These United States have had political family dynasties long before we were “these United States.” The Randolphs, who settled in the Virginia Tidewater/James River area, are an excellent example of how a hard-working, determined family had a major influence on the growth of a nation. The Marquis de Chastellux, traveling through the colonies in 1790, declared the Randolph family as “one of the most numerous and wealthiest of the first families of the colony.”
William Randolph I (1650-1711) was the patriarch who settled in Virginia in 1680. Over generations, the family’s real estate holdings grew to multiple thousands of acres, which were farmed by slaves and indentured servants. Randolph I married Mary Isham (1659-1735) in 1675, and the begetting began. They were so prolific that they were referred to in certain circles as ‘the Adam and Eve of Virginia!’
Influential local and national dignitaries such as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Robert E. Lee, Pocahontas and Peyton Randolph were just a few who can trace their roots back to this family. Not unlike any other society family, they married other society families of the day: Bland, Byrd, Carter, Harrison and Page.
Let’s move forward a few generations to William Randolph III: By his day, the family wealth had not only survived, but also grown. He and his wife built Wilton House on their 2,000-acre tobacco plantation between 1750 and 1753. William III and his heirs inhabited this picturesque spot on the James River near Richmond until 1859. The home was then sold to pay off the family’s debt (the war and all). The house went into foreclosure during the Depression and was saved by The National Society of Colonial Dames of America, which purchased the home, dismantled it and moved it 15 miles north to Richmond.
This Georgian-style brick home is now operated as a decorative arts and history museum. Still considered one of the finest architectural gems of its day, each and every room is paneled, including the closets. No other home in the region boasts this type of fine craftsmanship. Perfectly proportioned, no attention to detail was left unnoticed. A central-passage floor plan, this spacious home was built for family and entertaining.
The collection spans the 18th and 19th centuries with exceptionally fine examples of china, crystal, furniture, glass, textiles, silver and ceramics from all over the world. A time capsule of sorts, this home reflects how wealthy plantation owners would have lived and entertained. The collection has some of the finest furnishings by the best furniture-makers of the day. A bedstead attributed to John Townsend graces one bedroom. Clocks by Simon Willard, inventor of the eight-day gallery or banjo clock, and Effingham Embree keep time in the home. Framed works by ornithologist Mark Catesby anchor the collection of flora and fauna prints. (Catesby was the first to etch folio-sized colored plates in natural history books that he executed himself. He always included the plants and animals on the same page.) In addition, the finest porcelain, silver and linens graced the family’s tables.
Had it not been for the Civil War, things may have continued luxuriously for the Randolph family. Thankfully, this home can be appreciated and used as a teaching tool for years to come. For more information, visit wiltonhousemuseum.org.