Whenever I was studying American History in school, it always felt like the unit about the American Revolution was the longest. That’s probably because it was the beginning of the school year, and the teachers were somewhat luxuriant with (or ignorant of) time and spent three days on the Stamp Act alone. (This, of course, would lead to a wallop in May of learning about World War I on a Monday and World War II on a Tuesday.)
I didn’t learn I was actually considered a Daughter of the American Revolution until well after high school (when some of those scholarships would have come in handy). Of course, DAR has a somewhat sullied history of being racist and segregationist, which is unfortunate (though presumably remedied), but the idea of drawing a sense of pride from having a direct familial tie to the birth of your country is pretty cool. I’m also in the illustrious company of fellow DAR such as Laura Bush, Janet Reno, Bo Derek and Rory Gilmore.
When I was in Virginia this past summer, Andrew (who is, of course, a son of the American Revolution) and I reconnected with the relative to whom we trace our status by driving to Rocky Mount, Virginia, to try to find the Robert Hill fort.
Robert Hill emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1740. (My mom suspects he could have been an English landowner in Ireland, but it is not known for certain.) He and his wife, Violet, originally lived in Pennsylvania but later moved South to become the first permanent settlers of Franklin County, Va., with 1,700 acres to their name. One account in the family history, excerpted from “Pioneer Families of Franklin County, Virginia” by Marshall Wingfield, notes that Violet—maiden name Linus—“was a member of an old Roman family that went from Italy to the British Isles shortly after the Roman conquest. An effort has been made to identify her family with that of an early Bishop of the Christian Church, but… there are no authentic records to establish that connection.”
The Hill settlement was built in 1743 in what would become Rocky Mount. The stone house was designed as a fort to protect the Hill clan from Indian attacks, but to that end, it wasn’t so successful. Two of Robert Hill’s five sons were killed by Indians—one by an arrow and one by a tomahawk. A third was killed by a panther or a bucking horse.
The house stayed in the family until 1917, but most of it was destroyed by a fire in 1960. The owner at the time, former Franklin County Circuit Court Judge B.A. “Monk” Davis III, allegedly stuffed four of the house’s five chimneys with dynamite and exploded them. The rest was bulldozed, save for the original chimney. Today, that is all that remains, standing just off the property of the Christian Heritage Academy.
That’s where we found ourselves on a mild July Wednesday. After calling the town historical society to get some directions — one thing I learned on this trip is not to task Andrew with making calls for directions, since details like writing down said received directions tended to escape him — we eventually found the school and, off to the side, the remains of the fort.
There’s not a whole lot left — a fireplace and half a wall, really — but it was a powerful experience to know that this very ground is where some of my first relatives to step foot on American soil had sat here, warmed themselves, took shelter from the wilderness around them.
The site was designated a Franklin County Historic Site in 2005, and the locals had erected an information kiosk that included a brief audio overview of the history of the fort. It was weird to look at the list of donors to the Robert Hill Fort Preservation Project and, first of all, see some Hills and wonder how closely we were related and, two, not help but feel some sense of gratitude to these total strangers who had chipped in to help preserve some of my family heritage. They don’t know me, and I’ll never know them, but we’re connected in some weird way nonetheless.
So, how does the Revolutionary War play into all of this? While Robert Hill died one year into the War, his family took an active role throughout. Violet helped supply food to American soldiers and their animals, and both living sons—Thomas and Swinfield—fought in the war. It is through Swinfield, who went on to become a prominent local judge, that Andrew and I receive our designation.
After Andrew and I were done seeing the fort, we set out to find the Tanyard Road cemetery, where we knew at least some of the Hill clan were buried. Without real directions, our effort consisted mainly of plugging Tanyard Road into the GPS and hoping we spotted something on the side of the road. Sure enough, next to the National Guard headquarters, there was the cemetery. We found markers for Robert, Violet and Thomas — for Robert and Violet, their original markers were complemented by more recent ones that noted their involvement in the Revolutionary War and were accompanied by American flags; Thomas had just the newer marker and flag. It was an amazing feeling to be able to visit the gravesites of some of my earliest American ancestors and pay our respects.
. . .
When I was walking to work the other morning, I was reminded of all of this when I passed a sign, painted state park brown, that read “Revere’s Ride.” I happen to retrace a fair portion of Paul Revere’s midnight ride on my normal walk to work. As you may remember, Paul’s ride went right past my neighborhood, but it continues on past the street where I work in Medford. When I walked past the sign, I thought back not only to our visit to the Robert Hill Fort, but all of my various tangential connections to the American Revolution. Living in Massachusetts, sure, you can’t help but be surrounded by them, whether it’s walking the Freedom Trail or visiting the location of the shot heard ’round the world. (In fact, I’ve seen the reenactment of Revere’s ride twice, and William Dawes’ oft-forgotten ride once — two of those three times entirely by accident.) And to be fair, being a direct descendant of someone who fought in the Revolutionary War is not a particularly rare designation.
But to have visited the Virginia homestead and gravesites who helped fan the flames of revolution in their own small way, and then to come back home and realize I am — and always have been — surrounded by a story to which I have a newly realized personal connection, is pretty humbling and amazing. Sure, Violet Hill is no Paul Revere, but the overall narrative is shared. And I am a descendant and inheritor of that narrative. I touched the stone ruins of the Robert Hill Fort and walked on the Battle Green in Lexington, and in some way, those two sites are connected.
If only I’d known that sitting in American History class, learning about the Stamp Act for the fifth time and wondering what was the point.