One of the oldest homes and farms in America sits along the James River near Richmond, Virginia. Shirley Plantation was founded in 1613, just 6 short years after the English settlement at Jamestown was established. It has a rich and varied history that spans hundreds of years, from colonial times to the Civil War to its recent past. Still owned by the family who began farming the land in 1638, Shirley Plantation is a great place to visit with your family to learn more about colonial life, including the settlers, Native Americans, indentured servants, and enslaved workers.
Shirley Plantation was part of a royal land grant given to the Virginia colony’s first royal governor, Sir Thomas West, Baron de la Warr (where the state of Delaware gets its name!). He named the land after his wife, Lady Cessalye Sherley, and even though he died just 5 years after receiving the land grant, the name “Shirley” remained. The current owners can date their family’s work at Shirley to 1638 when Edward Hill acquired the land. The Hill family merged with the legendary Carter family in 1723, and the current owners are the 11th and 12th generations of the Hill Carter family.
During the American Revolution, the British Army passed by Shirley several times, including Benedict Arnold’s landing at nearby Westover Plantation. As the country moved towards Civil War, Shirley and its inhabitants played a prominent role. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s mother grew up at Shirley, and his son’s wedding took place in its parlor. The nearby Battle of Malvern Hill in July 1862 resulted in heavy Union casualties, many of which ended up coming through Shirley’s land to be shipped down the James River. The grounds were covered in wounded men, and the Hill Carter women joined in nursing and feeding the men. Their work prompted Union General McClellan to issue a Federal safeguard to protect Shirley throughout the war.
The current home at Shirley dates to 1738, and its first floor remains mostly in its original state. The outbuildings are original as well and include the kitchen house and laundry. It’s still a working farm today, growing soybeans among other crops. This makes it the oldest family-owned business in North America! See more about Shirley’s history here.
Shirley Plantation is located along Virginia’s scenic Route 5, which links Richmond and Williamsburg, and fronts the James River. A unique way to visit the property is through the Virginia Capital Trail. There is plenty of onsite parking (be sure to take your children to the restroom immediately after parking – the only ones available while touring are located behind the parking lot). Visit the Dovecote while you are walking to the restrooms!
Your family can do a self-guided grounds tour or a guided tour of the interior. If you plan to do the interior tour, you will want to purchase your tour tickets ahead of time to ensure availability, especially during the COVID-19 restrictions. If you’re doing the grounds tour, there is an honor box in which to pay your fee.
The grounds tour is self-guided using a map and the UniGuide app. Be sure to download this app before you arrive and follow the numbered signs which correspond to the app’s tour.
After leaving the parking lot, you will encounter several outbuildings that are open for tours, including the storehouse, ice house, kitchen, and laundry. There are exhibits in each building, and you can learn more about the buildings through the UniGuide app tour.
Don’t miss the kitchen house, which has two rooms to explore.
The first room to your left as you enter discusses the enslaved people’s experience at Shirley. While a difficult subject matter, it is handled in a delicate way and is appropriate for children.
Your kids will be interested in the exhibits in the center of the room, which include a turtle shell and eggs!
The second room in the kitchen house is the actual place where meals were cooked at Shirley. There is a great display of typical foods from the time period and a good written exhibit about how foods were prepared and served.
The laundry dependency is where the visitor center/gift shop is located. Behind the building is a small patio and garden. Picnics are allowed on the grounds.
Don’t miss the smoke house.
The view of the stables from the gardens is beautiful!
Your kids will love the corn crib with its chickens!
Make your way back on the path to the Great House.
You’ll meet your guide on the porch if you’re doing the interior guided tour. If not, walk around the house to the riverfront side. It’s breathtaking! Several movies and TV shows have been filmed here, including the first episode of the AMC show Turn.
The willow oak is a picturesque spot to take a picture or rest. It’s over 350 years old!
The view of the James River is majestic and takes you back in time. You can just imagine how it would have been for those first English settlers to step on the land from the river.
If you’re doing the guided tour, the 25-minute tour will start on the porch facing the parking lot.
The tour will take you through the rooms on the first floor of the home, all restored to how they appeared in the 18th century. Photos aren’t allowed so you’ll definitely have to visit it yourself to see!
The foyer is large, and its showstopper is the flying staircase. The mouldings are exquisite and different throughout the house and show the skilled labor that it took to build the house. Kids will like seeing the vents in the floors, which allowed for heating before indoor heating was invented!
The rooms you’ll see include a first floor bedroom, elegant parlor, and formal dining room. All of the rooms have formal portraits of past family members and beautiful period decor. Since the same family has owned the home for 12 generations, the pieces are mostly original.
We loved hearing the stories about the family over the years and the important events that occurred in the home. It was also neat to see the youngest members of the family, currently preschoolers, included in the pictures of the owners of the home. It really is still a family home!
The docents do a good job of including stories about the indentured servants and enslaved workers who toiled at the property. A lone remaining slave cabin is still standing but is not on property. There is a special enslavement walking tour that is held on certain dates where you can learn more about their lives at Shirley.
Shirley Plantation is a place where you can step back in time to the earliest days of Virginia. From Native Americans to the colonists to the enslaved Africans, this land has been the home to a variety of families and events in its over 400 years of history. During the month of December, the home is beautifully decorated for the holidays, which makes it a great time to visit with your family!
- Guided tour: $20/adults; $12.50/youth ages 7-16; free/6 and under (special pricing due to COVID-19 restrictions)
- Grounds tour: $11/adults; $7.50/youth ages 7-16; free/6 and under
- Recommended for:
- Guided tour: ages 10 and up
- Grounds tour: all ages
- Tour time:
- Guided tour: 25 minutes
- Grounds tour: 30 – 45 minutes
- Gift shop located in laundry house
- Transportation: Accessible by car only (or via bike on the Virginia Capital Trail)
- Dining options: The grounds are open for picnics. The adjacent Upper Shirley Vineyards is one of our favorite places and has amazing views of the James River itself.
- Nearby hotels: I recommend staying in Richmond or Williamsburg, both of which have many family-friendly hotel options. If you want to stay in a local bed and breakfast, Edgewood Plantation, is a nearby option.
- Nearby attractions include: Berkeley Plantation, Historic Westover, Sherwood Forest, and Virginia Capital Trail
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