One Family’s Journey to Preserve History
We want to figure out who the enslaved were,” Sophie Taylor resolutely said. Clad in duck boots and flannel, she leaned across the granite kitchen countertop—the newest element in her home by about a century—as she poured over census records, family trees, and local history books.
That journey—one that began in March of 2021 when she and her husband, Mike, purchased the Ivy Cliff estate—really began much longer ago, in 1772.
Ivy Cliff was built by Revolutionary War hero Captain Henry Brown, who completed three terms in the Continental Army and served under Colonel Charles Lynch. It’s estimated that the Brown family acquired the Ivy Cliff tract of land—3,400 acres in total—in 1755, with the brick Federal style home being built and completed by the late 18th century.
The 4,900-square-foot home features sweeping 10-foot ceilings, original long plank wood floors, and ten fireplaces in total. Historical records show that the home originally had more rooms than what stand today, but all that remains of them is a swath of exterior wall that stretches from the east side of the home.
Captain Brown and his wife had six children together, all of whom were raised at Ivy Cliff, and the property remained in the Brown family until the 1920s.
Ivy Cliff, which at one time was referred to as Otter Hills plantation, was a booming tobacco farm.
“We found a census from September 1860 that shows 29 enslaved men and women on the property at the time,” Taylor said. “Thirteen men and sixteen women. Though it’s certainly possible that more than that were living here under a different owner’s name. We found evidence that there were six different enslaved dwellings on the property at one time.”
One of those dwellings is still standing today, downhill and largely out of view from the main house.
The enslaved cabin is a “dogtrot” style cabin, which means that it’s essentially two separate cabins connected by a breezeway. The west side of the cabin was completed in 1810, with the east side of the cabin following shortly after in 1830.
“There are four separate rooms in the cabin, but we’re not sure if four different families lived in this one cabin, or if the rooms were separated by males and females,” Taylor explained.
When the Taylor family purchased the property in 2021—a pandemic move from Florida—they knew that there was a rich history behind the property, which had been meticulously preserved by previous owners. But the surprise came from how much the community became invested in its history.
“There are so many people in this town who love history,” Taylor recounted. “They saved everything and gave it back.”
Since they arrived at Ivy Cliff, neighbors have been “returning” pieces of property history that had been salvaged over the years. From the original louvered shutters, which a neighbor salvaged when a previous owner remodeled, to Independent State of the Congo coins circa 1888, which were dug up on the property, neighbors and history buffs alike have flocked to Ivy Cliff to return memorabilia and help piece the history together.
Part of connecting those dots was ensuring that the history remained preserved.
In 2022, the Taylors made great strides in ensuring the entirety of their property—now 17.3 acres of the original 3,400—became a historical site. They worked with Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit organization that sustains Virginia’s historic places through leadership in advocacy, education, revitalization, and stewardship, to have the slave dwelling added to the “Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places” list.
In Virginia, extant dwellings of enslaved people are rare and often overlooked. Constantly subject to time, elements, and lack of resources of the property owners, many have fallen into ruin or vanished from history altogether.
“Having this Preservation Virginia designation helps us advocate for resources and grant funding,” Taylor explained.
In addition to the Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places list, the Taylors applied for the Threatened Sites Program with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which offers emergency funding for archaeological sites endangered by erosion or other factors like impending development or vandalism.
That grant, in particular, connected the Taylors with local engineering and surveying firm, Hurt & Proffitt.
“We had Hurt & Proffitt out with their archaeology team completing a site survey of the hillside with the extant cabin searching for likely locations of the other slave dwellings,” Taylor explained. “They are still studying the thousands of artifacts found at their lab at Historic Sandusky.”
Shovel tests and test unit excavations were completed by the Hurt & Proffitt team, which runs the only engineering student lab in the state.
Every artifact found around the slave dwelling as well as the surrounding land where other dwellings may have stood were bagged in acid-free bags for storage and identification.
“The most significant findings were the ones that couldn’t be bagged,” said Jess Gantzert, Hurt & Proffitt’s laboratory director. “We found quartz cornerstones, which were religiously significant [to the enslaved] as well as a number of Hoodoo markings on the enslaved cabin.”
In addition to the cornerstones and markings, the Hurt & Proffitt team was able to collect nails, bricks, bottle glass, pottery, and window glass, all of which will help them begin painting the picture of the everyday lives of the enslaved living on the property.
“We have the technology now to identify what type of liquid bottles used to hold,” Gantzert explained.
“So we will be able to determine if they held medicine, drinks, or liquids that were significant to their
While processing and identification is still ongoing, the Taylors and the Hurt & Proffitt team are hopeful that the history of the enslaved people on the property will start to be told.
“We are able to use archaeology to find and tell the stories of the people who weren’t considered people,” Gantzert said.
“Our plans include a complete renovation of the cabin with the intention of sharing it with local school groups as a means of learning local Virginia history,” Taylor furthered. “Due to the historical importance of the cabin, we want to ensure that any renovation is completed with special care, which is why we are seeking the assistance from historical architects, archaeologists, contractors, and stone masons.”
Under the Taylors’ care and stewardship, the story of Ivy Cliff continues to unfold with the hopes of one day identifying the names of those who were enslaved on the property and reconstructing their stories.
If you’re a Lynchburg native, are familiar with Ivy Cliff’s history, and have information that may help,
reach out to the 501(c)(3) that the Taylors established at https://ivycliff.wixsite.com/ivycliff.