“One must be fatigued with hearing the name Randolph mentioned in travelling in Virginia, (for it is one of the most ancient families in the country)…”
— Marquis de Chastellux, 1781
For more than 100 years, members of the Randolph family called Wilton home. Built c. 1753 for William Randolph III, Wilton was the centerpiece of a 2,000 acre tobacco plantation and at one point was home to the largest enslaved population in Henrico. It was here that the Randolph family entertained some of colonial Virginia’s most elite social and political figures. Wilton hosted George Washington shortly after Patrick Henry delivered his famous ultimatum, “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” during the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. In 1781, then governor Thomas Jefferson visited Lafayette who was headquartered at Wilton, while 2,000 Continental and Virginia militia troops made camp around Wilton.
After passing through successive generations of the Randolph family between 1753 and 1859, Wilton was sold to Col. William C. Knight to pay off a mounting family debt. The last Randolph owner, Catherine, married Edward Carrington Mayo and moved into neighboring Richmond. Wilton went on to survive the Civil War and change owners another 4 times before going into foreclosure during the depth of the Great Depression. In 1932, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Virginia took action to rescue this storied Virginian home from ruin. Raising money without the assistance of outside funding, the Dames were able to purchase Wilton and protect its legacy. However, as the land on which Wilton stood had been rezoned for industralization, the Dames dismantled the house, purchased a new lot, and rebuilt Wilton on the grounds where it now stands, beautifully restored.
Today, Wilton continues to serve as an example of Georgian architecture, headquarters to the Virginia Dames, and host to public programs and educational exhibits. To find out more about Wilton House Museum’s events and opportunities, visit our Events page.
Wilton, an impressive example of Colonial American architecture and celebrated for its fully paneled interiors, was built ca. 1753 for William Randolph III and his wife Anne Carter Harrison Randolph, both members of politically active planter families. This center piece of their 2,000 acre tobacco and wheat plantation, originally known as World’s End, was constructed by both free and enslaved masons and carpenters. Though the majority of these workers are anonymous, “Samson Darrill put up this Cornish in the year of our Lord 1753,” was found in the southwest chamber. William Randolph III died in 1761, leaving the management of Wilton to his widow.
In the years leading up to and including the American Revolution, Anne Carter Harrison Randolph was a Virginian patriot; she was active in the 1769 “Association for the Non Importation of English Goods,” and provided hospitality to several important historical figures. George Washington stayed at Wilton in March of 1775 after attending the Second Virginia Convention where he heard Patrick Henry’s stirring speech in favor of American Independence. In 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette and two thousand troops made their headquarters at Wilton before advancing to victory at Yorktown. The Randolphs’ son, Peyton Randolph, served in the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to Lafayette.
When Peyton Randolph’s son, William Randolph IV inherited management of the property he, together with his wife Anne Andrews Randolph, made a number of changes to the structure. These included the building of an addition and possibly the commissioning of elaborately plastered ceilings. However, according to one visitor, by the time William Randolph IV’s only son Robert Randolph inherited Wilton, the accumulation of debt had left the house “. . . a forlorn ruin.” Ultimately, these debts would force Robert’s daughter, Catherine Randolph Mayo, to sell the property in 1859, thus ending five generations of Randolph family residence at Wilton.
Between 1747 and 1846, the Wilton Estate was home to between approximately 27 and 105 enslaved African American men, women, and children. The lack of extensive documentation from the Wilton Randolph family line paired with the destruction of many of Henrico County’s records in the Civil War resulted in a tragic lack of detail about the lives of Wilton’s enslaved residents. Two sets of wills and inventories from the late 18th and early 19th century comprise most of the written record. These wills have been compared with the findings of a 1998 William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) excavation of a series of dwellings located north of the Randolph home in order to piece together the lives of some of those who lived at Wilton in forced bondage for generations.
The community brought to the plot of land first known as World’s End by William Randolph III was a mixture of Africans who had been recently trafficked to Virginia and the second and third generation descendants of enslaved people. Many of these individuals were descended from slaves imported by William Randolph I and subsequently left to his sons as inherited property. The early Wilton residents represented a range of cultures and languages; William Randolph III published in 1752 that two newly imported Africans had escaped Wilton, and that they spoke no English. The WMCAR excavation uncovered evidence of West African folk medicine, housing patterns and adornment traditions passed down through generations. The living quarters’ excavation also suggested those who were enslaved at Wilton were active consumers in their local economic network, possibly aided by their close proximity to Wilton’s boat landing and their skill at navigating Virginia’s central waterways.
Most of the individuals enslaved at Wilton labored in producing tobacco and wheat, with a subset of skilled laborers representing trades that included blacksmithing, carpentry, and wagoneering. Having a skill could mean more regional mobility and the ability to carry news and goods while being leased to other locations, but carried the risk of higher valuation in the eyes of their enslavers; in 1775 two “valuable” carpenters were sold from Wilton to help pay rising debts. These sales continued over the following decades, with the enslaved population paying the price for the Randolph’s mounting debts. By 1833 only 27 tithable enslaved people resided at Wilton, and a visitor to the plantation that year remarked on the Randolph’s inability to provide even the basics of adequate care and clothing. In 1846, a suit was filed to divide the Wilton estate to better facilitate its sale. At this time, all crops and enslaved people remaining at Wilton were sold to settle debts.
Pending the discovery of further documentation, most of what is known about the people who lived and died at Wilton is filtered through the lens of the legal proceedings of their enslavers. The absence of their voices has long skewed the conversation surrounding Wilton in favor of its small number of white residents at the expense of the hundreds of African American families who constructed the mansion and shaped daily life. Wilton was home to a diverse and vibrant network of individuals whose descendants continue to shape America today.
The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, founded in 1892, is an unincorporated association of 45 Corporate Societies with over 15,000 members nationwide. The Society headquarters is located at Dumbarton House, a federal period house museum in Washington, D.C. The NSCDA has been a recognizable leader in the field of historic preservation, restoration, and interpretation of historic sites since its New York Society first undertook the preservation of the Van Cortlandt House in 1897.
In November 2000, the NSCDA received the prestigious Trustee Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, 41 diverse properties are owned outright by the varying Corporate Societies of the NSCDA, 13 additional museum collections are owned by the Dames, and 30 more properties receive substantial volunteer and financial support from Dames.
In addition to its broad based activities in the museum field, the Society sponsors a number of scholarship programs and other historic preservation, patriotic servic, and educational projects to further the aims and objects of the Society.
Membership in the organization is by sponsorship only. Members must be lineal descendants of an ancestor who rendered significant service to his country during the colonial period before July 5, 1776. To learn more about the Virginia Dames and how to get involved, visit www.nscdava.org.