The James River was the first highway in America as English settlers spread out along its shores, and many of these colonists built grand homes still standing today. As you travel on Virginia’s historic Route 5, you can visit many of these homes and learn more about the earliest history of our country. Historic Westover is one the few houses still used as a home today, and with the upcoming holidays, it’s the perfect time to visit with your family.
Westover was built in the mid-18th century by the William Byrd family but its history can be traced back to prehistoric times as artifacts dating to 6500 BC have been found on the property. As the colonists expanded from Jamestown, Westover was established in 1619 and named after the West brothers (brothers of the first Virginia colonial governor). William Byrd I purchased the property in 1688 but the existing home wasn’t built until the mid-1700s by either William Byrd II or III (recent findings suggest it was William Byrd III). William Byrd II is considered the founder of Richmond.
The home was spared during the American Revolution, including a visit by Benedict Arnold, and the Civil War when it served as a headquarters for a Union corps. One of its wings was destroyed by a shell lobbed by the entrenched Confederates just across the river.
Westover’s main crop was tobacco and hundreds of enslaved workers were required to produce this crop on its thousands of acres. Not many records exist of these workers but several outbuildings where they would have worked still stand. Work is being done to uncover more of the history of both of the enslaved inhabitants and the Native American inhabitants of the land.
The home is built in the Georgian style along the widest part of the James River. With the bald eagle nature preserve across the river, you can gaze upon the same view as those from the 18th century. Several of its architectural features are significant, including its much-copied doorway (called the “Westover doorway”) and three wrought iron gates from England.
Still a family home today, Westover is one of the most beautiful 18th century homes in Virginia.
Historic Westover is open for grounds visits and guided tours (by appointment). The parking lot is along the beautiful James River.
Be sure to pay (there is an honor box at the entrance) and pick up a self guide brochure.
You’ll walk along the short meandering path towards the home. Walk towards the river to be able to take in the full view of the home and the expansive river. It is truly breathtaking!
Kids will love the massive lawn leading to the river, perfect for a picnic. There’s plenty of room for little ones to get their wiggles out!
While touring the grounds, be sure to explore the bamboo forest (my kids’ favorite!) and the outbuildings still standing. These include an ice house, 5 seat necessary, kitchen, and a dry well connected to a tunnel that exits at the river. This tunnel is thought to have been built to aid colonists in escaping Native American attacks. Six people were killed at Westover during the 1622 Indian massacre.
Don’t miss the original iron gates of the home, particularly its beautiful main gate.
The formal gardens are laid out around William Byrd II’s tomb, which is impressive even by today’s standards.
If you scheduled an interior tour, the home’s current owner, Andrea, will be your guide. I could have listened to her stories about the home and growing up there all day! Your kids will love asking her what it’s like to grow up in a home like Westover.
The interior rooms of the home are lovely and full of history. As you enter through the “Westover doorway,” your eye will be drawn to the beautiful ceiling of the foyer and its massive staircase.
When Benedict Arnold arrived at Westover during the American Revolution, he rode his horse through the doors, into the foyer, and used his sword to slash the bannister. You can still see the filled-in slash marks today!
The home’s owner at the time, Mary Willing Byrd (William Byrd III’s widow), was a relative of Arnold’s Loyalist wife, Peggy Shippen, and was thought to be a Loyalist herself but his actions indicated otherwise.
The dining room is large (it was formerly two rooms that were combined in earlier renovations).
The office would have been the original dining room and now has a portrait of Evelyn Byrd displayed. She was the daughter of William Byrd II and died of a broken heart when her father disapproved of her intended. She was best friends with Anne Harrison of the next-door Berkeley Plantation and made a pact with her that whoever died first would come back to visit the other. Your children will find it fascinating to hear that ghostly Evelyn has been spotted by workers and guests throughout the years on the property.
The red drawing room is dominated by a massive marble fireplace brought here from Italy. It has a beautiful view of the James out its windows.
One of the wings is a massive ballroom that has been converted into a family kitchen, including the ballroom’s stage now serving as a library.
As you step out onto the front lawn, you’ll see a modern swing set alongside the elaborate 18th century wrought iron gates. This is still a family home, with children, dogs, and other things from daily life. After seeing so many historic homes devoid of life, it is refreshing to see the modern conveniences of life juxtaposed with the allure of the past. I think the hundreds of years of inhabitants would be happy to see a young family still living life in their footsteps.
With the holiday season coming up and the home decorated for holiday tours, it’s the perfect time of year to visit. Check out its upcoming joint holiday tours with the nearby Shirley Plantation here.
Historic Westover is a wonderful place to see as the past merges with the present. Your kids will be fascinated with seeing kids just like themselves living in a place where so much history happened. Even just visiting the grounds is a history lesson they won’t forget!
- Grounds: $5/adults; $2/kids; $15/family
- House tour: $25/person
- Grounds: all ages
- House tour: 10 and up (but younger kids are welcome!)
- Tour time:
- Grounds: 30 minutes
- House tour: 1.5 hours
- No gift shop
- Transportation: Only accessible by car, Westover is located minutes off Virginia’s historic Route 5 halfway between Williamsburg and Richmond.
- Dining options: The owners welcome picnics on the lawn. Upper Shirley Vineyards and Indian Fields Tavern are two highly recommended restaurants that are a short drive away.
- 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, Shirley Plantation, Virginia Capital Trail, and Richmond National Battlefield Park
Books to Read:
Find more books about this time period in Virginia’s history in my Bookshop.org shop, which supports independent bookstores and creators.
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