Making a Mark on the World

James Madison

The Conway Family had a very big impact on the land that would become Belle Grove Plantation as well as the nation as a whole. When Edwin Conway passed in 1698, Francis Conway I inherited the plantation as well as took care of his mother, Elizabeth Thornton Conway until her death in 1732. Francis would marry Rebecca Catlett in 1717. They would have six surviving children.

It was under Francis Conway I that Belle Grove grew to become one of the most successful plantations in the area.  The primary crop from the beginning of this plantation had been tobacco. While tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output, tobacco growth was hard on the land itself. Tobacco is a weed that uses up the nutrients of the land quickly. This is why most tobacco plantations had large acres of land. As the land become less fertile, the plantation owner would clear more land and plant a new crop. A plantation would also grow corn and wheat to feed the plantation as well as vegetable gardens and herbs for medicinal purposes. There would be livestock too, generally pig and cattle, but the animals would be marked and set loose in the woods so they would not have to raise feed for the animals as well. At the height of this plantation under Francis Conway I, there would be a warehouse to store tobacco and a granary for the corn and wheat. There was also a wharf for shipping these items to Europe and for receiving goods.

Of the children of Francis and Rebecca, there are two I would like to talk about. The first is a daughter named Eleanor Rose Conway, known as Nellie. Nellie Conway was born on this plantation in 1731 and grew up here until she married James Madison Sr. in 1749. James Madison Sr. was from Orange County Virginia. He was a prominent plantation owner and was a colonel in the militia during the Revolutionary War. His father, Ambrose Madison was the plantation owner of Mount Pleasant. Ambrose Madison died in 1732, thought to have been poisoned by his own slaves. James inherited Mount Pleasant in 1744 and called the plantation Home House. He would acquire more land throughout his life, bringing his holders to 5,000 acres. He was the largest land owner in Orange County.

James Madison Sr.

Nellie Conway Madison

Shortly after their marriage, Nellie became pregnant with their first child. In the middle of winter, she traveled back from Orange County to her childhood plantation to have her child. There are no records of her thoughts of her childhood home, but it can be assumed that she had a great love for Belle Grove.

James Madison as a young boy

On March 16, 1751, Nellie gave birth to James Madison Jr. Jemmy as he was called would grow up to become our 4th American President and the Father of the Constitution. Nellie would have nine more children. Nellie would return to her husband’s plantation and would live at Montpelier until her death in 1829. One of her children, Nellie Madison Hite would marry and settle down in Middletown, Virginia. When she and her husband, Isaac Hite built their plantation from 1794 to 1797, she chose to name her plantation “Belle Grove” after her mother’s childhood plantation.

Belle Grove Plantation – Middletown, Virginia
Home of Isaac and Nellie Madison Hite

The second child I want to point out is Francis Conway II (1722-1761). At the death of Francis Conway I, Francis would have inherited the plantation, but he was only 14 years old at the time. His mother Rebecca Catlett Conway would retain the plantation until he would become of age. Rebecca married a second time sometime after 1737 to John Moore (1698-1759). Together, she and John would have two more children. It was John Moore that is credited with giving Belle Grove its name. Rebecca and John managed Belle Grove well and at her death, Belle Grove was still a very successful plantation.

Conway Family Bible

Francis Conway II married Sarah Taliaferro (1727-1784) in 1744. They would have three surviving children. In 1748, Francis Conway III was born.

In 1743, Francis Conway II should have taken possession of Belle Grove. But from my research, it looks as if he did not get the plantation until the death of his mother, Rebecca in 1761. There is a record of another plantation that was owned by Francis Conway II, Mount Sion located in Caroline County. Shortly after his mother’s death, Francis Conway II also passed away. For Francis Conway II, the same circumstance that had happened to his father was now being played out with his mother. At his father’s death, Francis Conway III was only 13 years old. His mother, Sarah Taliaferro would remarry in 1765 to George Taylor, but have no more children.

Captain Francis Conway’s signature

Francis Conway III would grow up and become distinguished gentleman.  Francis became a member of the King George County Committee of Safety form 1774 to 1776. He served for 3 years in the Continental Line as a Minutemen from 1775 to 1778. He was commission a 1st Lieutenant on September 12, 1776. He served as 1st Lieutenant of the four companies of Minutemen from the Caroline District. He was commissioned a Captain in October, 1776.

Later in 1842, his service was called into question. He was one of the cases of Revolutionary Claims rejected by the Congressional Committee on claims in 1842, with the statement that, “His name is not on any roll now to be found, nor was he paid, by Virginia, or the United States for any service. It is altogether impossible he could have performed a service of these years, though his heirs were allowed the bounty of 4000 acres for that service, September 1, 1838.” In 1844, this claim was proven.

During the Revolutionary War, Belle Grove Plantation started to decline. Unlike Rebecca, Sarah and her husband did not manage Belle Grove well. Sarah held onto Belle Grove until her death in 1784. Shortly after his mother’s death, Captain Conway took possession of Belle Grove. He sectioned off 10 acres of his land and divided it into half acre lots. In May, 1784, Captain Conway received rights by Act of Assembly to sell the lots and to establish a town by the name of Port Conway, of which John Skrinker, George Fitzhugh and others were made Trustees.

Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway

Captain Conway married Elizabeth Fitzhugh March 20, 1770. They would have six surviving children. One of these was Francis Fitzhugh Conway (1772-1803).

After years of decline, Captain Conway sold Belle Grove Plantation on July 1st 1790 to John Hipkins for a sum of 2,000 pounds. This tract of land had been in the Savage/Thornton/Conway Family for 120 years.

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44 thoughts on “Making a Mark on the World

  1. becca givens says:

    The area is so rich in history!! Awesome to maintain its legacy!!

  2. bookzine says:

    Reblogged this on bookzine and commented:
    The above account is a book in the making.

  3. grahammb says:

    I love this…..can’t wait to share this on JMU’s Be the Change blog. All you, Dukes, listen up! Our Jemmy was born here!

    • I thought you might like this post 😉 Now for the big mystery. Where on the plantation is the foundation of the house he was born in. We are still researching this one. Three thoughts, one – under the current house (most likely) – two somewhere between the bridge and the current house – three – in the river. We will have to see!

  4. John says:

    Impressive research. Very nicely presented. Perhaps a book would be in order!.

    • Thank you! I keep hearing that. Maybe in the future once I have the complete history. I am still missing a large piece it from 1906 to 1929. I know who was there, but I know very little about them. Just have to keep looking.

  5. I agree with John: great research. How lovely to have a connection with James Madison — one of my favorites!

    • We will see about the book. Maybe one day. But I agree, James Madison is my favorite of the founding fathers. He is so under rated and tends to be over shadowed by his best friend Thomas Jefferson.

  6. NH Mallett says:

    Very well written. Thanks. How is it that you manage a B&B yet still find time to write so much? Do people in Virginia not sleep? :o)

    • Thank you! But we aren’t open yet, just preparing to open. The postings you see are from the last ten months of research I have done on weekends as we were working out of business deal with the owner. I have cleaned out the Library of Virginia, Virginia Historic Society and William and Mary College. My best find was photos I found of Belle Grove dating to 1906 in a library in California. I found them online just by chance. I will show them soon on the blog or you can see some of them now on our Facebook page.

  7. This has absolutely captured my attention. Your research is remarkable. I tutor students during the school year and really enjoy American History. Now I’ll have even more “stuff” to give them. You have me hooked. How much better to read this than the meaningless fiction so many indulge in.

    • Thank you so much! I love American History too. James Madison is my favorite President. I think it is such ashame that he is so under rated. He is always over shadowed by others like his best friend, Thomas Jefferson. Once we are open and have the last of the restoration done on the outbuildings, I hope you will come and enjoy it in person!

  8. Very interesting historical record. Well done. I hope I’ll be able to visit someday!

  9. Lissa Rabon says:

    Have you ever felt like some of the former inhabitants are watching and keeping you company? I have always heard that when historic homes are renovated…it gets things stirred up…if you believe in that sort of thing. I do.

    • I have to say yes to that one. I have “felt” them around me alot. The restorations were done between 1997 to 2003. But I have been told that there are some interesting things that go on there. I do believe that they are there and they are watching us. I also believe that they are happy with us coming because we have made it a point to remember and honor them. I do have an interesting story of the first time we were there and how “they” let me know that they were there. But I am going to save it for a future post. If you are interested in this kind of stuff, you are going to love the events we are planning of October!

  10. Reblogged this on katherinehpurdy and commented:
    Wonderful history by the new owners of Belle Grove Plantation B&B

  11. This is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to reading along as you undertake your adventure! Wishing you all the best from Salem, Mass!

  12. aquacompass7 says:

    From Japan. I pleasure your article.

  13. koco says:

    So much history, how awesome for you to know so much about this place you clearly love!!

  14. Arkenaten says:

    Thanks for popping over to the Ark’s spot. This was a smashing read. I love history. If ever I get to the States, maybe I’ll pop over to your place?

  15. nerdtrips says:

    What amazing history! Poisoned by his own slaves – sounds like a plot for a novel! Where are you able to find all the pictures?

  16. tooda says:

    Just wonderful! Really would love to visit your place once it is ready…love history…studied history for post graduation…

  17. thebeadden says:

    I have been following these posts with great interest.

  18. meliswenk says:

    Lovely photography! And so much history. What a delight to read. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  19. Great post and very interesting historical perspective. Thanks for the “like” for our post.

  20. Good info. Lucky me I discovered your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve saved it for later!

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