The Conway Family had a very big impact on the land that would become Belle Grove Plantation as well as the nation as a whole. When Edwin Conway passed in 1698, Francis Conway I inherited the plantation as well as took care of his mother, Elizabeth Thornton Conway until her death in 1732. Francis would marry Rebecca Catlett in 1717. They would have six surviving children.
It was under Francis Conway I that Belle Grove grew to become one of the most successful plantations in the area. The primary crop from the beginning of this plantation had been tobacco. While tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output, tobacco growth was hard on the land itself. Tobacco is a weed that uses up the nutrients of the land quickly. This is why most tobacco plantations had large acres of land. As the land become less fertile, the plantation owner would clear more land and plant a new crop. A plantation would also grow corn and wheat to feed the plantation as well as vegetable gardens and herbs for medicinal purposes. There would be livestock too, generally pig and cattle, but the animals would be marked and set loose in the woods so they would not have to raise feed for the animals as well. At the height of this plantation under Francis Conway I, there would be a warehouse to store tobacco and a granary for the corn and wheat. There was also a wharf for shipping these items to Europe and for receiving goods.
Of the children of Francis and Rebecca, there are two I would like to talk about. The first is a daughter named Eleanor Rose Conway, known as Nellie. Nellie Conway was born on this plantation in 1731 and grew up here until she married James Madison Sr. in 1749. James Madison Sr. was from Orange County Virginia. He was a prominent plantation owner and was a colonel in the militia during the Revolutionary War. His father, Ambrose Madison was the plantation owner of Mount Pleasant. Ambrose Madison died in 1732, thought to have been poisoned by his own slaves. James inherited Mount Pleasant in 1744 and called the plantation Home House. He would acquire more land throughout his life, bringing his holders to 5,000 acres. He was the largest land owner in Orange County.
Shortly after their marriage, Nellie became pregnant with their first child. In the middle of winter, she traveled back from Orange County to her childhood plantation to have her child. There are no records of her thoughts of her childhood home, but it can be assumed that she had a great love for Belle Grove.
On March 16, 1751, Nellie gave birth to James Madison Jr. Jemmy as he was called would grow up to become our 4th American President and the Father of the Constitution. Nellie would have nine more children. Nellie would return to her husband’s plantation and would live at Montpelier until her death in 1829. One of her children, Nellie Madison Hite would marry and settle down in Middletown, Virginia. When she and her husband, Isaac Hite built their plantation from 1794 to 1797, she chose to name her plantation “Belle Grove” after her mother’s childhood plantation.
The second child I want to point out is Francis Conway II (1722-1761). At the death of Francis Conway I, Francis would have inherited the plantation, but he was only 14 years old at the time. His mother Rebecca Catlett Conway would retain the plantation until he would become of age. Rebecca married a second time sometime after 1737 to John Moore (1698-1759). Together, she and John would have two more children. It was John Moore that is credited with giving Belle Grove its name. Rebecca and John managed Belle Grove well and at her death, Belle Grove was still a very successful plantation.
Francis Conway II married Sarah Taliaferro (1727-1784) in 1744. They would have three surviving children. In 1748, Francis Conway III was born.
In 1743, Francis Conway II should have taken possession of Belle Grove. But from my research, it looks as if he did not get the plantation until the death of his mother, Rebecca in 1761. There is a record of another plantation that was owned by Francis Conway II, Mount Sion located in Caroline County. Shortly after his mother’s death, Francis Conway II also passed away. For Francis Conway II, the same circumstance that had happened to his father was now being played out with his mother. At his father’s death, Francis Conway III was only 13 years old. His mother, Sarah Taliaferro would remarry in 1765 to George Taylor, but have no more children.
Francis Conway III would grow up and become distinguished gentleman. Francis became a member of the King George County Committee of Safety form 1774 to 1776. He served for 3 years in the Continental Line as a Minutemen from 1775 to 1778. He was commission a 1st Lieutenant on September 12, 1776. He served as 1st Lieutenant of the four companies of Minutemen from the Caroline District. He was commissioned a Captain in October, 1776.
Later in 1842, his service was called into question. He was one of the cases of Revolutionary Claims rejected by the Congressional Committee on claims in 1842, with the statement that, “His name is not on any roll now to be found, nor was he paid, by Virginia, or the United States for any service. It is altogether impossible he could have performed a service of these years, though his heirs were allowed the bounty of 4000 acres for that service, September 1, 1838.” In 1844, this claim was proven.
During the Revolutionary War, Belle Grove Plantation started to decline. Unlike Rebecca, Sarah and her husband did not manage Belle Grove well. Sarah held onto Belle Grove until her death in 1784. Shortly after his mother’s death, Captain Conway took possession of Belle Grove. He sectioned off 10 acres of his land and divided it into half acre lots. In May, 1784, Captain Conway received rights by Act of Assembly to sell the lots and to establish a town by the name of Port Conway, of which John Skrinker, George Fitzhugh and others were made Trustees.
Captain Conway married Elizabeth Fitzhugh March 20, 1770. They would have six surviving children. One of these was Francis Fitzhugh Conway (1772-1803).
After years of decline, Captain Conway sold Belle Grove Plantation on July 1st 1790 to John Hipkins for a sum of 2,000 pounds. This tract of land had been in the Savage/Thornton/Conway Family for 120 years.