James Mill Scottish Factor Store & 1755 John Mitchell Map (Urbanna, Va)

With Fourth of July a week away, it’s only apropos that I recount last month’s trip to the historic Middle Peninsula area of Virginia. Not only is it full of small port towns vital to early trade, it’s also the home of the “most important map in American history.” But, before I get ahead of myself, I have to provide some background on why and how we visit that area.

About five years ago my mom visited my uncle’s permanent waterfront trailer at the Grey’s Point RV resort in Topping, Va. Grey’s Point is the last stop before crossing the mammoth bridge over the Rappahannock River into Irvington and Kilmarnock. The river is extremely wide at this point and is close to where it joins with the Chesapeake Bay. Grey’s Point sits high above the river bank, offering amazing sunsets and views of the river. Needless to say, my mom fell in love with the area and idea of having a low maintenance waterfront retreat. So, she bought a permanent waterview trailer where my siblings and our kids made fun memories with her before she passed away. Since her passing, we still try to visit a few times each year, especially during the summer. The kids fell in love with the pool and golf cart rides, while Bill and I fell in love with the views and slower pace of life.

Town of Urbanna, Va

When we visited the area back in May, we took a day trip to the nearby town of Urbanna. Urbanna is a historic colonial port town with unique shops, art galleries, and marinas. In 1680, the House of Burgesses ordered Urbanna to be set-up as a port town for trading. The town was officially named Urbanna in 1705, meaning the “City of Anne” after England’s Queen Anne. We parked near the intersection of Cross St and Virginia St and walked around town checking out the shops. I purchased a handmade mortar and pestle at If It’s Wood & More before we walked to Urbanna’s Museum & Visitor Center. 

James Mill Scottish Factor Store

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Urbanna’s Museum & Visitor Center, officially called the James Mill Scottish Factor Store, was built in 1766 and once served as a tobacco warehouse. Tobacco planters exchanged tobacco at the store for cash or credit towards imported European goods. They stored the tobacco in large barrels called hogsheads that weighed about 1,000 pounds. When the English ships arrived, men gently rolled the full hogsheads down the adjacent road to the port below. Imagine standing at the bottom of the road making sure the hogsheads didn’t fall into the water? Uh, no thank you!

Starting in the 1960s a preservation group renovated the James Mill Scottish Factor Store. Then, in 1997, the Town of Urbanna bought and refurbished the building. The museum exhibits highlight the town’s historic tobacco ties, its booming oyster industry, and the 1755 John Mitchell Map. The museum is small and not very kid-friendly, but the girls enjoyed touching the oyster shells, standing next to life-size colonial men cutouts and admiring the port and warehouse diorama. The diorama truly captured the tobacco trading operation!

1755 John Mitchell Map

DSC_0072The friendly museum worker shared her personal upbringing in Urbanna and the importance of the 1755 John Mitchell Map. John Mitchell was born in 1711 in Lancaster County, and went on to study medicine in Scotland. He practiced medicine in the Urbanna area for a few years before relocating to London. According to The Unlikely Story of the Map that Helped Create our Nation, the Earl of Halifax commissioned Mitchell to create a map of the British and French North American territories. Mitchell finished the map in 1755 (after the start of the French and Indian war), thoroughly detailing territories, colonies, forts, geography, distances, and towns. Though the map had a slightly British view, it became known as the “most important map in American history” after the American Revolution ended. During the 1783 Treaty of Paris, negotiators used the map to determine boundaries between Canada and the United States.

The Town of Urbanna purchased this first edition map in 1979 for $7,500 not fully realizing its importance. Later valued at more than $500,000, the town properly restored and safeguarded this national treasure. Preserved behind glass, visitors can closely inspect the map details or take in all 24 sq-ft from a nearby bench.

Lunch on the Water

DSC_0080We worked up an appetite after taking in so much history, so we drove a few minutes away for fresh seafood on the water at Shores & Roark Seafood. Bill enjoyed freshly caught fish tacos, while the girls and I shared a dozen steamed local crabs and oysters. The food tasted fabulous and the restaurant’s waterfront atmosphere provided amazing views of the river. The restaurant is part seafood company, so you can watch your live catch before it reaches your plate!

I’m looking forward to spending my first Fourth of July weekend in our Winnebago in such a historic area. The towns of Urbanna and Irvington organize annual parades and celebrations and Grey’s Point will be busy with fun activities, too.

Later down the road I’d love to visit the nearby National Historic Register colonial plantations of Ralph Wormeley’s Rosegill and Christoper Robinson’s Hewick, and attend the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

Thumbs up: breathtaking river views, small-town charm, area’s rich history, local seafood, beautiful places to stay

Thumbs down: nothing to report

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