THE RICH HISTORY OF NOTTOWAY PLANTATION
After all the tests of war, economic adversity, ownership changes, and natural forces, Nottoway stands regal and strong ... still a great castle greeting the Mighty Mississippi River. Step back in time and experience the 150 years of history at this Grande Dame of Plantations with all its regal splendor.
View more on the history of the
home, including a few ghosts, and then come
tour the home, the grounds and the museum
to touch the artifacts and see the place where history was made.
Majestic Nottoway Plantation, with its towering size, hand-carved marble mantles and intricate plaster frieze work, awes visitors with its grandeur and innovative features. The 64-room, three-story palatial mansion is sometimes referred to as an "American castle."
Nottoway was completed in 1859 for John Hampden Randolph and his wife, Emily Jane Liddell Randolph, and it was home to their eleven children. The mansion boasts 53,000 square feet, and originally sat on 400 acres of highland and 620 acres of swamp. It was designed by renowned architect Henry Howard of New Orleans in Greek Revival and Italianate style.
That Nottoway survived through
the Civil War, a variety of owners, and disrepair to become one of
the most visited plantations in the South is a testament to its
original owner, John Hampden Randolph. Randolph was an astute
businessman. It was his business savvy that fostered his tremendous
wealth, and his business savvy that saved Nottoway during the hard
times during and after the Civil War. And, it was both his sense of
grandeur and love of his family that brought Nottoway to life.
John Hampden Randolph was born to
a wealthy Virginia family in Nottoway County, Virginia on March 24,
1813. The son of Judge Peter Randolph, he lived in Virginia until
his father was appointed a federal court judge in Woodville,
Mississippi by President Andrew Jackson. The elder Randolph moved
the family to Mississippi, and there the family continued to live a
life of social and political stature at the Elmwood Plantation.
The prestige of John Hampden Randolph's business successes left him wanting a "more fitting" home and plantation to honor his position and stature. He acquired the land for his future castle in 1855, purchasing 400 acres of highland and 620 acres of swamp. The beautiful property faced the Mississippi River, which was a major transportation waterway of the time. Passing steamboats and showboats made river watching an interesting and exciting pastime.
Randolph also began to compile the materials for his castle. Cypress grown at Forest Home was cut and cured under water for four years. The cypress, then cut into planks and dried, was called virgin cypress. Perhaps its most unique feature was not its durability, but its resistance to termites. Meanwhile, handmade bricks were baked in kilns by the slaves, and the renowned architect Henry Howard of New Orleans was charged with the task of designing the grand mansion.
Randolph made it clear from the outset that no expense would be spared in the construction. In fact, the hiring of Howard was the first of many signs of the opulence to come. Howard, a very popular architect of the time, is considered one of the greatest architects of New Orleans in the 1800s. Many of his Greek Revival and Italianate style buildings, churches and homes can be found throughout New Orleans today.
Construction of Nottoway was completed in 1859 at an estimated $80,000. Nottoway has 64 rooms in its 3 floors, 6 interior staircases, 3 modern bathrooms, 22 massive square columns, 165 doors and 200 windows. Designed in the Greek Revival and Italianate style for which Howard was renowned, it features 15½ foot high ceilings and 11 foot doors. Its most unique room is a semi-circular white ballroom with Corinthian columns and hand-cast archways.
Henry Howard hired skilled craftsmen to work on the house. In fact, 40 carpenters, brick masons and plumbers lived in tents at the site of the construction while doing their work. They were paid $40 a month, and provided with three meals a day and laundry service. By June of 1858, Randolph contracted with Timothy Joyce for $3,800 to provide other carpentry work necessary for the house. A skilled mason, Newton Richards, was hired to furnish two huge flights of granite steps for the front of the home.
White lead was used as a waterproofing agent, set in the joints of the gallery floors that sloped down so that rain and wash water would drain quickly. The ground floor of the mansion is concrete, and the walls, made of brick, are 14 inches thick. Cypress was used as the framing lumber and on the floors and walls of the upper floors. The interior walls are finished in plaster.
Among the most beautiful aspects of the Randolphs' castle are the extraordinary plaster frieze works on the second and third floors. The frieze work was crafted by Jeremiah Supple, a young, gifted Irishman. Supple, who was paid $1,901 for his work, lined the ceilings with meticulously hand carved molds, using a different design for each room. He also made all eight of Nottoway's ornate ceiling medallions and friezes in the archways.
A combination of mud, clay, horsehair and Spanish moss was used to make the plaster and enormous amounts of the mixture were used - 4,200 yards of plastering, over 1,500 feet of cornicing, and 140 feet of scroll ornaments in the parlors.
When it was completed Nottoway included a massive entrance hall, the grand white ballroom, a formal dining room, a gentlemen's study, another dining room, music room, numerous bed chambers, master bedroom, wicker room, bowling alley, library, Hall of their Ancestors, front parlor, sitting rooms, breakfast room, wine room, dairy, laundry and servant rooms, and boys' wing. The kitchen was located in a separate building adjacent to the house so that a fire in the kitchen would not destroy the main home.
Massive columns three stories high support the immense castle. Its exterior includes spacious balconies from the second and third floors, providing wonderful viewing arenas for the activity on the Mississippi River. Gracious curved granite steps lead to a grand entranceway at the front of Nottoway.
It was this centerpiece that New Orleanian John Nelson used to draft a landscape plan for the property. His plan included 120 fruit and citrus trees, 12 magnolia trees, poplar and live oak trees, 75 rose bushes, 150 strawberry plants and a variety of flower and vegetable gardens. However, most of Nottoway's beautiful gardens are gone today, since the Mississippi River has taken about six and a half acres of land from the front of Nottoway's property.
Besides the massive home,
Nottoway Plantation included acres of prime farmland, a variety of
other buildings including slave quarters, a schoolhouse, greenhouse,
stable, steam-powered sugar house, wood cisterns, and other
necessary buildings for an agricultural operation. After the family
moved into Nottoway, Randolph continued to own Forest Home
Plantation, with its additional 1,500 acres of farmland and
The White Ballroom:
Perhaps the most impressive room of the house, it certainly has
served its purpose of entertaining. It was the site of many Randolph
family parties, their daughters' debuts to society, and five of the
girls' weddings. "I wish this room to be a pure white in order to
offset the beauty of my ladies," Randolph was said to have
instructed. Today it is the site of weddings and special events. The
ballroom included exquisite plasterwork, double fireplaces,
Corinthian columns and hand-cast archways. The painting over one
fireplace is of an 1857 portrait of Mary Henshaw. While she was not
a member of the family, the painting is said to interest visitors
because her eyes follow them no matter where they go in the room. A
painting technique known as "dotting the irises" was used on the
portrait to create the effect.
Just as the study catered to Randolph, so the dining room was a
reflection of Mrs. Randolph, with a camellia design in the plaster
work to reflect her favorite flower. On display is a valued set of
French porcelain called Sevres. The design was made for King Luis Phillippe of France in 1830 and each piece is hand
painted with a different romantic motif. The connecting rooms are
the Butler's Pantry and Warming Kitchen, where food would be brought
from the kitchen prior to being served.
The Carriage House
still exists today. At one time the structure had a second wing and
a 40-foot high observation tower, but the tower was lost in a
As the social elite in the
community, the Randolphs and their children enjoyed status along
with wealth. Each of the children had slave attendants, and the
attendants could be called by the use of silver call bell levers in
each room of the castle. The levers were connected to a set of bells
that hung on the servants' waiting porch. The bells were of
different sizes so that they made different sounds, and the servants
learned which room needed service by the sound of the bells. Some of
the bells still exist today.
Ella Eugenia: 1838-1917 was the oldest child was . She married Lovik Feltus in 1861 and lived in Natchez, Mississippi. She inherited portfolios from her father of John James Audubon's first edition prints. Like most Southern planters, the couple experienced hard times after the Civil War, and she would clip out the prints, one a time, to fulfill her society obligations.
Algernon Sidney, 1840-1863, was the only child to die in battle in the Civil War. He studied to become a doctor, but left school to join the Louisiana 3rd Infantry (Iberville Grays). He was killed at Vicksburg in May of 1863, the victim of a sniper's bullet.
Moses Liddell, 1842-1907, was the son who stayed with his father in his Texas adventures. Moses married Jane Justine Connor, daughter of a prominent Natchez, Mississippi, family, in 1873. The couple had 10 children and made their home in Blythewood Plantation, close to Nottoway. One of his daughters, Nan Linderholm, states in her memoirs that Moses lost Blythewood to debt and died leaving the family in dire circumstances. At the time Nan was enrolled in an exclusive girls' school, Sophie Newcomb of New Orleans. The family cook, a former slave at Nottoway, sent her the only money she received, $5 per month. That was half of the $10 per month the 80-year-old cook was paid monthly. Nan never forgot the sacrifice made on her behalf and helped the cook and her descendents until she died.
John Hampden Jr., 1844-1919, saw many violent battles during the Civil War. He married Sarah Walker in 1873 and they had three children. John, Jr. became a professor of history and mechanical engineering at Louisiana State University. His mother, Emily, lived the last years of her life with John after she sold Nottoway.
Mary Augusta, 1846-1914, wed prominent New Orleans lawyer Horace E. Upton in Nottoway's elegant white ballroom in 1875. The couple had six children and lived in New Orleans.
Emma Jane, 1848-1932, married Rev. Marmaduke St. James Dillon in 1870. The couple had two children before he died in 1879. Emma Jane then married her cousin, Frank Liddell Richardson, and lived the rest of her life with him in New Orleans.
Cornelia, 1851-?, deeply loved her father, and published a diary, "The White Castle of Louisiana," about her life at Nottoway in 1903. The book was dedicated to her father, and she used the pen name M.R. Ailenroc, her name and initials spelled backwards. She married Dr. David Gamble Murrell at Nottoway.
Sarah Virginia, 1853-1893, was sickly with an unknown disease for most of her life, and is the only Randolph daughter who never married. In a windowpane in the girls' wing at Nottoway, there is etched her nickname, Sally, indicating that at one time she might have been engaged. It was customary for a recently betrothed woman to write her name using her diamond engagement ring as her tool. Her gravestone epitaph reads, "Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal."
Annie Carolina, 1855-1942, married Valle J. Rozier, and the couple had one child who died the same day. After she was widowed, she married Stephen Miller Williams in 1895 and they had a daughter. Annie inherited the oil portrait of John Hampden Randolph that presides over the Ancestral Hall of Nottoway today. The portrait was returned home by Annie's great grandson, Dr. Marshal E. Cusic of Wisconsin. Annie told the story of a "Major Bullet" who, as a Union soldier, saved Nottoway from destruction during the Civil War. Research shows a Major Bullen as a commanding officer at Ft. Butler and aboard the gunboat Hartford on the Mississippi River during the war.
Peter Everett, 1857-1899, was the Randolph's youngest son. Little is known of him. He never married and died in St. Louis, Missouri.
Julia Marceline, 1862-?,
was the only Randolph child to be born at Nottoway. She married
Valle Rayburn of St. Louis, Missouri at Nottoway in 1883. The couple
had six children before she was widowed in 1908. She remarried in
1915, to Charles Fletcher Sparks. They maintained homes in St. Louis
and Palm Beach, Florida. Several guests and staff have reported
seeing the ghost of an auburn haired young woman fitting her
description in the girls' wing of the house. A visiting psychic,
seeing Julia's photographs, identified the ghost as Julia.
Just as the family was truly established at Nottoway, rumors began of war among the states. Randolph was opposed to secession from the Union, because he did not think the South could win a war against the industrialized North. Once the war began, he gave money to the Southern cause, and saw three of his sons go off to war with the Confederates.
Algernon Sidney, 23 years old at the time, was the oldest son and the only one lost in battle. He fell at Vicksburg in 1863. Moses Liddell, 19, contracted malaria and was sent home without seeing combat, but he suffered debilitating medical problems from the disease for the rest of his life. John, Jr., then 17 years old, survived some of the war's deadliest battles, but he never spoke of them for the rest of his life.
When Randolph heard the enemy troops were headed down the Mississippi, his business acumen again proved critical. He sent hogsheads of sugar overland to Mississippi, where he sold it at a profit. He then took approximately 200 slaves and some of the family's most prized furniture and china to two adjacent cotton plantations in Texas, which he leased for the duration of the war. The move proved another brilliant business maneuver, allowing him to sell the valuable cotton crop to hungry markets.
Mrs. Randolph remained at Nottoway with only her youngest children and a handful of slaves. The elder girls were also sent away to safety at an uncle's plantation in another region of Louisiana.
The grounds of Nottoway were occupied by both Union and Confederate troops during the war, and the castle was fired upon several times by Northern gunboats. A column at the front was hit in 1863 with grapeshot, and the grapeshot fell out on its own in 1971. The 6.4-inch solid lead grapeshot is on display in the Gentlemen's Study today.
Nottoway was actually saved from one attack by a young Northern officer on board a gunboat. He had been graciously entertained at the plantation's garden parties and balls prior to the war, and recognized the castle from the Mississippi River. He called for a cease-fire, sparing the home from damage in that battle. But, the plantation grounds were not immune to shelling and cannons during the war, drawing Mrs. Randolph, her children and slaves to the basement for protection.
The strong and brave Mrs. Randolph endured the war with little communication from her husband or family, and the constant threat of attack by both enemy forces and thieves. By the time the war ended, Nottoway had been stripped of many of its animals, firearms, and other items, but was left intact. The crop had been reduced to 43 acres of corn, and she had little help in maintaining the tremendous grounds under her command.
Randolph's daughter, Cornelia, wrote in her diary that her father had the chance to sell his slaves to a man from Cuba just before the 13th Amendment was enacted. He set the slaves free in compliance with the emancipation decree and hired 53 of the now freedmen to stay with him in Texas and bring in the cotton crop. According to her diary, most of the salves chose to return to Nottoway, where they became sharecroppers.
By 1863, Mrs. Randolph had to give the Oath of Loyalty to the Union in order to keep Nottoway. The Randolphs' son, Moses, had gone to Texas to help his father with the cotton crop, and after the war ended, the elder Randolph returned to Nottoway, leaving Moses in charge of the Texas properties.
Randolph felt the wrath of the president just after the war, when a proclamation was issued against the Confederacy's supporters. Randolph was among those required to travel to President Andrew Johnson to personally apologize and request a pardon. Those who refused were stripped of their citizenship and their assets were confiscated by the government. Based on the value of his estate, Randolph sought the pardon, and it was granted to him on February 14, 1867. A copy of his pardon hangs in Nottoway's museum today.
Though never again as wealthy as just before the Civil War, the ever-ambitious Randolph started buying up more plantations from less solvent neighbors who could not pay their taxes. He had a brilliant mind for business, and started to use available resources to achieve financial miracles.
By 1871, Randolph owned nearly
10,000 acres. He continued to grow sugarcane, but the abolition of
slavery and a depressed economy took its toll. Randolph even tried
the use of Chinese laborers in the fields after the war, but the
effort proved futile and was short-lived. In 1875, Nottoway was
reduced to 400 acres of highland and 620 acres of swampland, and
Randolph's nearby plantation, Forest Home, included 2,468 acres. By
the late 1870s, Randolph's holdings were reduced to 800 acres at
Nottoway and 1,725 acres of swampland.
When Randolph died in 1883, he
left everything to his wife, Emily Jane. But, by 1889, Emily was 71
years old, and she decided it was time to give up her beloved home.
Nottoway was sold to V.B. Dugas and Desire' P. Landry for $50,000.
She divided the sum equally along the surviving children and
The Nottoway Museum showcases artifacts and articles dating back to the Randolph family. Copies of photographs and historic documents such as the pardon for John Randolph after the Civil War, help to further tell the story of plantation life. The diary of Cornelia, published under the pseudonym M.R. Ailenroc in 1903, provides further details on life at Nottoway.
A visit to the museum and theater
are included in the
Nottoway Plantation Tour.
Nottoway is a member of the Plantation Parade Association, promoting the grand heritage of plantations along the River Road, along with The Cabin Restaurant, Houmas House, Laura Plantation, Oak Alley Plantation, St. Joseph Plantation, and San Francisco Plantation.