Eltham was situated in New Kent County, Virginia. The property was owned by the Bassett family. Captain William Bassett was reportedly the first of the family to come to Virginia. He died in 1672 and was succeeded by his son, William Bassett, who died in 1673. This second William Bassett was a member of the Virginia Council. There was a third William Bassett, who inherited the place and was a member of the House of Burgesses. The son of the third Bassett, William Burwell, became owner of Eltham and also a Burgess.
The mansion was said to have been built as early at the 1660's. It was constructed of brick. The house was considered by many architects to have been one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the South.
The illustration of Eltham above was made from a drawing done by a member of the Bassett family. One description of the house reads, "There was a central portion of the house two-and-one-half stories high with dormer windows in the well-designed roof. Through passages on each side one reached the low wings to the house." Another description says, "The house presented an imposing front, one hundred and fifty feet from wing to wing; the entire building, with peaked roof and gable front, rising above them like the keep of a castle. Over the red English bricks of its walls, time and clinging tribes of lichens had thrown a soft tinting of purple and gray, while a stately avenue of Lombardy poplars led away from the mossy stone steps of the entrance, adding grandeur to the picturesqueness of the place. Many times during the siege of York were the leading spirits of the Revolution gathered at Eltham (which was not far from Yorktown) as guests of Colonel Burwell Bassett, who was a brother-in-law of General Washington and of Governor Harrison, having married the sister of Mrs. Washington [Anna Maria Dandridge; they married on May 2, 1757]."
One reason that there is interest in Eltham is that General and Mrs. Washington often visited the Bassets at Eltham, and Burwell Basset was one of the agents who had charge of Washington's business affairs while he was in command of the army during the American Revolution. In one of his letters to Bassett, written from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in February 1776, he says: "I thank you heartily for the attention you have kindly paid to my landed affairs on the Ohio; my interest in which I shall be more than ever careful of, as in the worst event they may serve for an asylum." This letter was owned by Herbert A. Claiborne of Richmond.
Another visitor of note was Andrew Burnaby, who wrote, "May 26, 1760. Having procured three horses, for myself, servant, and baggage, I departed from Williamsburg, and travelled that night to Eltham; twenty-five miles. . . . May 27. I ferried over Pamunky river . . . . " Burnaby wrote Travels Through North America, a popular book which went through three editions in the 1700's.
The Bassetts intermarried with many prominent Virginia families, including the Dandridges, the Lewises, the Claibornes, the Burwells and others. John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington (and stepson of George Washington), died at Eltham, the home of his uncle. Martha and George adopted his two children. According to George Washington Parke Custis (John Parke Custis' biological son and George and Martha's adopted son), John Parke Custis "sickened while on duty as extra aide to the commander-in-chief in the trenches before Yorktown. Aware that his disease (the camp-fever), would be mortal, the sufferer had yet one last lingering wish to be gratified, and he would die content. It was to behold the surrender of the sword of Cornwallis. He was supported to the ground, and witnessed the admired spectacle, and was then removed to Eltham, a distance of thirty miles from camp."
The house burned in the 1870's, but the massive foundations could still be seen in the early 1900's.
The information in this article was compiled from information in Frances Archer Christian and Susanne Massie, editors, Homes and Gardens in Old Virginia, Garrett and Massie, Incorporated, Richmond, VA, 1931; Robert A. Lancaster, Jr., Historic Virginia Homes and Churches, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1915; Ella B. Washington, "The Harrisons in History," The Magazine of American History, 1889; Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, By His Adopted Son, George Washingto Parke Custis, with A Memoir of the Author, by His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes, by Benson J. Lossing, Derby & Jackson, New York, 1860.
Copyright © 2002-2013 Sarah E. Mitchell