History of Belmead

Belmead on the James is 2,265 acres of breathtaking natural beauty and historical importance on the James River.

Belmead is home to hundreds of species of animals, plants, and to some of the most important historical and religious events in American history. Belmead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 due to its historical and environmental significance.


In 1838, Philip St. George Cocke purchased the property and commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis, a renowned American Architect, to design the Belmead Mansion. To discover more about Alexander Jackson Davis’ architectural gem at Belmead visit the Belmead display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, New York. Belmead is one of the last remaining southern examples of A.J. Davis’ work. Instead of following the classical architectural design of most plantations on the James River, General Cocke allowed Davis to take a unique approach and design and draft plans for what would become the only manor home on the James River Plantation tour in Gothic Revival Style.


Belmead took new life when it was purchased in 1897 by Katharine Drexel and her sister. Under Katharine’s ownership, Belmead became a self-sufficient entity for the education of young African American and Native American students. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament transformed the former plantation into two private high schools, St. Francis De Sales and St Emma Military Academy. Together these schools educated more than 15,000 over an 80 years period. This was the first private learning institution for minorities. Katharine later became one of the only two American-born saints in the Roman Catholic Church.


In the 1970s, St Francis De Sales and St Emma Military Academy were closed. Since the schools closed, the property has been inhabited by the members of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In 2016 the property was put up for sale and sold to the Oakley family in 2019. The Oakley family is currently developing a plan for the protection of the history and the environment while making forward progress on structural restoration and revitalization of activities that thrive on the property.

Belmead Environment & Nature

Belmead has over 600 acres of wetlands and floodplains, 2.8 miles on the James River, two perennial streams, and several intermittent streams that adds up to more than 51,000 linear feet of waterways. Many forms of topography and over a dozen species of trees exist on the plantation today. Over 400 acres of crop fields exist on the property. Soil types are conducive for excellent yields for soybeans, corn, and wheat. 150 bird species have been identified at Belmead. A total of 36 species of turtles, snakes, and salamanders are found at Belmead. 26 species of fish are found at Belmead. Many of these birds, reptiles and fish are found on Virginias endangered list. All three of Virginia’s big game animals can be found at Belmead.