead. The earliest record appears in 1803 when Randolph Roper was first assessed for 615 acres with some type of building valued at $1058. By 1820, the property was reassessed at $2146. The assessments of personal property also document Roper’s rising prosperity during the period, counter to the prevailing economic conditions. In 1803, Roper was taxed for one slave, age 16 or older, and a two-wheeled carriage. By the time of his death in 1822/23, records show that he owned 4 horses and a carriage valued at $50 and that there were 8 slaves on the homestead.
By 1826, the property had been divided among his heirs and eight individuals appear on the tax records. Only the tract of Ann Roper, who was possibly his wife, includes a building valuation. Ann transferred her tract to a John T. James in 1833. The lack of records showing him farming the land could indicate that Ann continued to work the farm as part of life occupancy rights. Crops would have included corn, wheat, oats, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Butter production, wool, cattle and pigs would also have been part of a mixed farm.
After the 1850 census, the building valuation decreased dramatically. In 1851, the land tax assessment of structures was only $100. This could indicate loss of property through fire or demolition or a change in use of the property. Subsequent ownership of Jones heirs, followed by the Darling and Taliaferro families, are less historically significant, although there are records from 1912 showing P B Taliaferro commissioning a survey in advance of planning a subdivision. In 1919, Clarence Casey and four other family members purchased the land that would eventually become New Town and held it until it was deeded to Carlton and Calvin Casey in 1962.
In 2004, the Roper site was designated eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. A 2005 interpretive and archeological management plan was commissioned by NTA LLC from WMCAR to provide guidance on how best to preserve the site as green space with public interpretation of the site’s archeological resources, leading to Roper Homestead Park as it appears today.
Editor’s Note: The New Town Activities Committee is in discussions with Joe B. Jones, MA, Director of WMCAR, which provided the information for this article, to speak about the Roper tract and its history at a future Noon Talk. Stay tuned!
Posted on July 1, 2019 11:36 AM
a very interesting article that answers a number of questions I have had. I hope the noon talk suggested comes about.
Last Edited: 07/02/2019 at 02:19 PM
Posted on July 6, 2019 10:28 AM
I would like to hear more about the enslaved who lived there. While your article is informative, there seems to be more about the African American presense on the signage in the Park rather than in your article. This point should not be glossed over. Thank you for taking time to write this up.