Teaching for Historic Places Lesson Plan

An Antebellum Plantation in Virginia

Everyday Life and the Built Environment
at the Sweet Briar Plantation

While the windows of Sweet Briar's plantation house look out on a college campus today, they once surveyed a central Virginian plantation. This antebellum farmhouse is still surrounded by the boxwood hedges that the owners planted to ensure privacy and create a manicured landscape. Today, some of these bushes stand over 15 feet high (Fig. 1). The farmhouse was originally much smaller and surrounded by a wooden fence (Fig. 3). In the 1830s, the plantation house and thousands of acres of farmland were bought by Elijah Fletcher, a politician and landowner from Lynchburg. Mr. Fletcher had decided to retire to Amherst, Virginia (Fig. 6) and try his luck at farming. He planted a wide variety of crops (for example, corn, wheat, rye, and some tobacco) and fruits (such as peaches, apples, and cherries). He also raised animals, including cows, pigs, and sheep. The Sweet Briar Plantation remained a functioning farm until the 20th century when it was donated to found a college for women. Named in honor of the plantation, Sweet Briar College remains a premiere educational institution for women. Although the college no longer farms the land, it does contain horse stables, many acres of hay fields, and an old dairy.

Mr. Fletcher did not work on the farm alone. He was assisted by dozens of enslaved individuals who lived and labored on the Sweet Briar Plantation. Many of these individuals worked on the plantation their entire lives and were buried in the Slave Cemetery (Map 2). Others lived past 1865 and after their freedom they settled in nearby communities, such as Amherst and Coolwell. The descendants of some of these individuals continue to work for the College today. Thus, some African-American families have over 170 years of experience making the plantation, and now the college, a successful enterprise.

By studying the architectural form of the Sweet Briar Plantation and an attendant Slave Cabin (Fig. 8), students can learn about everyday life on an antebellum farm. With advance reservations, school groups can visit the inside of the plantation house and view portraits of Elijah Fletcher and his family and study the antique furniture that they purchased during their world travels.

Figure 1, Sweet Briar House

Figure 1, Sweet Briar House.

Figure 8: Slave Cabin at Sweet Briar Plantation

Figure 8, Slave Cabin at Sweet Briar Plantation