Sperryville & Sister Caroline

Sister Caroline's History

The neatest bits of history can turn up just around the corner. Most of my musings have focused on grand historic sites around the world, but as I explore my new surroundings I can see that I don’t need to travel 2,000 miles to see something cool.

I haven’t had much time to comment on history lately because I’ve been too busy teaching history. Last August I decided to give up my cushy analyst’s job and get my license to teach history. It was a tough 16 weeks but I finished the program thanks to Troops to Teachers. After a two week vacation to New England and Canada I began my job search in earnest. At first I thought I was going to accept a job at Virginia Beach, but instead decided to teach in a small town in Virginia.

Teaching World History to High School students is no easy task, but it is certainly rewarding. I think it helps that I have been to many of the places that I teach. With all of that going on, plus getting all of the new teacher illnesses, I haven’t had much time to travel. I thought I was going to go on a holiday tour to Turkey, but decided to save my money for summer vacation. Now that I have a semester of teaching under my belt, I’ve had time to go out and explore my new surroundings.

This weekend I had a chance to visit Sperryville, Virginia. I’ve been through this little town several times going to and from Shenandoah National Park, but I didn’t pay it much attention until last weekend. I discovered several hidden gems within a few blocks’ walking distance. I ended up having lunch at the Thornton River Grille and the food is insanely good! They have burgers, salads, delicious sweet tea and everything in between. The restaurant is of course in a historc building that also houses a pizza parlor and a country store. The history of this building alone makes Sperryville worth the visit.

Central Coffee Roasters SperryvilleWhat better way to top off lunch than a coffee? Not just any coffee but a coffee roasted right here in town. I passed what I thought was a coffee shop when trying to decide what to eat for lunch. We thought that it was just a short walk up the road. Little did I know that the journey to the coffee roaster would be a 1.5 mile walk along US 211, with no sidewalk in 30 degree weather. After 30 minutes of trekking we finally arrived at a place that smelled like coffee heaven. The name of the place is Central Coffee Roasters, and I can honestly say that I have never smelled anything as good. Sampling is free and a full cup is only $1.00. I had a hard time deciding but I finally selected the Peruvian Blend. I could use this coffee as an air freshener; it smells so good. As I was checking out I mentioned to the guy behind the counter (who was super nice and helpful) that I was going to use the beans for my Aero Press. He took the coffee to the back and ground it specifically for the press. You can’t ask for better service (or better coffee).

Even though lunch and coffee really made the day, the trip was about Sperryville’s history. The town is right on the Virginia Civil War Trails, and historic homes line the streets. One story from the Civil War that I doubt is told very often is the story of Caroline Terry, aka Sister Caroline. She was born into slavery in 1833, and died a respected member of the community in 1941. The historic marker describing her life is right next to Copper Fox Antiques, and the Headmaster’s Pub, both of which are located in an old schoolhouse. I almost didn’t walk down to view the marker, but once I did it led to another adventure (to find her grave).

Sister Caroline Young and Old

Sister Caroline wasn’t born in Sperryville, but she spent much of her life there. She seems to have been a collector of military relics, some of which remain in the possession of her descendants. Caroline acquired a Union soldier’s revolver and binoculars, which she reportedly hid under her maternity clothes while assisting in the soldier’s burial. Caroline was eventually freed, bought a small house and ended up helping establish Hopewell Baptist Church. She is buried about a mile down the road from her historic marker. Not content to just read about her life, I was moved to find her grave before leaving Sperryville. The cemetery where she is buried is on a steep hill on Oven Top Road. You’ll miss the family cemetery (as I did) if you don’t pay attention. The site is in the woods on the left hand side a short distance up Oven Top Road. My little Nissan Rouge actually made it up the hill in two inches of snow with no problems. Right up the hill (along with hundreds of animal tracks) lies the final resting place of this fascinating figure.

Caroline Terry as a Young Woman

I’m sure the little I know about Caroline Terry is just a fraction of the story of her life. Her great-grandson published a collection of her stories in Beyond the Rim: From Slavery to Redemption in Rappahannock County, Virginia, which I intend to read. I would like to know and share more about the life of this interesting woman in Sperryville’s history. Sister Caroline’s story, like the stories of so many others whose lives and histories are ignored in the shadow of great events, deserves to be heard.

Sperryville Burial Site Caroline Terry

If you’re driving through Rappahannock County on the way to Shenandoah National Park, be sure to stop in Sperryville for the food and coffee, stay for the history, and pay your respects to Sister Caroline’s burial site.

Listen to Caroline Terry Remembered on YouTube

African American Heritage in Sperryville

More about Caroline Terry


  1. Great story Jen. I always had an eye out when I visited Shannon in C’Ville. Always wanted to go back and check things out. Thanks for the motivation.

  2. Isn’t the Thornton River Grille great?! I grew up not too far from Sperryville and love that little piece of Virginia – beautiful scenery and great wineries nearby. I’d never heard of Sister Caroline, but it sounds like she led an interesting life. We really are spoiled for history in Virginia.

  3. Thank you for this really interesting article on a place and time far removed from my own. I am really really thankful for the first picture that goes into detail about Sister Caroline’s life. When I read that she was “purchased” I was aghast that human beings could buy and sell one another. But then I reminded myself of my own history, that is, the history of white Australia and it’s treatment of Aborigines. Although they were not technically slaves to my knowledge, up until 1967 they were not included as human beings in the Australian census statistics. They were regarded as “flora and fauna” from the day of first settlement up until the passing of the 1967 referendum which granted the Aborigines essentially the rights of citizenship within their own country. Even today as with African Americans in the United States, there are still serious historical injustices to be acknowledged and dealt with in a proper and just way. But getting the word out about the history of a people and a place helps to break the cycle of injustices perpetuating. It’s not enough to break that cycle but it is a start. And for that I am immensely grateful.

  4. HI Jen,

    I am a descendent of Sister Caroline (I believe she was my grandmother’s grandmother). Thanks for stopping by to visit her burial site, and sharing her story with others. I hope to visit it someday soon. 🙂

    With love,


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