“Come and see Port Royal — come late in April or in May or June — when the crops are growing, the flowers blooming, the birds singing, the placid lake-like river just rippling into smiles. You shall dream yourself in Geneva…” – George Fitzhugh, 1859
PORT ROYAL, Virginia — The thing about Port Royal is there are a lot of cats. Black, calico, and orange. Running in yards, lying beside sheds, and hiding under porches. They stalk the town like specters, seemingly materializing out of nowhere then scampering away before you can move within arms’ reach.
Across the Rappahannock River, which flows on the north side of town, booming gunshots waft on the breeze across the water. A steady swish of traffic flows on the James Madison Memorial Bridge (Rt. 301); a man hammers away on a wooden dock that juts out into the river.
These sights and sounds, though rather inconsequential, seem distinct and profound when set against the stillness of Port Royal. The town is silent in a way that a grandparent may be silent: quiet now, but wizened, ringing internally with stories and experiences from a bygone era younger generations will never fully understand.
It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Wednesday. Cool, but not cold; sweatshirt weather. A fine, albeit gray, day to undertake the historic Walking Tour of Port Royal. There are 13 stops in total, all of which rest within nine blocks of one another. They include churches, old taverns, and private homes, in various stages of upkeep, some dating as far back as the mid-1700s.
Phil Fitzhugh is sitting in his white truck on Water Street, waiting to do some work nearby. He’s lived in Washington, D.C. and Long Island, but has since retired on Rt. 17, near Spotsy, “because we wanted to start a farm.” As he points out, Caroline is a divided county, of sorts, thanks to 77,000-acre Fort A.P. Hill acting as a buffer between the south and the north.
In many ways, Phil Fitzhugh is an outsider here. But he knows a thing or two about the town, which he called a “weird little place with a lot of history.”
“Port Royal has a town crier,” he notes. “He pops out like a little bird every once and awhile.”
This is true: the crier’s name is Mike Newman, and he’s one of only two official criers in Virginia, the other being in Alexandria. In colonial times — and, indeed, as far back as ancient Rome, perhaps further — criers made announcements in the street to inform citizens about current happenings.
Newman dresses the part, wig and all, and reads the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, among other duties. He’s served as the town crier for 17 years (unofficially for 12, officially for five) and is the second crier in the town’s recent memory, according to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.
Fitzhugh dishes out some well-wishes and drives away to do his work. The dock hammering continues in the distance.
There aren’t many people out and about. There are, expectedly, cats galore, including a tame-looking gray one under the porch of the boarded-up Peyton House, which was built in the mid-1700s. It’s one of the most historically significant buildings in town, and its current owner — Carolyn Barley — has started a non-profit to restore it.
“The house was built…by the Brockenbrough family,” said Barley, in an email interview. “It was considered the finest in Port Royal.”
The Peyton House is of interest to historians for one main reason: John Wilkes Booth.
Booth made his final stop here before meeting his end at the Garrett Farm, three miles South. Booth, accompanied by three former Confederate soldiers and one henchman, was allowed inside by Sarah Jane Peyton, sister of the home’s owner, Randolph Peyton, by posing as a wounded soldier. Peyton changed her mind, however, claiming “it would be improper for them to stay when the man of the house was not home,” according to a historical marker near the property.
Thus she sent Booth down the road — and to his doom.
Across the street, about a century earlier, George Washington spent the night of Jan. 14, 1760 at Fox Tavern, “the most renowned [tavern] in Port Royal”, according to a historical marker. He paid five shillings for that evening and made at least three subsequent visits, including one in which he stayed the night, ate supper and breakfast, and bought stableage and feed.
“Washington was generous,” reads the historical marker. “Paying a 100-percent tip on his two shilling ferriage across the river.”
Port Royal predates Washington, even, having been settled in 1651 and officially incorporated into Caroline County in 1744. Before Europeans came and did what Europeans tended to do during the Colonial Era, the Port Royal area was home to 400-600 members of the Nantaughtacund tribe, part of a confederacy ruled by Chief Powhatan. Unearthed artifacts date the Port Royal area’s earliest inhabitants to approximately 9,000 BCE.
The two oldest still-standing buildings, according to Cookie Davis, president of Historic Port Royal, are the Bowie House and Townfield, both of which were built between 1740 and 1745. Both are still privately owned, a fact I failed to realize until I walked into the front yard of the Bowie House and saw a sign reading “The Colemans” plastered on the front door. To the Colemans: If you’re reading, I apologize. I would have knocked on your door and had a chat, but it was too early in the morning. I didn’t want to wake you.
Townfield, meanwhile, is home to Nancy Long, former Port Royal town council member and current Caroline Board of Supervisors vice-chairperson.
“Port Royal is, and always will be, home to me,” she said, also in an email interview
The nickname “Hidden Village” was given to Port Royal by Ralph Emmett Fall, a former resident who wrote a book of the same name about the town’s history. The shoe fits, for a number of reasons.
It’s a small town: it covers just 12-square blocks and boasts an approximate population of 197. It’s also easy to pass by, considering Rt. 301 runs beside it, not through it, and boxes it in to the West. The Rappahannock River, meanwhile, closes it in from the North, while the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge squares it in from the East.
There’s a peaceful charm about the place, though, (just ask George Fitzhugh) and walking through its timeless streets feels like being alone in a room with an ancient grandfather clock filled with old souls. Folks with roots here seem to have deep roots here, and they take a certain pride in Port Royalites.
Take Davis, for example. As she tells it, her mother’s first ancestor came to Port Royal in 1737 as an indentured servant to a store keeper. He prospered, later owned stores and farm land, which he left to his ancestors, who also prospered.
As time went on, seven brothers from her great grandfather’s family served in the Civil War. Four were killed. Only one surviving brother, David B. Powers, Davis’ great grandfather, returned to Port Royal after the war.
“And that’s why I’m here today,” she said.
Davis has dedicated her life to preserving the history and memory of a town that’s quite unlike any other. Despite its uniqueness, however, it wasn’t ever seriously considered as a finalist for the capital of the United States during the American Revolution, as rumours would have some believe. This tall tale was squashed by Jim Patton, a local historian who researched the topic at length.
Potential capital or not, there was, indeed, a cat staring at me as I drove out of town on Water Street at the conclusion of my tour. He was black with white spots, or white with black spots — it was hard to tell. As I pulled out onto Route 301, heading south, not across the bridge, he opened his mouth and let out what might have been a meow, but what may also have been a beckon for me to return in the near future to do some more exploring.