History of the Ravenscroft Property

Who is Ravenscroft?

The Ravenscroft property takes its name from Thomas Ravenscroft, one of the earliest in a long series of property owners and tenants. Ravenscroft’s name was attributed to these lots during the 1950s, most likely reflecting the belief that he was responsible for the construction of one or more of the structures on the property. Over the last three seasons of excavation, archaeologists have come to suspect that at least one of these buildings was constructed slightly after Ravenscroft’s tenure. As the project continues, we will be better able to determine where the other structures fall in the site’s chronology.

Who Lived Here?

The excavation area (lots 267 and 268) shown on a 1950s reconstruction plan. Note that part of one of the foundations lies under what is now Botetourt Street.

The Ravenscroft property consists of two half-acre lots (#267 and #268) which were jointly owned for much of their history. The long list of recorded property owners and tenants begins in the seventeenth century and extends through the 1940s, when local African American families sold their homes near the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets and moved out of the Historic Area. All of these site residents have left their marks on the landscape.

Ownership of lots 267 and 268 through the eighteenth century. Owners are outlined in blue, tenants in orange.

For much of the eighteenth century, and especially during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the Ravenscroft property was occupied by tenants rather than landowners. This complicates the task of determining who lived here at any given time, since tenants’ names are not recorded on deeds. Tenancy was a fact of life in Williamsburg by the 1730s. By that year, most of the land available for purchase had been bought up, leaving late-comers (often regardless of their financial standing) with few options beyond leasing land and houses from those who had purchased early.

The men who leased the Ravenscroft property in the eighteenth century were, on balance, high-profile figures. Among them were John Holt, a merchant and mayor of Williamsburg (who would go on to become a printer in New York); William Hunter, publisher of the colony’s newspaper, the Virginia Gazette and deputy postmaster general (a position he shared with Benjamin Franklin); and Joseph Royle, another publisher of the Virginia Gazette. These three men leased the Ravenscroft site for 21 successive years leading up to the Revolution. Though their names bear no resemblance to one another they were, in fact, related to one another by marriage, indicating that these lots were, in some ways, a “family property.”

Unfortunately, not all of the tenants on the Ravenscroft property are as easily identified as Holt, Hunter, and Royle, and gaps in the history are likely to remain despite intensive documentary research. Also frustrating is the lack of information concerning the enslaved residents of this property. Documentary evidence for their presence often consists of little more than a first name recorded on a property inventory taken at the time of an owner’s death. Only occasionally do we read about these individuals in greater detail. One example is this 1775 Virginia Gazette advertisement describing “Jenny,” a 16-year-old runaway from the estate of Joseph Royle. The advertisement ran in four editions of the Gazette. We do not know what ultimately became of Jenny. Clearly there are important stories yet to be told.

Virginia Gazette advertisement (Dixon and Hunter, publishers), January 28, 1775.