Tobacco – and Virginia’s prosperity – took root at former riverfront plantation
The Henrico County Board of Supervisors voted today to buy Varina Farms, a 2,095-acre former plantation along the James River that will be preserved for its historical significance, natural beauty and sensitive environment.
The $17.25 million acquisition was approved following a public hearing held at the rural site in southeastern Henrico, near Dutch Gap and Interstate 295’s Varina-Enon Bridge.
The purchase represents the county’s largest investment in land preservation in its history. Varina Farms is nearly twice as large as Wilton Farm, a 1,184-acre property along the James near state Route 895 that Henrico bought in 2019.
“Without exaggeration, Varina Farms represents the birthplace of Henrico County, and it is ground zero for Virginia’s early success and prosperity,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone E. Nelson, of the Varina District. “By acquiring this beautiful, vast and irreplaceable property, Henrico County is making a once-in-a-lifetime move to ensure that our history as a county, a commonwealth and a nation are preserved and that our precious, scenic riverfront will remain protected and accessible for generations to come.”
Varina Farms, also known as Varina Plantation and Varina on the James, includes a two-story, Classical Revival-style home built in 1853 that includes cosmetic damage attributed to cannonball fire and other fighting during the Civil War. Its surrounding fields remain largely as they were when English settler John Rolfe discovered the soil and climate were suited for growing mild tobacco that propelled the colony’s economy. Rolfe and the American Indian princess Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, lived at Varina Farms after their marriage in 1614 in Jamestown.
The property also served as the Henrico County seat of government from 1632 to 1752, before it was moved to Richmond and ultimately to its current location on East Parham Road.
Henrico’s purchase of Varina Farms comes about 10 months after it bought the Varina on the James home and 5.6 acres for $1.3 million.
Varina Farms is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. A nomination form, prepared in 1976 by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, describes the property as one of Virginia’s “most historic plantations.”
“Still a prosperous working farm, the broad, level fields are associated with personages and events dating back to the earliest years of settlement,” the document reads. “At Varina were laid the foundations of Virginia’s economic development, the tobacco industry, the industry which has remained the keystone of the state’s economy to the present day.”
Owners of the property later included Thomas Mann Randolph, who served as Virginia’s governor from 1819 to 1822 and married Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha. During the Civil War, the farm – then known as Akin’s Landing – served as an eastern depot for the exchange of war prisoners and was the site of fighting in 1864 during Union Gen. Benjamin Butler’s advance toward Richmond. The home’s western wall is marked with holes from bullet and cannonball fire.
“As a community, we are indebted to the Stoneman family and the other owners who have nurtured and safeguarded Varina Farms over hundreds of years,” Nelson said. “Henrico County is honored and humbled to accept the responsibility of stewardship. Our efforts will be slow, methodical and respectful, given the property’s rich history and fragile environment. Still, it’s exciting to imagine the possibility of the house and surrounding grounds being restored for historical interpretation, education and enrichment by school groups and other visitors. There’s also much more to discover about this site, including from its time before English settlement and the period of enslavement.”
Henrico’s purchase agreement with Varina-on-the-James L.P. allows farming and other uses of the property for five years. An interactive, three-dimensional tour of the house and grounds is available online.