Monday, May 20, 2013

James River: Shirley Plantation Great House

The Carters

There is no simple way of presenting the genealogy of any of the First Families of Virginia. After just a few generations of marrying cousins and recycling names, it's easy to get hopelessly confused, so I have prepared a cheat sheet to hopefully let you see some of the relationships. The Carter cheat sheet is at

Ownership of Shirley passed from John Carter & Elizabeth Hill to their son, Charles Carter (1732-1806), who would have 23 children with two wives, including Ann Hill Carter, the mother of Robert E. Lee, and Elizabeth Hill Carter (1764-1832) who married Robert Randolph.

From Charles Carter, Shirley passed to his son, Dr. Robert Carter (1774-1805). Dr. Carter married Mary Nelson, daughter of Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr. of Yorktown, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Like his uncle, Robert Carter of Nomini, Dr. Robert Carter was adverse to slavery. Having no interest in agriculture, he left Shirley to pursue medicine.

After Dr. Carter's death at an early age, Shirley passed to his son, Hill Carter (1797-1875), whose long tenure included the historic events in the area during the Civil War. Hill Carter married his first cousin, Mary Braxton Randolph, daughter of his aunt Elizabeth Hill Carter and Robert Randolph. After serving in the Navy during the War of 1812, Hill Carter returned home to Shirley to claim his inheritance to find the plantation in poor condition after years in the care of overseers. With no agricultural knowledge, Hill Carter conducted research into new scientific methods of farming, reclaiming his lands from the ill effects of tobacco farming and poor management, and becoming expert enough to publish a number of articles on agricultural reform.

During the Peninsula Campaign, after Union General George McClellan was strongly encouraged by the military skill of Hill Carter's cousin, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to "change his base" (McClellan's explanation of his rout) during the Seven Days battles, the Union army established a base at Harrison's Landing on neighboring Berkeley Plantation. The Union army occupied Shirley at the same time. The plantation served as a hospital for thousands of wounded Federal soldiers, many of them nursed by Mary Randolph Carter and her daughters. In consideration for their care, McClellan provided Carter with an order of protection. The plantation still suffered much looting, damage, and disruption to crops.

Douglas Southall Freeman on the Carters and Shirley

Although Robert lived among the Lees, the atmosphere of his home was that of the Carters. His mother corresponded with them, talked of them, and at least once a year endeavored to take her younger children with her on a visit to Shirley, her old home on James River.

It was a gracious place. Built early in the eighteenth century, it had been adorned by each generation of Hills and of Carters, as though they owed it a debt they were eager to discharge with generous interest. The parlors contained rich old furniture, on which the presentments of approving ancestors looked down from gilt frames. In the great hall was a majestic hanging stair; in the dining-room was Charles W. Peale's full-length picture of Washington, a portrait in which one could see the lines that Valley Forge had cut on a face still young, and all the misgiving that a doubtful war had put in honest, anxious eyes. Outside, to the south, was the turbid, silent river. Across the lawn lay the garden with ancient walks and dreamy odors.

Here, on successive visits, as he grew older, Robert heard how John Carter had come to Virginia, had acquired much land, had outlived three wives and had died in 1669, leaving a son Robert who had reaped richly where his father had sown. So wealthy did this Robert Carter become, and so widely did his acres spread that he was known as "King" Carter and lived with a dignified luxury befitting his estate. Around the door of the church which he built and furnished at his own expense, the admiring neighbors would wait on the Sabbath until his outriders had arrived and the great coach had rumbled up, and "King" Carter and his family had entered the house of prayer. Then the simpler folks would stamp after, glad enough to bow the knee on the same floor with so fine a gentleman.

Of the twelve children born to "King" Carter while he lived in splendor at Corotoman, his son John inherited perhaps the largest share of the property. He continued to reside at Corotoman and added as much again to his estate by marrying Elizabeth Hill, heiress to the Shirley planation on James River. Their wealthy son, Charles Carter, Robert Lee's grandfather, was reared at Corotoman and brought his first wife there. After her death, Charles Carter married Anne Butler Moore, daughter of Augustine Moore and a descendant of Alexander Spotswood, perhaps the most popular and renowned of the colonial governors of Virginia.

With her Charles Carter moved to Shirley, which had become his property. His household was large, for he had eight children by his first marriage, and by his second, thirteen, among them Ann, Robert Lee's mother.

Young Robert had a friendly multitude of close Carter cousins, for hundreds, literally, were descended from the twelve children of "King" Carter. Charles Carter's record of twenty-three by two wives was rivalled by that of his first cousin, Robert, or "Councillor" Carter, whose single marriage yielded the sixteen children that appear in the charming Journal of their blue-stockinged tutor, Philip Fithian. Kinsmen were joined in marriage until the lines are at some points confused. The prime family characteristic of geniality and friendliness seemed to be accentuated with each new generation. The size and endogamy of the Carter tribe made it socially self-contained. Every true Carter liked everybody, but most of all he liked his kinspeople. Often and joyfully they visited one another. Of journeying and letter-writing and the exchange of family news, the years brought no end. It was at Shirley, amid the infectious laughter and the kindly chatter of his cousins, that the youthful Robert developed early the fondness for the company of his kin that was so marked in his maturity.

RE Lee, Volume One

In the 1930's, John D. Rockefeller offered to buy Shirley. The Carter family refused, but did agree to sell him the portrait of George Washington mentioned above, because, "Well, it's not like he's family." The portrait now hangs in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg.

The Great House

The Great House was constructed between 1723 and 1738.

The porticos were added in the 1770s.

< Rear -- Front >

The Doric columns were added in the 1830s.

The three-and-a-half-foot pineapple finial in a symbol of hospitality (front).

Pineapple (rear)

Sitting on the back porch,
waiting for the next tour.

The first floor of the Great House consists of four rooms. The land-side entrance is into the majestic stair hall. Portraits of family ancestors line the wall while the flying staircase rises three stories with no visible means of support, and is the only such surviving staircase in the country. (See the photo on the Old Roads Once Traveled Facebook page at

A bedchamber occupies the rest of the rear of the house, with the parlor and dining room on the river side.

Only the first floor is open to the public. The current generation of Carters reside on the second and third floors, with a kitchen in the basement.

< Stair hall, Dining Room > (Front >)

Shirley is more a home than a museum, and that is reflected in the stories told during the tour. In the dining room, scratches on one of the windows are pointed out. One Carter daughter, upon becoming engaged to a known gambler, decided to test the authenticity of the diamond in her ring by using it to carve her initials on the glass. The act became a family tradition among Carter girls.
One of the mantels had tiny little acorns, symbolizing perseverance, carved into it ... until the year that five of Charles Carter's grandsons received pocketknives for Christmas and carved out all but four.

Access from the kitchen, pump house, and root cellar ^ through the stair hall side entrance, which is next to the dining room door.

< Dining room, parlor >, bedchamber ^

Ann Hill Carter married Governor and Revolutionary War General Light-Horse Harry Lee in this parlor.
< Parlor, bedchamber > forecourt ^

Obligatory cute cat photo for this post.
(I really did take more pictures of the house than the cat. Honest.)

1 comment:

  1. I would love to take a tour and dream of living in something like that. Thanks for sharing the history.