The Ambler Family of Jamestown

Posted on August 15, 2017

The Ambler Family – an affluent Virginian family leaves behind a troubled soul.

The Ambler House Ruins
The Ambler House Ruins

Image Source: Mapio

At Colonial Ghosts, we love combining history lessons with ghost stories. In this post, we tell the tale of the scorned Lady Lydia Ambler, whose spirit continues to haunt Jamestown. Her affluent family is connected to much of Virginia’s origins and several famous historical figures.

The state of Virginia is divided into five physical regions. The area known as “Tidewater” (or Coastal Plain) is definitely the most paranormally active. Unsurprisingly, Colonial Williamsburg is located there.

Besides ghosts, Tidewater offers scenic views and interesting natural features. Many are very important to early American history. The Great Dismal Swamp, for instance, was where escaped African American slaves sought refuge during early 1700s. The Chesapeake Bay was the site of a pivotal Revolutionary War battle, during which a “mixed Franco-American force”1 successfully defeated the British navy. Then there is the famous James River, along which the first European colony was established.

Jamestown was founded on May 14, 1607 by a group of artisans, soldiers and craftsmen led by the famous explorer Captain John Smith. John Smith hailed from Willoughby, England. Before establishing Jamestown, he fought in many wars. During the great Dutch Revolt, for instance, he joined his fellow Protestants against the regime of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain. During the Long Turkish War, he led Austrians against the Turks. Battles took him throughout Europe and Northern Africa.

On December 20, 1606, Smith was sent by the Virginia Company to the New World. They instructed him “to colonize Virginia for profit.”2 Thanks to Smith’s good leadership, the colony managed to survive many hardships, including disease, famine, and Native American attacks. The winter of 1609 was especially tough. Known as the Starving Time, “two of every three colonists at James fort”3 died.

Throughout and after that terrible period, England sent many relief fleets to rescue survivors. Ships carried not just supplies, but smart businessmen and strong leaders. John Rolfe, for instance, turned tobacco into a very profitable cash crop for the colony. Lord de la Warr persuaded people to stay and not abandon the settlement.

By the mid-1600s, the fort could no longer support Jamestown’s rapidly growing population. New homes and buildings began popping up all around the peninsula. However, in 1699, the colony’s capital was moved to Williamsburg, and so much of Jamestown was abandoned. What was left “was divided into two separate sections, which were purchased by two affluent families – the Travises and the Amblers.”4

Despite Jamestown’s decline, the Amblers managed to make themselves quite comfortable there. Whether through marriage or by inheritance, they acquired many tracts of land. By the early nineteenth century, the Amblers controlled most of the island’s western end.

Richard Ambler was the first to arrive in Virginia. He immigrated to the colony from England in 1716 and initially made Yorktown his home. “In 1724, Richard Ambler drastically improved his status and wealth by marrying Elizabeth Jaquelin, heiress to a large tract of land on Jamestown Island.”5 From that year on, the Amblers quickly expanded both their dominion and influence. For instance, during the mid-1700s, Richard Ambler was in charge of inspecting and certifying ferries which sailed to and from the York River. After Richard passed away in February 1766, his sons (John, Edward and Jaquelin) took over.

Richard’s will divided his Yorktown and Jamestown properties between his three sons. Since John died shortly after Richard, his holdings were given to Edward, who was the oldest. Edward graduated from Cambridge and was a prominent citizen of affairs, in both Church and State. He, like John, served on the Virginia House of Burgesses. His wife, Mary Cary, also came from elitist roots. Her father was the esteemed Colonel Wilson Cary, a county lieutenant in the 1700s.

Like his two brothers, Jaquelin Ambler was extremely active in the colony’s political sphere. From 1782 until his death in 1798, he held the role of Treasurer. During the great Revolutionary War, he served on the Virginia’s Council of State. However, what he is probably most famous for is marrying the woman Thomas Jefferson was infatuated with. In 1764, Jaquelin Ambler became engaged to the lovely Rebecca Lewis Burwell. Thomas Jefferson had courted Rebecca earlier, calling “her the ‘Fair Belinda.’”6American folklore loves to tell of Jefferson’s clumsy marriage proposal and rejection. Some say that Rebecca’s dismissal is what led to Jefferson’s “‘deepening mistrust of women’ and a ‘more predatory demeanor’ toward the opposite sex.”7

Rebecca and Jaquelin’s daughter was Mary Willis Ambler “Polly” Marshall. She married John Marshall on January 3, 1783. John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He held the important position for three decades, the longest any judge has ever served. Mary helped him reach a lot of his decisions and was always willing to listen to “his concerns about the shaping of the nation.”8

Now there is one member of the large Ambler clan whose story is not filled with happiness, love and success. Lady Lydia Ambler lived a life of loneliness and heartbreak. People can still feel her angry spirit at the Ambler House Ruins, located on Island Drive. The Ambler House, built in the 1750s, was a two-story, Georgian-style, brick mansion. Its grand, central hall was flanked by two rooms. It had a well-maintained yard, paved with beautiful walkways. But the house was ravaged by fire three times, before being permanently abandoned. Today, only its frame remains. The ghost of Lydia Ambler has been seen wandering hopelessly around this creepy, deserted site.

In August 1776, Lydia Ambler married a dashing young soldier named Alexander Maupin. Shortly after their wedding, Alexander was sent off to fight in the American Revolution. According to legend, poor Lydia was always on the lookout for his return. She would sometimes trek to the shores of the James River, “in hopes of seeing him come home.”9 Otherwise, she would keep an eye out for her beloved Alexander from one of the Ambler mansion’s windows.  During one of her hours of vigilance, Benedict Arnold set the house on fire. Benedict Arnold first fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War, but then became a British Army brigadier general.

In Alexander’s absence, Colonel John Ambler, one of Edward’s sons, handled restorations of the house. Lydia then resumed her post. However, the young woman soon grew suspicious. She had not received any news or letters from her husband. She “couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that Alexander had married her for her money and had simply abandoned her.”10 People say that she was so angry that she committed suicide, presumably by drowning herself in the James River.

After Lady Ambler’s death, David Bullock purchased the estate. The house burned again during the Civil War, but was again promptly rebuilt. However, after the third blaze, which happened in 1895, it was permanently abandoned.

Today, the estate’s remnants are overseen by the National Park Service and are open to visitors. Archaeological digs have uncovered a mass grave beneath the house, and researchers believe that its skeletons belong to the settlers who died during the aforementioned Starving Time. Perhaps many of these dead colonists continue to haunt the area. However, Lady Ambler’s ghost is the only one reported to have been seen. She usually emerges from the back of the mansion, then heads towards the James River. She is described “as an angry woman, wearing a gown of the revolutionary period.”11Swirls of unexplainable mist, as well as odd flickering lights, have also been seen around the Ambler mansion. Perhaps these are physical manifestations of Lady Ambler’s grief, fury and pain.

Works Cited

  1. “American Revolution: Battle of Yorktown.” Updated November 13, 2015. Web. 29, March 2016. Para. 3.
  2. “John Smith.” History. Jamestown Rediscovery. 2016. Web. 30, March 2016. Para. 3.
  3. “The Starving Time.” History. Jamestown Rediscovery. 2016. Web. 30, March 2016. Para. 1.
  4. Behrend, Jackie Eileen. The Hauntings of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. Fifth Printing, Edward Brothers, Inc. 2006. Page 176.
  5. Rafa, Cheryl. “The Ambler Family in Virginia.” People. No Date. Web. 29, March 2016. Para. 3.
  6. “Mary Willis Ambler ‘Polly’ Marshal.” John Marshall House. Preservation Virginia. 2016. Web. 29, March 2016. Para 2.
  7. Schiff, Stacy. “Founding Chauvinist Pig?” The New York Times. 14, October 2007. Web. 29, March 2016. Para. 6.
  8. “Mary Willis Ambler ‘Polly’ Marshal.” John Marshall House. Preservation Virginia. 2016. Web. 29, March 2016. Para 1.
  9. Christoff-Flowers, Emily. The Ghost Journal – Memoirs of a Ghost Tour Guide in Williamsburg, Virginia. 5th Edition 2014. Copyright 2012 by Lulu Printed, United States. Web. 29, March 2016.
  10. Behrend, Jackie Eileen. The Hauntings of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. Fifth Printing, Edward Brothers, Inc. 2006. Page 178.
  11. Christoff-Flowers, Emily. The Ghost Journal – Memoirs of a Ghost Tour Guide in Williamsburg, Virginia. 5th Edition 2014. Copyright 2012 by Lulu Printed, United States. Web. 29, March 2016.