Encyclopedia Virginia uses Google Street View technology to bring its users inside Scotchtown and other historic sites in Virginia.
by Brendan Wolfe
“These were his most productive years, but they were also very unhappy,” Jennifer Hurst-Wender tells us, referring to Patrick Henry, who lived in this house from 1771 to 1778. Hurst-Wender is the director of museum operations and education for Preservation Virginia. She’s also our guide to Scotchtown, the Henry estate in rural Hanover County.
Built around 1719, it’s one of the oldest surviving eighteenth-century homes in Virginia, and it was from here that Henry rode to Richmond, famously declaiming on the subjects of liberty and death. It was here, too, that his wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, gave birth to their sixth child and where, soon after, she was confined to a more feminine version of a straitjacket—something called a strait-dress.
“That was in the basement,” Hurst-Wender says. “Don’t worry, we’ll get there.”
It’s a rainy Thursday and four of us from Encyclopedia Virginia (EV)—an online project of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities—are here to document Scotchtown using Google Street View technology. Preservation Virginia has been generous in allowing us access to its properties, including the John Marshall House, in Richmond, Smith’s Fort Plantation, in Surry County, and Bacon’s Castle, also in Surry County, which is thought to be the oldest brick house still standing in the former British colonies of North America.
Now, on EV‘s website, readers can find virtual tours of these and about a dozen other sites attached to relevant entries. For instance, you can read about Arthur Allen, the tobacco merchant who built Bacon’s Castle in the 1660s, and Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), from which it got its name. And then you can click on the tour and “walk” through the three-story house as if you were there. We’ve also documented Henry’s retirement home at Red Hill, in Charlotte County.
“Teachers kind of freak out about this,” EV editor Matthew Gibson says. “I mean, they already love our site because it provides a free, authoritative source on Virginia history. We’ve got entries, media, primary documents. But now we’ve got this thing that almost literally allows them and their students to leave the classroom and to take a virtual field trip.”
For now, though, we’re taking the real kind. Hurst-Wender shows us Henry’s map table and his spare, almost spartan bedroom furnished with a chair original to Scotchtown. “He had seventeen children altogether,” Hurst-Wender explains, “so you can imagine how his possessions scattered after his death.” The few objects that have been returned to Scotchtown are proudly displayed, but Henry didn’t have much stuff to begin with. Spare was his watchword.
History doesn’t have to be a textbook, and Google Street View is a huge part of that approach for us. – EV editor Matthew Gibson
In the same way that Monticello, with its elaborate, experimental architecture, classical paintings, and bright colors, gives you a sense of Jefferson the man, so does Scotchtown. It’s plain, even severe—like Henry himself.
“You really need to see this place to get that,” EV programmer Peter Hedlund says, setting up a camera tripod in the map room.
Which is where Google Street View comes in.
Google Comes to Charlottesville
So what exactly is Google Street View? You may have used it already to look at your own neighborhood. If not, try it now. Find yourself on Google Maps, then drag the little yellow man—there he is, in the lower right-hand corner of the screen—to the street in front of your house. Voilà! You are now immersed in a high-resolution, 360-degree view of your neighborhood with the ability, by clicking on the arrows, to move up and down the streets. You can cruise your hometown this way, scout out a road trip ahead of time, or even visit a foreign country.
And now you can virtually step inside. Using the same fisheye cameras, but mounted on tripods instead of moving cars, Google has given its users access to selected buildings and historic sites around the world.
EV‘s participation in the Street View project began when Hedlund attended a conference at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters in 2012. “The idea [of the conference] was to bring nonprofit people together and talk about how they used Google’s mapping tools,” Hedlund says. “Street View came up and I was like, ‘We could really use this!'”
A few months later a Google employee traveled to Charlottesville and trained Hedlund and Gibson to use the camera and the software necessary to stitch together the digital images online. Now the pair travels across Virginia documenting historic sites. The Street Views are published by Google and subsequently embedded on Encyclopedia Virginia. In the meantime, the General Assembly has allocated $85,000 to help fund the endeavor.
“People are excited about this,” Gibson says. “It’s a teaching tool, sure, but it’s also a tourism tool and even a preservation tool. Not all of these structures will be around forever, but we hope that our virtual tours will be.”
A Sad End
“Okay, the basement,” Hurst-Wender says.
We buzz with excitement, having read in various, not necessarily reliable corners of the Internet that Scotchtown is haunted by the ghost of Henry’s first wife, Sarah, who spent her last years in the basement. Believe what you want about such things, but Hurst-Wender is quick to fill us in on the sad reality of Mrs. Henry’s life and death. The couple was married in 1754, and Sarah Henry bore six children, the last of whom arrived around the same time the family moved to Scotchtown.
Perhaps already suffering from mental illness, Mrs. Henry came down with what today might be considered a case of severe postpartum depression. In the eighteenth century, however, her behavior was deemed lunacy. A new asylum opened in Williamsburg in 1773, but out of either shame or concerns about the conditions there (or both), Patrick Henry decided to keep his wife at home. He made a room for her in the cellar.
We ducked our heads under the low ceiling beams and peered into a small, sparsely furnished—which is to say, typically Henry-esque—cell: two beds (one, presumably, for an enslaved servant), a trunk, a brick floor that in the Henrys’ day was dirt. In the center of the room a mannequin wears the ominous-looking strait-dress. Small windows admit only a tiny bit of light.
In a new book, The Founders as Fathers, the historian and EV contributor Lorri Glover suggests that Sarah Henry, who died in February 1775, may have killed herself.
“These were unhappy years,” Hurst-Wender tells us.
Patrick Henry remarried in 1777; he sold Scotchtown a year later.
We take one last look and then climb out of the cellar, back into the day.
“There are lots of ways to be innovative,” Gibson tells me. “With the encyclopedia, we’re creating a resource that doesn’t otherwise exist out there, whether online or in print. And by pairing these great entries with hard-to-find media objects and transcriptions of primary documents—that’s not something most other folks are doing.”
He takes a sip of coffee. We’re following a twisty highway back home to Charlottesville now.
“But we also need to be innovative on the digital level,” he says. “That’s to stay competitive for funding and it’s also, you know, to pique the interest of our users, to engage students, to give people an experience that’s new. History doesn’t have to be a textbook, and Google Street View is a huge part of that approach for us.”
Teachers certainly love it. In 2014 the Virginia Council of the Social Studies presented to Encyclopedia Virginia its Friend of Education Award. Gibson, meanwhile, is always thinking big, always looking ahead.
“We’ve been experimenting with cardboard goggles, fitted with your phone and the Street View images, that allow you to go into complete virtual reality mode,” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “Imagine putting one of those in every social studies classroom.”