SHIRLEY, one of the oldest and loveliest of the James River homes, is located just above the point where the Appomattox River enters the James. Shirley plantation is referred to in the old records as far back as 1611, Sir Thomas Dale, then governor of the Virginia Colony, having laid out and given title to the plantation. In 1660 it was granted to Colonel Edward Hill, a member of the House of Burgesses, of which he was once speaker. In 1723, through the marriage of his eldest daughter, Elizabeth Hill, to John Carter, Secretary of Virginia, and eldest son of Robert (King) Carter, Shirley came into the possession of the Carter family where it has remained ever since.
The place descended to Charles Carter who married Anne Butler Moore of Chelsea; and their daughter, Anne Hill Car-ter, was born there. The latter became the wife of “Light Horse” Harry Lee, and the mother of General Robert E. Lee. General Lee was very devoted to Shirley, to which he was a frequent visitor, and in his letters he makes many affectionate references to the old home. In 1868 he wrote as follows: “I wanted to pass one day at Shirley. I have not been there for ten years. It was the loved home of my mother, and a spot where I have passed many happy days in early life, and one that probably I may never visit again.”
Shirley is the tallest house on the James River, rising three full stories high. The third story is hipped and contains eighteen high dormer windows. The interior woodwork of the house is very beautiful, the large square hall being panelled to the ceiling. A striking stairway with its hanging platform leads to the upper rooms. The mantels, doorframes, and cornices are beautifully carved. Carved pineapples, the symbol of welcome, appear frequently in the house.
In the dining room, for more than 130 years, hung the famous portrait of Washington which was painted and signed by Charles Willson Peale. It is said that this portrait was given by General Washington to his friend, General Nelson, of Yorktown, and that it came to Shirley through the marriage of his daughter Mary to Robert Carter, one of the former owners. The portrait, life-size, showing Washington in the full vigor of manhood, has been secured to form part of the restoration of Williamsburg, where it will remain permanently. There are other interesting portraits in the house, among which are three particularly fine St. Memins.
The garden at Shirley, informal and without studied effect, appeals to the garden lover on account of its fine box bushes and the old-fashioned shrubs and flowers. There is a quiet dignity and atmosphere about the mansion that is very appealing. The estate has descended to each heir with all the original silver, portraits and furniture. It is now owned by Mrs. Marion Carter Oliver, and through Mrs. Oliver and her sister, the late Mrs. Alice Carter Bransford, the charm and hospitality for which Shirley was noted in the early days has been maintained to the fullest extent.