Our Stories, May 4

By Paul Clancy

It’s such an unexpected encounter. Driving along Potters Road at the northern edge of Ocean Naval Air Station, you come upon a sign for “Upper Wolfsnare” and a long country lane that bumps over abandoned railroad tracks, ending at a white two-story home in the style of an English manor house.

Three acres surround the house, with a magnificent swamp chestnut oak on one side that must be older than the bones of Thomas Walke III, the man who built the place in 1759. Maybe as old as his grandfather who settled in Lynnhaven Parish more than a hundred years before from Barbados.

Upper Wolfsnare, so called because of its location on the upper reaches of Wolf Snare Creek, is owned by the Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach Historic Society. The society today is holding a fund-raising reception and auction to help renovate the building’s kitchen area. The 3 p.m. event is being held at another historic Virginia Beach home, the Adam Keeling House.
It’s so odd having this place here. Smack dab in the middle of the high-decibel corridor near the air station, you wonder how it was ever preserved. In fact, the state planned to knock it down and dig up the property to use the earth for expressway ramps, but preservationists saved it and deeded over to the society. And here it stands, begging to tell its story.

Upper Wolfesnare. Courtesy of Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach Historical Society

First, the House: Inside, there’s a wide passageway – instead of the kind of center hall you’d expect. The drawing room on the right is dominated by dark, hand-carved wainscoting. You can see through cracks between the random-width heart pine floorboards. On one wall is a portrait of one of the Walkes, perhaps one of many cousins. Absent is any likeness of Thomas Walke IV, the son of the builder who went to Richmond in the spring of 1788 and helped Virginia, by a narrow margin, ratify the U.S. Constitution. The room on the left (chair railing, with molding) has a copy of a painting of a grand reception given by Martha Washington. She and George were married in 1759, the year the house was built.

Anne Henry, a society member and avid local historian, gave me a tour – it’s only open to the public on Wednesdays in July and August, so she arranged with the caretakers to let me see it. “I think it clearly shows what one segment of life was like in the 18th century,” she says. “It was a major piece of our history.”

And so it is, but there’s another side of the story and it begins with Barbados. The original Thomas Walke came to Virginia in 1662 from that British-ruled Caribbean island and soon began shipping goods back and forth between the new American colony and Barbados where his family remained. In the hold of his small fleet of ships, he may have included slaves.

A new book (2007) by historian April Lee Hatfield, “Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century,” delves deeply into Walke’s Barbados connections. Hatfield writes that Walke developed close ties with William Bryd I, one of Virginia’s elite planters and traders. “Many Virginians interested in Barbados trade sought African slaves from the island,” she writes. Barbados also “likely provided Byrd with a market for Indian slaves he acquired in exchange for Barbadian rum.” What human misery this route must have known!

According to the official Virginia Beach Website, when Thomas Walke III died in 1761 – just two years after building this house – he left to his infant son 7,000 acres and 55 slaves.

And then there’s this. In the Papers of James Madison, available online, you can find a little-known episode involving Thomas Walke. In April, 1783, he petitioned Virginia’s delegates to Congress – that’s what they were called then – for the right “to reclaim our slaves that were wrested from us by the British enimy (sic).” It would be, he said, “a glaring piece of injustice” if they were not. He further complained that “several hundred of the above slaves sailed during the last week to Nova Scotia.”

You wonder if some of those no-doubt-scared, but now free individuals fled from this fascinating place out on the edge of our history.

Paul Clancy, http://www.paulclancy57.googlepages.com/