Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grace Sherwood: The Witch of Pungo

(A street sign near Grace Sherwood's statue and near Witchduck Road, which leads to the river where she was ducked)

As promised, Mom and I went in search of some local history Tuesday. We set out to search and learn more about Grace Sherwood, "The Witch of Pungo." As I've said before she was the only person in Virginia tried for witch craft and she is the last documented trial in North America. Mom and I started our search at the place all people should start their searches. At the beginning. Or in this place that would be the place where she was tried for witch craft. That place is now a church (oh irony, I love thee). But across the street from it is a hospital and it is there that we find the statue to commemorate her memory.

One woman, Belinda Nash, took the initiative to campaign for 7 years to get Grace Sherwood's name cleared after 300 years of her being judge guilty of witch craft. Grace's story, at least the main version of it, is on a plaque at the base of her statue.

In case you can't read it the plaque says,

"The Trial of 1706
At Witchduck Point, 10 AM July 10th 1706 Grace Sherwood, the daughter of a carpenter and the wife of a planter in the county of Princess Anne, was accused by neighbors of the witchcraft. Grace was tried in the Second Princess Anne County Courthouse, found guilty, and consented to the traditional trial by water. Grace was tied cross bound and dropped into the water above man's depth. If she were to sink and drown she was innocent and could be buried on holy ground, Grace did float, thus was guilty as the pure water was casting out her evil spirit. She was incarcerated in the local jail beyond this statue. After her release, Grace paid the back taxes on her property in 1714, returned to her farm and worked the land until her death at age 80 in the Autumn of 1740. Grace Sherwood, Virginia's only convicted witch tried by water, she lays claim to Witchduck Road. Her legend lives on as "THE INFAMOUS WITCH OF PUNGO"

From there Mom and I journeyed to two different historical houses. The first one called "The Lynnhaven House" which is about 5 minutes away from the statue. We thought we would get some information there. I had visited here once as a child in search of the "Witch of Pungo" and remembered the tour guide giving me some information about her. Unfortunately, this house has no connection to Grace Sherwood, but it did serve as a very pretty place and got Mom and I in the mood for more historical sleuthing. The wind was blowing in a crazy manor and it just felt like the world was a buzz with something. We walked the ground and looked around a bit. I took some nifty photos of random nature and artifacts and then we headed out.
After that we felt a little miffed though. WE honestly had NO IDEA of where to look next. There really isn't much information on the Internet about Grace Sherwood aside form her trial. We took a chance and road another 5 minutes away to a house known as "The Ferry Farm Plantation House." I'm not gonna lie, besides being a plantation built in the 1830's that is now just one lone house that resides in the back yards of about 6 different houses (when I say back yards I mean literally you could see into their houses from this houses front door), it really was a pretty fruitless place. Mom and I almost bailed and went home early, but Mom pushed on and decided since we haven't been into this house before to go ahead and take the tour. Maybe it would offer something, a clue, anything. So we took the tour, it was pretty fruitless. Interesting and very informative (you know I'm a history nerd, so I soak it all in like a sponge), but pretty fruitless. Then it happened. The tour lady mentioned Grace Sherwood. AHA! I thought. and I ran with it and Mom and I told her about our wanting to know more and our guide said that the other lady down stairs who does tours is the house expert on Grace and that after the tour she would introduce us to her. After the tour, we met the lady and she gave us an amazing history on Grace. Are you ready for it? This is my condensed version of our talk. Grace was born an only child to her father and mother. Her father was a carpenter and during the growing months he was a farmer and her mother was a healer. So Grace grew up with the best of both worlds. She grew up knowing about natural medicines and how to treat ailments from her mother and she grew up knowing the land and the sky from her father. She married a farmer and and they stayed local and lived directly across from her parents. Every two weeks Grace would go to church at the Lynnhaven Parish via a ferry and was actually in really good standing with the congregation. But something happened, Grace's parents died and left she and her husband over 100 acres of land. In case you're wondering, that's A LOT of land! Next her husband died. And this left all of that land to Grace. Grace had 3 sons and made the decision to not remarry, that was not how the tradition went. She was supposed to remarry and stay doing her wifely duties. She decided not to, for whatever reason, and this made her neighbors very jealous. Back in history land equaled your wealth and stature in society, and here was a woman breaking all the rules and refusing to do as society deemed fit. Grace was brought to court 12 times before she was convicted. Each time it was by a neighbor and each time it was for something bogus. Once she was a witch because she was a farmer and wore pants, another time it was because someones cow dried up and Grace put a hex on it, or another time someones cotton field withered and Grace hexed it. The final trial occurred because Grace was accused of causing a miscarriage of a woman. What people don't know is that a few months before she was accused, the woman and Grace got in an altercation and left Grace with bruises. Grace sued the woman and her husband for assault and battery and won the court case. Grace was tried and was taken to the higher courts in Williamsburg. The thing is that when "women cluttered the court with gossip," as it was put, then they were hung in the gallows. The courts said that there needed to be proof and that Grace's house was to be searched for talisman, charms, anything to prove her guilt. When her house was searched NOTHING could be found. So the next thing to be done was to examine graces body of marking for the devil. Two moles were found that didn't look like any other moles that the women examiners had seen before (or so they said). And so Grace was convicted of witch craft and she consented to be tried by water. Unfortunately, the people were unaware that Grace was an excellent swimmer. Before Grace was tossed the people of the town had camped out around the river banks to watch the night before and as she arrived the all started chanting, "Duck the witch! Duck the witch!" Before she was thrown into the water she said, "Before this day be through you will all get a worse ducking then I." Grace was tossed over board, she sunk to the bottom and swam back to the surface, proving her evil soul being rejected from the water. Next they strapped a 12 pound family Bible onto her neck tossed her into the water hoping to drown her once and for all. But Grace sank to the bottom untied the Bible and herself and swam to the surface. Then she continued to swim around the river laughing at everyone. Now you remember her final words.... go back, reread them...... I'll wait... ok you got it? The very moment they were pulling Grace from the river and back into the boat it started to rain. Everyone on the banks got scared and packed up and ran for cover. Epic right? All of this is true and can be found in the court records. Grace spent the next 7 years of her life in jail until she was finally released. After which, she reclaimed her land, got back her sons, and lived the rest of her days out on her land until she was 80. The only remainders of her house are just bricks. Not many people know where to find the ruins of her house, they are tucked away and hidden out in what here in the area we call the boons, or BFE ( meaning it's nothing but farm land and it's the middle of nowher, cell phone coverage is crap out there!) But now, I know where to find them! Wanna know how? The lady telling me story, she is Belinda Nash herself!

The women who fought for 7 years to exonerate Grace. Can you believe I actually met the lady and got to talk to her not only about all the side information she knows about Grace but also about Nash's struggle and fight for Grace. Yep, I had an amazingly lucky day! Coincidence? I think not. So we went on a search for the history of Grace Sherwood and after being thwarted actually ended the day meeting the incredible woman responsible for not only giving Grace her good name back but also all of her living descendants as well. You just don't realize the stigma that your ancestors convictions can have 300 years later. There are women, Sherwood's, The last of Grace's ties and to this day they still get talked about as being descended from witches. Now some of you might embrace that thought. What's wrong with being a witch?

Today, nothing. But to be a witch convicted in the 1700's meant to be malicious, devious, and that you were doing things to cause others harm. In my eyes Grace will always be a witch, but in the terms of today's world. She was a healer who was very close to the cycles of the Earth. She refused to live by anyone's standards but her own. She was a strong, independent woman who embraced life and what it threw out at her. She believed in the old ways and because of that it set her far beyond her time. She was a woman the future, even then. For this, Grace is a role model, even 300 years later. Witch? maybe. Woman? absolutely!

I hope this was informative to you. It was an eye opener to me. I was fascinated by Grace Sherwood because of the mystery of her being a witch. Now, I find myself fascinated by her because she was an incredible woman.


  1. I have recently found out I am a direct descendant of Grace White Sherwood through my genealogical quest. I am a direct descendant on my mothers "white" side heritage. I am intrigued by the information presented and would like to learn more about my ancestors. If you could contact me I anticipate any resources you could provide in my quest.

  2. I also am an ancestor of Grace....John Sherwood here in Northern Michigan.

  3. Grace was my 8th GGM on my father's side (Sims/Symes). I want to thank you and the others for doing all that you did to have her exonerated. I am proud to know that she was my grandmother. I plan to visit the area this summer and would love to meet you. Thanks again.

    1. We are related! She is my 10th great grandmother through my grandmothers side. Her maternal grandmother was a Sims.

    2. If this is correct than we should be cousins im direvtly related on my moms side supposedly she is my 10th ggm aswell

  4. My name is Libby Sherwood. I'm a descendent of Grace on my father's side. I knew not of Graces' existence until my half-sister decided to do some digging on and found out that she was our ancestor. Sadly, I don't know exactly how I am related to her, but I take pride in it, nonetheless. This was a very informative and entertaining piece. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I am related directly to Grace Sherwood through my Whitehurst line. I didn't know of her history until today. She sounds very brave indeed.

  6. Do you know where her 100 acres of land is located. I've read that it is near Pungo on the banks of Muddy Creek. This Creek is now called Ashville Bridge Creek. Do you know the modern address?

  7. Do you know where her 100 acres of land is located. I've read that it is near Pungo on the banks of Muddy Creek. This Creek is now called Ashville Bridge Creek. Do you know the modern address?

  8. Im also directly related supposedly shes my 9th ggm on my moma side. I figured i could see what other family i didmt know i had so its good to meet everyone hopefully were all right bc tpeople would all be related especially with the people im seeing like 8th ggm and 10th ggm. Hope to talk to some new family. Bye everyone

  9. I'm also supposedly a direct descendent (8th ggm?)through the Whitehurst connection.I'm headed from Louisiana to see her statue next week.First heard about her more than fifty years ago from my great aunt who worked as a clerk in the Princess Anne courthouse.Thank you for this. It's the most I've read since my Aunt Bernice gave me copies of the court records more than fifty years ago. My favorite tale about her was they claimed she brought a sprig of rosemary from England on a trip she made in an eggshell!