Shirley Plantation is America’s oldest family-owned business dating back nearly four hundred years. The estate has been actively farmed and occupied by direct descendants of its original owners spanning twelve generations. The plantation’s embellished past, unique architectural features, and exquisite condition makes it one of the premier historical attractions along the James River.
The history of Shirley Plantation begins in 1613 when Sir Thomas West, Baron de la Warr, was appointed Governor-for-life and Captain-General of the Virginia Colony. As part of his appointment, West was granted 4,000 acres of property along the James River, which he named the “West and Sherley Hundred” after himself and his wife, Lady Cessalye Sherley. In 1616, West enlisted Captain Isaac Madison and 25 indentured servants from the London Company to cultivate his land with tobacco, which proved to be a lucrative cash crop. However, Governor West did not live long enough to see his plantations flourish as he died at sea on June 7, 1618.
The West and Sherley Hundred was left to Lady Cessalye following West’s death. A high-standing member of society, Lady Cessalye refused to leave the comforts of England for her late husband’s landholdings in the New World. Instead, she sold the property away in parcels. Colonel Edward Hill I purchased 450 acres on the Hundred in 1638, thus establishing Hill-Carter residency at Shirley Plantation.
Colonel Hill quickly gained prestige and notoriety during his time in the colonies. In 1646, he declared himself Governor of Maryland as he led an expeditionary force to quell Claiborne and Ingle’s Rebellion—an extension of the English Civil War known as “The Plundering Time” in which colonists (particularly Catholics) were persecuted for not swearing allegiance to Parliament and the Anglican Church. Once the insurrection was put down, Hill ceded power back to the rightful governor Leonard Calvert and returned to Virginia where he was elected Speaker of the House of Burgesses in 1651.
By 1660, Shirley Plantation encompassed nearly 3,000 acres and showcased a 2.5-story wooden mansion called Hill House. Edward Hill I died in 1663 and left his estate to his son, Edward Hill II, who was a Captain in the Virginia militia and Sheriff of Charles City County. Edward II expanded Shirley’s farm operations in the years following his father’s death by planting corn, wheat, and barley and raising livestock. He even opened a tavern on the property that doubled as the county jail.
In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion arrived at Shirley. The rebels ransacked the plantation and imprisoned the Hill family for siding with Governor William Berkeley on the issues of territorial expansion and the treatment on Indians. Fortunately, no one was harmed during the pillaging and the Hills resumed plantation duties once the rebellion was resolved.
Like his father before him, Edward II was elected Speaker of the House of Burgesses in 1691. When he passed away in 1700, Shirley was passed down to his son, Edward Hill III, who was also a member of the House of Burgesses, on the Board of Governors for the College of William and Mary, and an officer in maritime affairs.
Edward III had only one son in his lifetime, Edward IV, who died from consumption at age 16. The absence of a male heir meant that Shirley Plantation would be passed down to Edward’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth. In 1723, she married John Carter, son of Robert “King” Carter—Governor of Virginia and one of the wealthiest men in all the colonies—who ordered for the plantation’s Great House to be constructed as the couple’s wedding present. Following Edward III’s death in 1726, Shirley Plantation passed into the Carter family due to English primogeniture laws.
John Carter died in 1742 and left his widow Elizabeth with ‘life estate’ on the plantation (she could live at Shirley but not sell the property). The true inheritance was given to their second-oldest son, Charles Carter, who assumed full control of the estate upon Elizabeth’s death in 1771. Shirley underwent considerable expansion under Charles’s ownership to accommodate for the 23 children he had across two marriages.
As the American Colonies entered the Revolutionary War, Charles Carter enlisted as an officer in the Continental Army. Shirley Plantation served as a listening post for both the British and Continental Armies and most notably as Marquis de Lafayette’s supply depot during his army’s march to Yorktown.
On June 18, 1793, Carter’s fellow Revolutionary War veteran Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee married his daughter, Ann Hill Carter, in the parlor of Shirley’s Great House (they are the parents of Confederate General Robert E. Lee). Though Light Horse Harry was a decorated soldier, the Carter family disapproved of the marriage due to his history of gambling and financial mishandlings.
By the end of the 18th Century, Charles Carter was Virginia’s largest slaveholder with 785 slaves spread across dozens of plantations, 195 of which were at Shirley. Dr. Robert Carter, Charles’s son and heir to Shirley, was an outspoken critic of the institution of slavery. In a letter written to his children, Robert states, “[f]rom the earliest point in time when I could distinguish right from wrong, I conceived a great distaste for the slave trade and all its barbarous consequences.”
Unfortunately, before Robert could inherit Shirley, he died of an illness while studying medicine in Paris. This placed Robert’s oldest son, Hill Carter—who was only eight years old at the time—in line to inherit the estate. When Charles Carter died on June 28, 1806, his wife, Anne Butler Moore Carter assumed control of Shirley until Hill Carter was of age. When she died in 1809, Shirley was placed in the hands of Hill’s uncles—Bernard and Williams—who operated the plantation until he was twenty.
When Hill Carter was sixteen, he joined the U.S. Navy and served on the USS Peacock during the War of 1812. He rose to the rank of Midshipman before his tour of duty ended in 1816. That same year, Hill Carter assumed sole ownership of Shirley. When he returned to the plantation, he found the fields barren and fruitless, void of nutrients due his uncles’ over-cultivation of tobacco. After seeing the devastating effects tobacco had on his land, Hill Carter vowed never to plant the crop again. He transitioned Shirley into a cotton plantation and rotated his fields with wheat and corn to make sure the ground stayed fertile.
While Hill Carter did not free his slaves, he expressed much of his father’s attitudes towards the institution. He practiced more humane ownership and ensured that families were not separated during business transactions. Hill’s wife, Mary Braxton Randolph Carter, found slavery to be abhorrent and displayed a level of compassion rarely seen in the slave-holding South. She educated slave children, cared for the sick and injured, and even labored in the fields with the slaves.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Hill Carter (age 65 at the time) and his six sons joined the Virginia Militia and Confederate Infantry. In Hill’s absence, Shirley Plantation was left in the charge of Mary and their daughters. In July 1862, following the Battle of Malvern Hill, several hundred wounded Union soldiers established a field hospital on the Shirley property. Upon seeing the horrific casualties of war, the women of Shirley sprang into action. They made bandages from bed linens, cooked soup and bread, and led prayer sessions for the dying soldiers. The acts of kindness the Carter family displayed prompted General George B. McClellan to issue a Federal Order of Safeguard, which spared Shirley Plantation from looting and destruction for the duration of the war.
After the Confederacy collapsed, all of the Carters returned home except Hill’s youngest son, Hillie Carter, who was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Over the course of the war, eighty of Shirley’s 139 slaves fled the plantation, eighteen of which joined the Union Army. Those who remained on the property were offered tenant farming positions following the passage of abolition.
Robert Randolph Carter inherited Shirley following Hill Carter’s death in 1875. Robert Randolph himself passed away in 1888 and left the farm to his wife, Louise, and their daughters, Alice Carter Bransford and Marion Carter Oliver. Alice and Marion took full control of the estate when Louise died in 1906 and quickly built reputations as being the most capable and prolific farmers in Virginia. In 1917, the Carter sisters hired their cousin, C. Hill Carter, to manage farming operations. Alice died in 1926 and Marion in 1952. Neither sister had any children, so the property was passed on to C. Hill.
Shirley Plantation did not become a tourist attraction until C. Hill Carter’s son, C. Hill Carter II, took control of the estate in the 1950s. Travelers coming from Colonial Williamsburg would often stop by the farm and ask him about the history of the property. The overwhelming amounts of interest and attention given to the plantation influenced C. Hill II to open up Shirley’s doors to the public, a business venture that has been incredibly successful for the past sixty years. C. Hill Carter II died in 2009 and left Shirley to his son, Charles Hill Carter III, and his family—the 11th and 12th generations of the Hill-Carters—who still reside on the second and third floors of the plantation’s Great House today.
Tickets for a combined House and Grounds Tour is $25. Though rather small, Shirley Plantation has a lot to offer architecturally, agriculturally, and historically. The site contains some of most well-maintained and aesthetically-pleasing colonial structures in the United States. In fact, Shirley exhibits the last remaining example of an original Queen Anne Forecourt in North America! The symmetry and attention to detail displayed in all of Shirley’s buildings is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Starting near the parking lot, you’ll notice a cylindrically-shaped structure called a Dovecote. This brick building was used to roost doves and squabs which were considered delicacies during colonial times. Across the way are two ‘L-shaped’ structures: the Ice House and Storehouse. The Ice House features a 21-foot deep pit covered by a brick-lined dome used to store ice during the warmer months. The Storehouse was used as warehouse for British-imported goods and later utilized as a machinery and tool barn.
The first building to the right inside the Queen Anne Forecourt is the Kitchen, which was built separate from the main house to reduce the risk of fire. The first floor was used for cooking and meal preparation while the second floor served as the servants’ quarters. Directly across from the Kitchen is the Laundry (now the Gift Shop). Behind the Gift Shop is the Smokehouse, one of the most important structures on the property. The smokehouse was used to preserve and store meat dried out by smoke and salt. Since pork was such an integral part of a colonial diet, as much as ten tons of it was smoked and stored in barrels each season.
On either side of the mansion are the Flanker House foundations—freestanding wings of the Great House used for guest accommodations. Each Flanker was 2.5-stories tall, 60’ x 24’, and contained two chambers and a central hall on each floor. The North Flanker was struck by lightning and burned down in the 1820s. Its basement was salvaged and converted into a root cellar that was used well into the 20th Century. The South Flanker was demolished in 1868 and relocated off the property. On the west end of the property is a gorgeous view of the James River and a 350-year-old Oak tree that has been around since Edward Hill I.
Shirley Plantation’s Great House is the final and main attraction on the tour. A guide leads you through the first floor of the mansion and discusses the Hill-Carter family history and lore in great detail. Since it is still a private residence, photos are not allowed inside the house and the tour is limited to four rooms on the ground floor.
Construction on the house began in 1723 under the authorization of Robert “King” Carter and was completed by 1738. More than four million bricks were used in its construction. The mansion epitomizes the symmetrical appeal of Queen Anne and Georgian architecture—a perfect 48’ x 48’ with an interior of mirror-like precision. The first room in the house is the foyer, accentuated by its “Flying Staircase”—a series of steps with no visible means of support—believed to be the only original one in existence. The Parlor is next and offers spectacular examples of intricate woodwork, paneling, moldings, and colonial portraits. Many of the architectural features were added in the 1770s by Charles Carter. In the Dining Room, visitors can see original colonial silver and china. And, if you look closely in the windows, you can see the initials Hill-Carter women and the dates of their marriages carved into the glass. The tour ends in the First Floor Bedchambers and lasts about an hour.
Shirley Plantation is by far one of the most beautiful destinations I have ever visited. To have such a detailed record of one family’s history and lineage is beyond incredible. While the $25 admission is a tad pricey, Shirley’s historical and architectural quality is unrivaled. Very few places in America exist with such authenticity. This is definitely a must-visit location!
Visit ShirleyPlantation.com for more information on this historic location!
Check out House Histree for more information of the Hill-Carter lineage!
Visit the African American Historic Sites Database for more information on Shirley's African American history!
Watch this YouTube Video or listen to this VA History Podcast for more on Shirley Plantation!
Read the following resources for a more in-depth version of Shirley's history:
Dahm, Kerry. "To Preserve, Protect, and Pass On: Shirley Plantation as a Historic House Museum,1894–2013." Virginia Commonwealth University. (2013).
Reinhart, Theodore R., and Judith A. Habicht. "Shirley Plantation in the Eighteenth Century: A Historical, Architectural, and Archaeological Study." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. (1984): 29-49.