“Katina – Ghost Nanny of Fall Hill Plantation” – Part 2

This post is a follow-on to my earlier post:  The Thornton Family’s Fredericksburg Mansion – Part 1

The following story is about Katina, a Sioux Indian Princess slave passed on by Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia upon his death, to the Thornton family who had intermarried with the Spotswoods. Case File-Fall Hill Plantation

The following article was originally published on Fredericksburg.com on October 26, 2002, by DONNA CHASEN, a freelance writer living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and ROBERT A. MARTIN, a staff photographer–both with The Free Lance-Star:

FALL HILL sits on a hilltop in Fredericksburg, high above the natural fall line of the Rappahannock River. However, the river is hidden from view and the roar of its waters muffled by the thick, dense forest of ancient oaks and tulip poplars that shroud the mansion. Although bordered by roads, traffic and ever-encroaching development, Fall Hill remains isolated by acres of trees, trenches, thickets and steep riverbanks. Legend has it that the mansion, built in the early 1700s, was set back from the river to protect the family from the pirates that sailed the waters of the Rappahannock at that time. In this setting, Fall Hill presents a feeling of quiet calmness that many attribute to the haunting presence of its longtime “resident,” Katina.   Katina was a Sioux Indian princess who was given as a gift to Gov. Alexander Spotswood while he was living in Williamsburg. When Spotswood moved to the Germanna settlement, he brought Katina along with his family. At his death, she was passed on to the Thorntons, whose family had intermarried with the Spotswoods. The Thorntons had settled in Fredericksburg where they built a small home named The Falls, located where the George Washington Executive Center now stands on Princess Anne Street. They soon built Fall Hill, where they were living when Katina joined the family, raising three generations of the family’s children during her long life. Katina was a much-loved member of the Thornton family, serving as nanny to the family’s young. When she died in 1777, at a very old age, the family grieved as if they had lost one of their own. According to family legend, one son, Francis Thornton, was inconsolable at her passing. Katina was buried under six massive oaks at Fall Hill. The actual grave site is a family secret handed down to only a very select few. Butler Franklin, longtime resident of Fall Hill, said that when she was 9, she came to live at the estate that would be her home for most of her life. When she arrived at Fall Hill, her grandfather took her by the hand and told her that he was going to show her the grave of their old family nurse. He showed her a little grave marked by a granite stone. There was no inscription as Katina, although much loved by the family, was still a slave at that time, and the family had to be careful not to show partiality by engraving her gravestone. Sightings of Katina have been documented throughout the years and her presence is still very obvious today. Many years ago, author Marguerite DuPont Lee devoted an entire chapter in her book, “Virginia Ghosts” to Fall Hill’s Indian governess. Bessie Taylor Robinson, who lived at Fall Hill in the 1920s, reported that many people had told her that they had seen Katina walking about the grounds and the mansion as if looking for her companions of years ago. Franklin knew of three other people who said they had seen Katina personally. One of the witnesses was Franklin’s deceased mother. Another was Alice Dickson of New York, a close friend of Mrs. Franklin’s mother. Franklin described Dickson, a New York publisher as “a clever and hard-boiled woman.” Dickson was a guest at Fall Hill in 1938, spending the night in the nursery when she saw “a little old Indian woman with long dark plaits appear accompanied by a small boy with knee breeches and wearing a periwig.” Franklin presumed that the boy was Francis Thornton, who “wept copiously” at Katina’s death. Dickson thought that the couple were residents who had dressed up to amuse her, but when she spoke to them, they disappeared into thin air. Franklin would tell visitors that when her grandfather’s great-grandfather lived at Fall Hill, Katina brought him up and taught him how to speak her native language. She was adept at woodcrafts and taught the children how to make woven baskets and how to catch partridges to put in them. She would lie in the leaves of the forest surrounding Fall Hill, covered up for hours, mimicking a partridge’s cry until the children could capture their future pets. Although Katina has now become somewhat of a local legend, her existence is surprisingly well-documented. William Byrd III, in an account of his visit in 1732, noted that the Indian servant was held in high esteem by the governor’s wife. He noted that he had given her the largest tip that he had ever presented to a servant. Spotsylvania County court records confirm another bit of legend about the Indian maiden. In 1724, Sawney, an Indian whose job was to take mail from the Colonial capital in Williamsburg to Gov. Spotswood in Germanna, arrived there with some letters. Sawney had evidently stopped for “refreshment” along the way and was feeling no pain when he arrived at Spotswood’s door. He demanded to see Katina, from whom he wanted a kiss. Spotswood was away, but his aide refused to admit Sawney in his “impaired” condition. Sawney called the aide a fool and took a swing at him. In his rage, he also tore up the letters that he had been sent to deliver. This landed him in the Spotsylvania court, where the incident is documented to this day. In “The Ghosts of Fredericksburg” by L.B. Taylor, Katina has the honor of being the subject of the first chapter. Taylor interviewed Franklin, as she was still in residence in 1991 when this book was published. Franklin, well over 100 today, is still a resident of the city of Fredericksburg, but due to ill health had to leave the home that she so loved several years ago. Franklin spoke to Taylor of the time when two boys were home from school for vacation (in the 1920s) and were staying in the nursery. She related how the following morning, one of the boys came down the stairs and asked Bessie Taylor Robinson if she had visited his room during the night. She replied that she had not and asked the child why he asked. He told her that “an old woman with black braids” had come into the room during the night and had disappeared through the wall at the head of the bed. Robinson experienced personal encounters with Katina as well. After coming home from a meeting late one night, as she stood in the hall she witnessed a figure coming out of the room in which her young son was sleeping. She checked the house and found all family members safely sleeping and all of the doors locked and the windows shut. She was convinced that she had witnessed Katina making her rounds, checking on the sleeping children. Franklin herself had one encounter with Katina. She had never seen the spirit and somewhat doubted the stories and legends that swirled around the Indian princess. In Taylor’s book, Franklin relates her experience and adds her story to the legend. “I had been away for a while and I was in bed, wide awake, reading. I had my little granddaughter in the house with me. We had just recently lost her father, and it was a period of considerable stress, as you can imagine. I had never seen a ghost of any description before, although, of course, I was well aware of the stories about Katina. I never thought I would see her, and to be truthful, I was never quite convinced that anyone had seen her. Imagination can do a lot of things, you know. “But I definitely wasn’t dreaming. I was alert. Then, at the foot of my bed there appeared this darkly beautiful face. She just looked at me with those dark Indian eyes. Her expression never changed, but it seemed like she had a look of great concern. I interpreted it to mean that I had better take good care of my granddaughter. She was just there for an instant and then she was gone. But I have no question that she was real.” One mystery regarding Katina was solved during Franklin’s decades at Fall Hill. Most of the sightings of Katina had been near the top of the stairs, where she would seem to walk through the wall. Franklin told Taylor that “years ago, we stripped off the old wallpaper in that room. We discovered that during the 1800s there were some alterations made in the house. At the spot where Katina appears to walk through the wall, there was, under the wallpaper, an old sealed-up doorway. It was a second door to that bedroom. I believe it was once the nursery.” Franklin related that during a thunderstorm, one of the towering oaks surrounding Katina’s final resting place fell to the ground, completely covering up her grave. She said that Katina had not been seen since. However, recently Fall Hill changed hands and was purchased by Barry and Maureen Kefauver. The Kefauvers have lovingly restored Fall Hill and are currently enjoying life there. Katina has made her presence known to “Mo” Kefauver on at least two occasions. Mo Kefauver found old chandeliers in the cellar of the house and was restoring and re-hanging them. She was working on one that had an entire piece missing out of it and was just about ready to hang it with the one piece missing. She went back down to the basement for some other item and noticed that she had left the light on in the closet where she stores the pieces of items that she is working on for the house. As she opened the door, there, between two boxes of odds and ends, where nothing had been before, was the missing section, in perfect condition and sparkling clean. She attached it to the chandelier and when hanging it up, felt the urge to whisper “Thank you” over her shoulder. One night, she was recuperating from a migraine of several days duration. She awoke around four in the morning with the headache completely gone. She arose, washed her face and went back to bed. As she lay there in the darkness, fully awake, she distinctly felt a woman’s hand lovingly stroke her cheek, much as a mother would an ailing child. She is adamant that it was not her husband, who was asleep beside her. The touch was that of a loving caregiver such as a mother or nursemaid. The front bedroom at the top of the stairs is historically the scene of many Katina encounters. One of the Kefauvers’ sons complained to his mother that he was too hot when he slept in the room as she kept pulling the blankets up to his chin. Mo Kefauver continues the story: “He hesitated mentioning this as the gesture was so loving–but reminded me that he never required winter blankets. I had never gone into his room at night.” Before Fall Hill was sold, historic preservation students from Mary Washington College were able to go to the mansion to research the structure and to take measurements. One student who spent many hours alone in the house said that he always felt the presence of someone beside him as he worked. He did not feel afraid or threatened but definitely felt the presence nearby, perhaps overlooking his work there. He never actually saw Katina but was convinced that she was there with him. Mo Kefauver relates, “The moment we drove down the lane to Fall Hill, there was an immediate connection. Many years of searching taught us that old properties have distinct personalities, not all of which are friendly. Katina loved this house, especially the surrounding wood. You feel that presence in the form of an owl that flies and follows you from tree to tree as you garden outside or the unexplained sound of children laughing in the woods at 3 a.m.” Families come and go, some spend generations at the grand old house, but time passes on, and only Katina remains constant. She still serves the owners of this old estate, never ending in her role as caregiver and comforter to the young or ill who live or visit there. There is a sense of safeness and comfort that encompasses the house and surrounding land that is directly associated with her presence. She is the true mistress of Fall Hill.


Fredericksburg.com – Nanny of Fall Hill.

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