The remnant of a colonial farm…a structure that was home for generations of a prominent Hanover County family…the Civil War battlefield encompassing that land and that home, where Grant tested Lee on the long road to Appomattox. They have all become a gem of the National Park Service: Rural Plains and the Shelton House.
John Shelton built the house around 1725, just north of Totopotomoy Creek, and it formed the centerpiece of a growing farm operation that consumed the attentions of him, his large family, hired workers, and dozens of slaves. The bounty of this land kept John and his descendants in comfort for decades. At its height, about 1860, the farm operation at Rural Plains covered almost 900 acres and produced thousands of bushels of wheat, corn and oats, six tons of tobacco, and large quantities of wool, potatoes, fruit and other goods. In that year, 37 slaves provided the bulk of the manpower while inhabiting eight structures to the rear of the main house.
The Shelton family was well-connected in this area. Notably, John’s daughter Sarah married that firebrand of the Revolution, Patrick Henry, in 1754. Longstanding tradition has it that they were married in the parlor of Rural Plains. It is possible, but knowledge of the exact location has been lost to time. What is known is that Henry visited here many times, and knew well the prominent Sheltons.
Though farming dominated most of the work in and around Rural Plains, the story has other facets. In 1838, John’s descendant Edwin Shelton opened a school for girls in the home. There they studied languages, music and other topics, and were promised “moral and intellectual improvement, health, character…” Edwin removed a lovely staircase running along the side of the entrance hall to allow him to enclose the second-floor and create more space for the girls. A narrow corner stairway was the result. Other major renovations in 1785 and 1915 altered some particulars, but never the basic structure or feel of the house.
Edwin Shelton figures prominently in the Civil War history of the house, too. On May 29, 1864, as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s troops probed for a way around Confederate defenses, fighting broke out on the property. Edwin, who had crossed the creek to the south to ask protection for his family, was prevented from returning. He watched helplessly as the house, with his wife and children in the basement, served as a Union headquarters and signal flag station…and was fired on by Confederate artillery. For two days Union troops try to cross the creek and push the enemy, but could not. Grant broke contact and moved to Cold Harbor, but not before the house had been hit fifty-one times by shells and suffered several fires. The family suffered through the rest of the War, and the grim post-war period. By 1880, the Shelton holdings were down to 150 acres.
Yet the Shelton family remained here, proud and defiant. The last of the Sheltons to inhabit Rural Plains, William “Bill” Shelton II, arranged for the house to pass to the National Park Service on his death. Since 2006, the NPS has owned and managed Rural Plains, seeking to study its history and unlock its secrets as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park properties. The Rural Plains Foundation is proud to be partners with the NPS in this ongoing quest.