Crossing over the Shenandoah River on Morgan’s Ford Bridge in Warren County, the road leads into the Rockland Rural Historic District, a scenic area encompassing more than 10,000 acres of pristine farmland, narrow tree-shaded roadways, beautiful barns and brick farmhouses at the ends of long driveways. In a region full of special areas, the Rockland district stands out for its rich history of fine architectural residences and buildings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Several of the estates have preserved their large sizes and configurations for more than 250 years and still operate as working farms.
This rural gem is also noted for Smoke Town (or Leed’s Town), an unusual early emancipated African American settlement. In 1791, Robert Carter III began freeing his enslaved labor force of about 500 African Americans, leading to one of the largest communities of manumitted slaves in the nation before the Civil War.
Of course, no historical designation would be complete without honoring the original Indigenous inhabitants of the area. The Rockland Historic District is noted for its historic road traces and transportation corridors, potentially established by the Native American inhabitants of the area.
“There is a huge amount of history here,” said Wayne Chatfield-Taylor, a landowner in the Rockland Historic District. “Morgan’s Ford is an ancient river crossing and that is why it is so important.”
Chatfield-Taylor also noted that while currently there are three informational signs at Morgan’s Ford that receive a lot of attention, more interpretation of the rich history of the area would be valuable. He is hopeful that the additional archaeological research needed to illuminate a more complete story of this area is more likely to happen with the Rural Historic District designation.
Rural Historic District: What you should know
Virginia Department of Historic Resources administers the Virginia Landmarks Register, which lists historic properties and districts across the state. A historic district is a collection of resources like buildings, sites and objects that share a similar period of development and physical character.
The nomination application for listing a property or district in the state’s register includes historical and geographical information, photographs and maps. It also includes an architectural survey of every building within the proposed area. It is a long and detailed process that can be fascinating and educational for residents, and if successful can unlock rehabilitation tax credits for restoration projects within the district.