The mansion as seen today was completed in 1738 for Colonel John Carter (1696-1742)
and his wife, Elizabeth Hill (1708-1771)
, heiress to the plantation. The farm established here in 1638 by the Hill family is now the oldest family business in America: It is also the oldest continually inhabited plantation in English America and is presently home to the 11th generation of the Hill-Carter family. The mansion itself possesses possibly the only original Queen Anne forecourt surviving in America and the fabulous ‘free-standing’ walnut staircase is the only one if its kind in the country.
The Shirley Plantation was first settled in 1613 by Thomas West (1577-1618), 3rd Baron de la Warr
, 1st Governor of Virginia, when he received a grant of 8,000 acres from King James I. He named the land West and Shirley Hundred
for himself and his wife, Lady Cicely Shirley (1581-1662)
. The land was on the north side of the James River, roughly 25 miles equidistant between Jamestown and Richmond in what was then known as the ‘new Bermudas’ near to the mouth of the Appomattox River.
Lord de la Warr (for whom the state of Delaware, as his name was pronounced, took it’s name) started extensive tobacco cultivation on Shirley Hundred to supply both England and her colonies. Following his death, the land was divided up and by 1624 ‘West and Shirley Hundred’ had been divided into several plantations spread through the now separate ‘West Hundred’ and Shirley Hundred
. The three brothers, children and grandchildren of Lord de La Warr all received land and settled within Shirley Hundred. One of his brothers, Lt.-Colonel Nathaniel West (1592-1624)
, was killed by Indians while leading the militia that was raised after the Indian Massacre of 1622.
In 1638, a plot of 450 acres within Shirley Hundred was acquired by Edward Hill I (1610-1663)
from the Virginia Company of London. He was resident there from 1651, building Hill House
on the banks of the James River sometime that decade, near to the present mansion. In 1660, Hill acquired a further 2,476 acres of adjoining land.
In 1663, the estate passed to Edward Hill II (1637-1700)
, whose tenure of ownership was notable for his involvement in the Rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676) in 1676. Having sided with Governor Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677), Hill’s home and estate were plundered, and he and his family were held captive by Bacon’s rebels.
In 1700, the estate passed to Edward Hill III (d.1726)
, who supplemented tobacco production with wheat, corn and lumber that he traded for salt and wine in Madeira and London. At his death, he left no surviving male heirs and the estate therefore passed to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth
, as a wedding gift in 1723 on her marriage to "the handsome, London-trained lawyer" Colonel John Carter
, son of Robert 'King' Carter (1663-1732)
, "the richest man in Colonial America".
The original Hill House was replaced soon after 1723 by another ‘stately three-story’ mansion also named Hill House, that measured sixty by twenty-four feet. On the eve of the American Revolutionary War in 1773, this house was described as:
Large, convenient, and expensive, but now falling to decay… The present proprietor has a most opulent fortune, and possesses such a variety of seats, in situations so exceedingly delightful, that he overlooks this sweet one of Shirley, and suffers it to fall to ruin, although the buildings must have cost an immense sum in constructing; and would certainly be expensive to keep in repair.
Nonetheless, this house survived until 1868, when it was finally demolished and the bricks from it were incorporated into another house built a mile and a half to the north, in Upper Shirley. Adjacent to the old Hill House, another home built in the same period (1730s) is the Shirley Plantation House
that we see today: In 1723, as his wedding gift, ‘King’ Carter
funded plans for a manor house and outbuildings for the young Charles and Elizabeth (Hill) Carter (grandparents of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841)
, 9th President of the United States). Completed in 1738, the result was the Georgian, three story Great House
as seen today.
The mansion is constructed with red brick walls and white trim boards on a square foundation. Unusually, the house has no actual front door, as both the riverside and courtyard side entrances are made up of two story porticos with Doric columns supporting a pediment. The main entrance is located in the center, framed by a pair of long rectangular windows on either side. The hipped roof rests on an entablature decorated with dentil moldings. The roof is broken up by dormer windows and two large brick chimneys. In the center of the roof is a white pedestal supporting an overturned pineapple. The pineapple is used frequently in the hand-carved woodwork throughout the house – it being the old colonial symbol for hospitality, and the Hill-Carters did not hold back on entertaining guests.
The mansion is surrounded by several outbuildings, including a two-story kitchen with living quarters; a two-story laundry with living quarters; a smokehouse, a stable building, an ice house, a large storehouse, and a dovecote. These buildings all frame the central house, lending to the majesty of the building and creating a Queen Anne Forecourt - possibly the only one in America that survives in that style from this architectural period.
About two years before her death, Mrs Hill-Carter gave Shirley over to her youngest (second) son, Charles Hill Carter (1733-1806). As the father of twenty three children by two wives, he enlarged and renovated both the house and it’s outbuildings. Charles had felt a loyalty to England, but once the American Revolution broke out he became an officer with the American militia. During the War, the plantation served as a supply center for the Continental Army. When Shirley found itself between the British lines at Hopewell and the American lines under General Gilbert du Motier (1757-1834), Marquis de Lafayette, at Malvern Hill, Shirley served as a reconnaissance point for both sides.
Following the revolution, despite the changes brought about under American independence, the estate continued to prosper. Towards the end of that century, Charles added many elegant furnishings to Shirley, including a large collection of English silver engraved and a set of dining room chairs all emblazoned with the Carter family crest – a dog’s head.
Charles’ eldest daughter by his second marriage, Anne Hill Carter (1773-1829)
, was both born and married at Shirley. She was the mother of the Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Army, General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
, who had spent his first years at the Lee’s nearby ancestral home, Stratford Hall
. Afterwards, Robert received some of his early schooling in the converted laundry house at Shirley.
The heir apparent to Shirley was Charles’ son by his second marriage, Dr Robert Hill Carter (1774-1805). After the death of Robert’s wife, Mary Nelson (1774-1803), he left his four young children with their grandparents - Charles and Anne Butler (Moore) Hill Carter (1756-1810) – and went to Paris, France, to continue his medical education. Robert predeceased his father, and Charles named Robert’s eldest son, Hill Carter (1796-1870), to succeed him at Shirley when he came of age.
Prior to his coming of age in 1816, Hill’s uncles had not run the estate well. But, as soon as Hill took control, he set about restoring Shirley to it’s former glory. He motivated workers through encouragement and by replacing any worn out farm equipment; he introduced new farming methods, and experimented with new crops.
The American Civil War found Shirley encircled in the thick of battle as the Union armies fought desperately to take control of the Confederate capital at nearby Richmond. Following the Battle of Malvern, Shirley served as an impromptu field hospital for several thousand wounded Union soldiers. Despite their political differences, the Carter family provided soup, bread, water and cloth for bandages: Union General George Brinton McLellan (1826-1885) expressed deep gratitude for the family’s help and provided them with safe-conduct passes and other courtesies.
In 1866, Shirley was passed to Hill’s son, Robert Randolph Carter (1825-1888). He was the first of the family to be faced with the challenge of running the estate without slave labor. Possessing a similar mindset to his father, he successfully invested in mechanical machinery and introduced modern farming methods that increased yields but demanded less physical labor.
Robert had no sons, but his widowed daughter Alice (Carter) Bransford (1852-1926) had long taken an interest in running Shirley, which fell to her in 1888. She took a hands-on approach to management and became involved with every aspect of the plantation, now matter how menial, thus earning herself the reputation as the most proficient farmer on the James River.
In 1917, Alice passed the management of the plantation to her first cousin, Charles Hill Carter I (1868-1962), of High Hill, across the road from Shirley. In 1921, Alice was joined at the mansion by her sister and brother-in-law: Marion Carter (1859-1953) and Admiral James Harrison Oliver (1857-1928), 1st U.S. Governor of the Virgin Islands. Three years after Alice’s death, Charles and his family moved into Shirley to help the recently widowed Marion. Before Marion died in 1953, in accordance with her father’s will she chose a descendant of her grandfather to continue to Shirley: She chose Charles’ son, Charles Hill Carter II (1919-2009). Today the plantation is in the capable hands of Charles Hill Carter III (b.1962).
The mansion is still to be found almost exactly in it’s original state, showing superb examples of 18th century panelling and elegant word-carving. The famous carved walnut staircase that rises three stories without any visible form of support is the only one of its kind in America. The house was placed on the National Register in 1969, and the following year it was recognised as a National Historic Landmark.
The still-operational 300 acre plantation attracts some 50,000 visitors a year. It is open daily to the public with an admission fee and is only closed on major holidays. Events such as weddings, corporate entertainments and celebrations of all kinds can also be enjoyed at Shirley. The upper floors are lived in by the 11th generation of the Hill-Carter family, while the ground floor is open for touring from Monday to Saturday (9.30am to 4.30pm) and Sunday (12pm to 4.30pm).