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BLOG: Santillane~Worthy of American History

COVID-19 came along just as I was finishing up my work on the Antonius Trilogy. Travel was a necessity for me in building my characters' worlds in those books, so with travel restrictions mandated, closures of museums and historic sites as safety measures, I found myself in a quandary about how to approach a new project--one that wouldn't involve extensive travel. And I'm sure other authors were dealing with similar frustrations!

Fortunately, I live in Virginia, home to the first four U.S. Presidents, a state pitted with battlefields, presidential homes, and grandiose historic sites like Jamestown, Williamsburg--need I go on? Yet, these places have all become iconic; their stories retold in a plethora of voices.

For my next project, I wanted a unique individual, new to the reader, and worthy of a place in history alongside more well-known counterparts. If you scroll through my many blogs from this year, you'll see that way back in June, I shared about my new protagonist: Julia Hancock Clark. (below right)

We actually know precious little about her, so it's been a delight to invent her character as I've gleaned more and more about her time and the men surrounding her. I wanted to recreate her personality, what she looked like, how she perceived herself--everything that is personal and intimate about the human anima.

That being said, it's my personal belief that the art of world-building in historical fiction should be just as fleshed-out. After all, the period, place, and culture of an author's story must be virtually seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and touched by a reader for the story to be gripping and un-put-downable. As it turned out, I didn't have anything to fear in that regard, for I lived literally in the same County as Julia Hancock Clark did, two-hundred years ago, so why not write her tale? Fortunately, (by a real act of God) I wound up having access to her home turf, which is still privately-owned. So this is what I want to discuss in this blog post: Santillane. (below)

The homestead of Santillane is a stately brick Federalist home, built in the late 18th century; the kitchen hearth dates to 1795. Because the house was brick indicates that George Hancock--Julia's father--was truly showing off his wealth. Most homes in the vicinity of the small village of Fincastle, the seat of Botetourt Country, Virginia, were log, stone, a combination of both, or clapboard. Each red-clay brick comprising Santillane’s sturdy construction was crafted on site by George Hancock's enslaved black-Americans, and if one looks carefully during a visit, it’s possible to see fingerprints from these original builders on the house’s exterior. These bricks themselves are testimony to the tragic history of slavery that was a paradox of the very democracy and freedom for which American founding fathers had fought.

On the far right of the main house is the kitchen wing with its magnificent fireplace, built around 1795. Just outside the kitchen is an impressive smoke-house with a lovely lattice-like design in its brickwork where smoke was allowed to escape high up the walls.

Upon entering the house, it’s impossible not to notice the original locks, cast in England and still in use today. (at left)

The entry and back doors were built purposefully to remain open during the heat of summer, inviting breezes to cool the entryway. (at right)

Visitors in the early 19th century—such as William Clark—would have been invited into the drawing room. (at left) Here, George Hancock conducted business of both a professional and personal nature, and it may have been the very place where Clark asked Hancock for Julia’s hand in marriage.

Across from the drawing room is the library, (at right) which may have briefly housed a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, given to Julia Hancock by Clark's dear friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis as a wedding gift. Indeed, part of the draw to this old house remains the fact that both Lewis and Clark were guests here. In fact, on January 5th, 1808, it was at Santillane that William Clark married Julia, just months prior to the couple’s move to St. Louis, in what was then the vast Louisiana Territory, recently purchased by the United States from France, in what has long been called the Louisiana Purchase.

William Clark

Clark’s participation in the well-known Corps of Discovery expedition west led to President Thomas Jefferson bestowing upon him the rank of Brigadier General of militia and a post as head of Indian Affairs in what was then known as the Louisiana Territory. However, this meant that the couple would be living in a frontier town, and Julia faced much loneliness and hardship, for St. Louis was little more than a rough-shod village at the time. Built up along the Mississippi River, it was full of disgruntled natives from numerous tribes, drunken fur-trappers, rugged boatmen, and prostitutes. It would have been a tough environment for an innocent, young sixteen-year old bride from cultured Virginia to set up house-keeping. But Julia gritted her teeth and did so—and I'll add here that she did it while carrying her first child, for even before leaving Virginia, she and William Clark discovered they'd be parents early in the following year. Imagine dealing with the early stages of pregnancy while jostling about in a wagon, transferring to a long, mosquito-prone river journey down the Ohio River, then arriving in St. Louis, only to live in a cramped rental house, shared by both Meriwether Lewis (below at left) and Clark's visiting niece, Ann Anderson. This house was small enough that Clark resorted to hiring out his own slaves, since living space was so tight.

Julia was desperately homesick, but didn’t get to return to her beloved Santillane until late autumn in 1809. It was during this trip that she and William Clark faced several momentous tragedies, and by the time they were finally welcomed “home” by the Hancock family, Clark had little time to rest. He wound up setting off to what was then Washington City (present Washington D.C.) to meet with President Jefferson regarding some of Meriwether Lewis’s personal papers and to assume the responsibility of completing the Lewis & Clark Journals.

The completion of the Lewis & Clark Journals offered posterity a record of what was probably America's greatest adventure and exploration story--the documented history of the first transcontinental passage through North America by American citizens. It virtually opened the country for westward expansion and (sadly) the demise of Native American culture.

Clark's original elk-skin journal that

accompanied him to the Pacific.

And the compiling of the Journals under Clark's organization all began at Santillane, for as spring began to warm Virginia in 1810, the Clark and Hancock families hosted yet another important visitor: Nicholas Biddle. (at left) Biddle was Clark’s hire to organize and edit the vast compilation of journal material, and this process, under his auspices, began at Santillane.

Then, sometime in 1811, well after Julia and William Clark had returned to St. Louis, George Hancock recorded that a fire began on Santillane's roof during the night. With multiple fireplaces built into its design, it’s easy to imagine how a congested flue might have led to a roof fire. Though the extent of the actual damage is unknown, Hancock moved his family to another property he’d built in Elliston, a community nearer to Christiansburg, Virginia. With the Hancock's departure, Santillane passed into the hands of another notable family in Fincastle, the Bowyers.

In crafting my story, which takes place in both Fincastle and in St. Louis, it’s been a joy to research small-town life that was loaded with stories of the period. I’ve been able to meet and chat with people who have studied Fincastle’s lore and Lewis and Clark history in detail. Perhaps the most exhilarating experience was traveling to St. Louis and actually handling and reading documents signed by Lewis, Clark, and even Thomas Jefferson. There, I stretched my hand back through two-hundred years, carefully handling letters, lists, and speeches that were all part of Julia's tale. From the intricate design she embroidered on her son's baby-cap, the sure and graceful handwriting she used to inventory household possessions, her grand portrait alongside that of her hero-husband, as well as jewelry that once graced her lovely neck. At this point, upon writing this particular blog, I'm now in the middle of my second draft, tracing Julia’s life and marriage with William Clark, along with their adventures in St. Louis, up until the time of their return to Santillane and the editing of the Lewis & Clark Journals. Lewis, Clark, their slaves, rivals, the Hancock family, Fincastle town-folk, and Julia herself all play major roles in my upcoming novel about a young woman's life on America's burgeoning frontier.

And it all started with the true-to-life charisma and atmosphere of Santillane--a house worthy of historical note.

*Santillane remains a privately-owned property. Brook Allen is fortunate to have had access to the house for photographic and research purposes only. In 2022, Santillane will be the featured property on the Virginia Historic Garden Week guidebook cover. For more information on how to be a part of the driving tour which will include Santillane, visit:

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