Category Archives: Sharing Scholarship

19th Century Virginia Homebrew?

Recently I have been completing research for an upcoming History at Sunset Program at the park. During the last week or so I have been combing through available transcribed letters written by Isaac Hite Jr. and others related to the plantation. The letters reveal numerous aspects of everyday life on the plantation. They also allow historians insight into the various business endeavors of Hite and Belle Grove Plantation. As any successful business owner, Hite kept meticulous records of his goods being shipped and sold to market. Most of his flour and grain was shipped to Alexandria. Once there, certain merchants would hold and sell his goods locally and across the Atlantic. During my review of these letters I came across a certain letter of interest.

The letter is dated February 3rd, 1806 and written by one William Hay to Isaac Hite Jr. Hay was one of Hite’s legal advisers and close friends of the time. The letter is a short two paragraph letter. The first paragraph deals with Hay telling Hite about the happenings in his family at the time. He wrote in part, “The family is well and Polly begins to suffer by a comparison with Ann’s daughter.”

The gold of this letter is in the second paragraph. The whole second paragraph deals with Hay sending Hite beer, in the nature of three barrels of porter. Hay apologizes that he cannot send the beer in bottles when he wrote, “sorry that I cannot send you porter in bottles.” This is the only recorded evidence of beer being on Belle Grove’s property. Hite was known for making whisky in his distillery on site, and shipping in large quantities of wine regurarly.

What I find interesting is the comparison between the modern craft beer movement and this letter. Personally I love beer, all types of beer. Trying new beer and comparing them to others is a great pastime of mine. I recently have dabbled in homebrewing. One of the themes of this new craft beer/homebrew movement is people being highly particular about how the beer is made, served, and stored. What is interesting is that in the letter of note, Hay spends the rest of the letter describing how the porter should be stored and consumed:

“I know Mrs. Hite is a good housewife and will take a pleasure in having it bottled as soon as it settles. Let the bottles be make perfectly clean and dry and when it is well corked, lay it away on its side. In about a fortnight it will be rife and by this means you will drink Porter much cheaper than usual. If you are inclined, you may use it from the cask, but take care when you draw any that the vent hole is immediately shut [so] that the beer may not loose its air. My best respects to the Family.”

These instructions are eerily similar to that of a modern day home brewing recipe! Both beer drinkers of today and in the early 19th century were concerned about how their beers will be bottled, and how long to store it. I find it interesting that the public sees history as foreign and distant. But I would argue, and this letter shows it, that we are more similar with our historical ancestors than we think.

Myself and my first batch of homebrewed beer earlier this year

Myself and my first batch of homebrewed beer earlier this year


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Beyond the Big House: The Belle Grove Plantation Complex

I am excited to say that this summer I will presenting an original History at Sunset program at the park. The program is going to examine the Belle Grove Plantation complex as a whole. I want to look at the relationship of outbuildings to each other, the use of landscapes, agricultural endeavors, use of outside spaces, slavery at the site, and try to put the “big house” in greater historical context. It will be on Friday, July 24th at 7:00 p.m.

Modern day picture of Belle Grove

Modern day picture of Belle Grove

I was inspired by John Michael Vlach’s groundbreaking work, “Back of the Big House.” Published in 1993 Vlach examines the architecture of plantation landscapes by utilizing NPS HABS and HAER photographs taken in the 1930s. Even with its shortcomings, it has inspired scholars and public historians alike to move outside of the “big house” and examine plantations more holistically.

This is what I want to do during my program. I have started my research by attempting to gather as much material as possible. There are a plethora of land use studies, cultural resource reports, ethnographic reports, and historic resource studies completed within the last 15 years. Many of these studies were done by historical archaeologists, historic preservationists, landscape architects and other academic historians. These studies are worth their weight in gold.

Besides resource studies I have also been attempting to gather as much primary source documentation as possible. As of now I have an anthology of letters written by the plantation “master” Isaac Hite Jr. and his family. These letters provide an insight into both the personal and business matters of his life. The compiler also provides a crude sketch of slave genealogy as well. The ability to key word search certain newspaper articles online has also been a great help as well. I have found advertisements in local and regional papers by Hite during the first few decades of the 19th century.

One of the most intriguing and mysterious ads was placed in late summer 1824 in Washington D.C. and Baltimore papers. In this ad he informed readers that he will be selling 60 slaves that fall, along with other farming equipment. This is interesting because at the peakof the plantation Hite owned 103 slaves in the early 1800s. Records do not show him selling a majority of his slaves in 1824. One hypothesis is that he was acting as an executor of another man’s will and is selling his property. The goods listed are all farming tools, not domestic goods as you would expect in a estate sale. My personal thought is that Hite bought up numerous slaves in the lower Shenandoah Valley. There was massive soil exhaustion in Virginia and the nature of slavery shifting towards cotton growing in the deep south. Hite may have used his position as a businessman and wealthy landowner to buy slaves from struggling farmers. He then in turn sold them to slave traders willing to take them to the deep south towards Louisiana and other cotton states. There is no evidence to back this claim as of yet.

Elusive ad found describing the sale of 60 slaves at Belle Grove Plantation. Aug 31 1824 Daily National Intelligencer, Washington DC.

Elusive ad found describing the sale of 60 slaves at Belle Grove Plantation. Aug 31 1824 Daily National Intelligencer, Washington DC.

In an attempt to gather more primary sources I traveled to the local archive, the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at he Handley Library in Winchester Virginia. This archive houses the majority of Belle Grove’s archival collection. There I was able to get copies of probates, wills, insurance policies, land holdings, and indentured servant records. I was able to put these on my flash drive and take them back to the office for further examination.

Examining a copy of land holding records from 1814. I plan on transcribing this into an Excel file.

Examining a copy of land holding records from 1814. I plan on transcribing this into an Excel file.

As I begin this research I am excited for the numerous opportunities it presents me. My research skills will be honed as I utilize archival material. I will also be able to gain a better understanding of how to use resource studies and other secondary source material. This also provides an interpretive challenge of how to best present this research in a formal program.

I plan on continuing to talk out ideas and share new research on this project.

Stay tuned.


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2015 Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference

In March 2015 I will present my original research synthesized in my B.A. Honor’s Thesis, Evaluating Contested Ground: Civil War Interpretation in the Shenandoah Valley at the annual CAA Undergraduate Research Conference.

The conference will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, on March 27-29, 2015.  I have been selected to represent JMU and give a poster presentation on my findings. Here is my abstract:

This research focuses on how three distinct Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley interpret the American Civil War. The Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market Virginia, the visitor center housed by the Kernstown Battlefield Association in Kernstown Virginia, and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park information center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Each of these three organizations is administered by a different governing body ranging from the National Park Service to the State of Virginia, and lies in the geographical and cultural region of the Shenandoah Valley. Research is based off; interviews conducted with interpretative managers at each site, visual documentation of the physical exhibit space, and critical analysis of written rhetoric. Examination and evaluation reveal; the organizational structure of each site is reflected in their exhibits, interpretive endeavors fail to reach a suitable level of inclusiveness, and the need to reassess future interpretation.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to reach a wider audience, and share some of my findings.

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Turner Ashby Monument Podcast Tour

One of my many projects this semester is to put together a podcast walking tour of something in Harrisonburg. I decided to look at the Turner Ashby Monument. For this project, we had to record ourselves for the podcast, do some research on the site, and find historical photographs. My goal in this project was to not narrate the biography of Turner Ashby. Rather, I wanted to examine the role the monument had within the U.D.C and the local community in the 20th century.

The first place I went for my research was JMU Special Collections. One of the collections they house are the local U.D.C. chapter papers. The Turner Ashby Chapter was the organization that erected the monument in 1898. The collection contained historical photographs, transcripts of speeches, and newspaper clippings to name a few. These documents aided in my ability to frame my historical argument. I also referenced a blog. In this entry from 2011, the blogger voices concern over the lack of attention JMU was giving to battlefield presentation.

You can visit the site and listen to my podcast here.

Read my take on Turner Ashby from last year here. 


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