Just a few miles north of George Vanderbilt’s grand Biltmore Estate is a different kind of mansion–one that was nearly 50 years old when Vanderbilt’s crew began construction in 1895. This house is now home to the Western North Carolina Historical Association.

In the 1840s, James McConnell Smith, who was rumored to be the first white child born west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, broke ground on a large brick country house on his property overlooking the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers–just one tract of the more than 30,000 acres in the county he would eventually own.

Smith paid few people to build his house or run his many businesses. Rather he purchased people, whom he would enslave, to perform the work. By the 1840s, when this house was being constructed, Smith held at least 70 people captive.

Once the house was complete, the Smiths used the property as a vacation destination from their main residence in Asheville, about two miles away. The house only became a full-time residence for a family when James’ daughter, Sarah, and her husband, William McDowell, purchased the house at auction in 1857 from her brother’s estate. The McDowells continued to hold people captive on the property, which contained numerous outbuildings, including at least six “slave houses,” until April 1865 when freedom finally came to people enslaved in Asheville.

The McDowells lived in the house until 1881, when, in debt after the Civil War, they sold the property. From that date on, the house saw a rotating series of occupants resulting in periods of grand renovations and serious neglect, that have added new chapters to the history that it holds.

The McDowell Family outside their family home, 1875.

Before the House

Based on archaeological evidence, we know that several thousand years ago native people occupied this hilltop and manufactured stone tools here. Whether there was more recent occupation of this site by Native Americans, including Cherokee, is uncertain.

In 1790 North Carolina was the third most populous state in the Union, but only a tiny percentage lived in the mountainous western section. As late as the early 1800s, maps often showed western North Carolina as an unknown and distant area, almost a footnote to the coastal plain and the piedmont. The mountains were a formidable barrier that slowed colonization of the region for years.

Colonel Daniel Smith (1747-1826), a white man who purchased this land in 1796 and whose son built this house, gained a notorious reputation for being an “Indian fighter.”

Daniel Smith’s rifle, known as Long Tom, is said to have taken the lives of over 200 Native Americans. While this claim is likely exaggerated, there is little doubt that this weapon was responsible for many deaths, primarily – possibly exclusively – native men fighting to protect their land from encroachment by white settlers.

Native American Heritage

Native Americans were here at least 3,000 years before the arrival of explorers and colonizers from Europe. By the 1600s the hunter/gatherer economy of the Cherokee Indians of the Appalachian region was also developing agricultural methods which would be adopted by the first white colonizers in North Carolina. And the native network of trade routes often served as the basis of future roads and turnpikes. At the arrival of the first white colonizers, Cherokee villages were surrounded by large corn fields which had been cleared using a slash and burn method. Gardens were planted beside rivers and streams. In addition to corn, the Cherokee grew beans, squash, sunflowers, pumpkins, and other crops. While the men were the principal hunters, the Cherokee women tended the fields.

By the 1750s The Cherokee population stood at approximately 25,000. Twenty years later through open warfare with the relentlessly encroaching white population and by the ravaging effect of diseases carried by explorers and settlers the population had been reduced to less than 9,000.

In the American Revolutionary War, the Cherokee sided with the British, hoping that the English would help them preserve their tribal lands.

President Andrew Jackson ordered the final removal of the Cherokee in 1838. More than 4,000 native people died on this forced journey to the West, which became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), (Cherokee: ᏣᎳᎩᏱ ᏕᏣᏓᏂᎸᎩ, Tsalagiyi Detsadanilvgi) is a federally recognized Indian Tribe based in western North Carolina. They are descended from the small group of 800-1000 Cherokee who remained in the Eastern United States after the US military, under the Indian Removal Act, moved the other 15,000 Cherokee to west of the Mississippi River in the late 1830s, to Indian Territory.

Image: Illustration of Woodland period village, AD 350, by Thomas R. Wythe

The Buncombe Turnpike


The Asheville area has always been a crossroads due to its central location in the French Broad River valley. Just as major interstate highways cross here today, throughout time the area has been a hub for travel and transport through the mountains. By the early 1800s many farmers in the region had moved beyond subsistence agriculture and were raising crops and animals to sell for cash. The challenge of getting livestock to the major markets was met by driving animals on foot via a loose network of trails known as drovers’ roads. In 1828, the Buncombe Turnpike toll road was opened to provide an improved route which greatly increased traffic to and through western North Carolina.

Each year, tens of thousands of hogs and other livestock were driven south “on the hoof” from the farms of east Tennessee and western North Carolina to Greenville and many other cities in South Carolina. Farmers along the route enjoyed brisk sales of their corn to feed the hungry animals. The turnpike also fostered a network of hotels known as stands, which provided overnight food and lodging for both livestock and drovers. One writer described this massive annual migration as a “great river of hogs.”

In the 1830s, James M. Smith, the first owner of this house, built the first bridge across the French Broad River in the Asheville area, forced the people he enslaved to operate it, and charged tolls to livestock drovers and the many other travelers who need to cross safely. This was a very lucrative enterprise.

Image: “Hog Drovers.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine XV. June to November 1857.


The House


James M. Smith continued to grow his fortune on the backs of the people he enslaved, eventually operating a mercantile business, a hotel, a gold mine in Georgia, a tannery, a blacksmith, a farm, and numerous other ventures. As his wealth grew, so did the amount of land he owned as well as the number of people he enslaved.

To signify his growing wealth and social status, he began planning for the construction of a massive brick summer home just outside of Asheville.

You are (virtually) standing in Smith’s mansion. This home has borne witness to over 175 years of history.

As you venture through the halls, stairwells, rooms, and grounds, you will meet many of the people who walked these same pathways over a century ago and whose stories represent a microcosm of the history of western North Carolina.

The Architecture

Building with brick was almost unheard of in 1840s western North Carolina. Most homes were log cabins or wood-frame houses.

The house that you see today has undergone numerous renovations. The original house had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and no closets.

The double-tier front porch is original to the house, but a back porch was removed in the late 1800s to connect the Summer Kitchen (seen at the back of the house in the picture at left) to the house and complete a two-story addition containing three bathrooms.

Scroll down to begin your tour in the basement of this large house, originally known as the Winter Kitchen.



It’s 1850. Snow is piled against the windows. An aproned woman named Tilda stirs a pot over the crackling fire in the hearth. A baby sleeps in the nearby cradle. Two young girls sit at her feet; one is washing potatoes. The smells of cooking vegetables and simmering herbs fill the room.

Tilda, her husband, Joe, and her children are all enslaved by the Smiths.

The family lives in a small house up the hill from this large brick mansion. Every day she is awake before the sun rises to begin cooking breakfast for the family that lives here. During the winter, she sleeps by this fire to keep it burning through the night, so that the wealthy family sleeping above does not get cold.

Tilda’s husband, Joe, is a wagoner. He likely spends his days transporting goods by horse-drawn wagon between the Smith family’s various business interests. He is gone from dawn until dusk, often longer.

Tilda must prepare all meals for the Smith family while also caring for her three daughters – 3-year-old Mary, 2-year-old Jane, and 1-year-old Viney. Her boys, 11-year-old Alfred and 8-year-old Joe work on the Smith farm.




This basement-level room was originally twice as big as pictured above with a dirt floor and two fireplaces. In the early 1900s, the owners of the house split the winter kitchen in two in order to install a boiler and central heating. Before the boiler was installed, the house was heated by 10 fireplaces. Coal had to be hauled or wood had to be chopped, split, and carried to each fireplace daily.

Enslaved workers had to sleep by the fire to keep it burning throughout the night. In the early 1900s, the kitchen was split in half to install central heating.

During warmer weather, all food preparation moved to the detached Summer Kitchen behind this mansion. Kitchens were separated from the house because:

  • It reduced the threat of fire in the main house.
  • It kept the house cooler during the summer.
  • It reduced cooking odors in the main house.
  • It ensured a physical separation between enslaved people and the families that held them captive.

For this final reason, the kitchen’s original doorway led outside, so those held captive would not have to enter the main house to access the kitchen. You can see the outline of the bricked-in doorway between the two light fixtures.

“I [James M. Smith] give and devise unto my son John P. Smith his heirs and assigns forever, all my farm and land at the mouth of Swannanoa on both sides of French Broad River, which I purchased in part of Moses Smith and part from Daniel Smith, embracing the Col. Daniel Smith farm + the new brick house near the road [now known as the Smith-McDowell House], also one undivided half of my bridge + bridge tract of land on both sides of French Broad River purchased of John Jarrett to take effect at the death of my wife. Also I give and bequeath to the said John P. Smith the following negroes Joe (the waggoner) his wife Tilda + her children, Alfred, Joe, Mary, Jane + Vina, also Peter, Charles (Clara’s son) + Robb + their increase forever…”

James M. Smith, Last Will and Testament, excerpt
February 9, 1850

South Asheville Cemetery


In 1853, Tilda, probably in her late 20s, passed away from unknown causes.

She may have been laid to rest in what would become the oldest public cemetery for African Americans in western North Carolina, the South Asheville Cemetery. This cemetery was established in the 1800s as a burial ground for people enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families on a far corner of their property.

Tilda's Family


Though we don’t currently know what happened to Tilda’s family after they gained their freedom in April 1865, you can learn more about them and follow along with our research efforts by clicking the button below.



In several areas of the basement there is graffiti that dates back to at least 1911. Though we don’t know who carved their initials into the brick – and typically don’t condone graffiti on historic sites – evidence of past occupation like this can help us to tell the stories of those who are often overlooked.



When the original stairs from the Winter Kitchen to the back yard were removed, the owners had more of the earth underneath the house excavated and installed a cistern to collect water for use in the house.

Prior to the end of the Civil War, cisterns were some times used to hide people escaping from slavery as part of the Underground Railroad.


The Underground Railroad


The Underground Railroad was a network of people, routes, and safehouses that aided people escaping the bonds of slavery in the United States. People would seek freedom in northern and free states as well as Canada. This network is called the Underground Railroad because it was said to have been so secretive and inconspicuous that it was as though escapees had literally gone under the ground.

Runaway or fugitive slave ads were printed in newspapers across the United States to notify the public, specifically “slave catchers,” of an escaped enslaved person. These ads would list the physical attributes, names, characteristics, labor skills, literacy abilities, and where the escapee was last seen to help identify the individual so that he or she may be captured and returned to the enslaver.

Some of the runaway slave ads that were printed in the Asheville Messenger newspaper were written by James M. Smith when he served as Asheville’s jailer. The ad at left was written by James M. Smith ~20 years before he had this house constructed. It was published in the Knoxville Register (September 28, 1819).

Bob’s fate is currently unknown.


Eliza Henry

Eliza Henry was named after her grandmother, Liza, an enslaved woman who was one of the first non-Native Americans to settle west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1780s. Liza was brought to the Blue Ridge by her captor, Samuel Davidson.

Eliza Henry was enslaved for roughly the first 20 years of her life in Chunns Cove, just outside of downtown Asheville, until her husband, John Henry, helped her purchase her freedom in 1859 shortly after purchasing his own.

The couple continued to reside in the cove and used their own home as an Underground Railroad station. According to Eliza’s grandson, Johnny Baxter, their home had secret sliding wall that led to a basement area in which people seeking freedom could hide until it was safe to continue their journey north.

During her lifetime, Eliza was a professional cook. She had a successful career of not only cooking for wealthy white families in Chunns Cove and other parts of Asheville, but she also served as their dietitian. Eliza eventually worked as the head of the kitchen at a boarding house on North French Broad Avenue. Her grandson remembered her as a passionate cook who continued to create in the kitchen until she passed away in 1944 at the age of 106.


Continue your tour by climbing the stairs to back to the first floor, the main entertaining area of this home.



It’s 1850. A white family sits around the table. The man at the head of the table, James M. Smith, is a 62-year-old merchant who financed the building of this house and is thought to be the first white child born in western North Carolina. James carves a large roasted ham, then lays the knife on the crystal rest.

His 56-year-old wife, Mary “Polly” Patton Smith, is seated at the foot of the table. She seasons her food with salt from the salt cellar at the corner of the table. The other diners, several of their adult children, pass glass bottles containing oil, vinegar, pepper, and dry mustard from the silver cruet stand at the table’s center. [Take particular note of the cruet stand, you’ll hear about it again.]

At the children’s table are the youngest members of the family, two of the Smiths’ grandchildren, who have lived with their grandparents since their mother passed away in 1844.

The Smiths are here this evening for a getaway from their primary residence in Asheville. Despite being just outside of downtown, this new brick mansion is considered the Smith’s “country house.”


Asheville, 1850


Asheville in the 1850s, though just a small village, was already known as a tourist center for its cool climate and mountain views.

At the center of downtown was a courthouse, a jail, a church (in which only occasional services were held), two hotels, a tannery, a blacksmithing shop, and a small number of houses, including the Smiths’ primary residence. At the time, the downtown area was home to 120 white residents and also contained a few small dwellings in which enslaved people lived. Many of these small dwellings housed people the Smiths enslaved. In 1850, the Smiths held at least 66 people captive.

In August 1850, the Asheville Messenger wrote of the arrival of Robert Duncanson, a celebrated young painter from Cincinnati. Unbeknownst to the Messenger, which praised the artist for appreciating the scenery in western North Carolina, Duncanson was an abolitionist and the son of a free Black woman. James W. Patton, Duncanson’s contact in Asheville, hosted the artist at his resort in Warm Springs and commissioned the above painting as well as portraits of himself and his wife. The Pattons enslaved many people and were also steadfastly against allowing “free Negroes” into the state.

Image: A View of Asheville, North Carolina, Robert Duncanson (1821 – 1872), 1850, Oil on canvas, Greenville County Museum of Art (03.21.14)


First Dollar

“This dollar was earned by [my father] James M. Smith at a very early age…. One day there was to be a very large picnic and a certain man wanted some plowing done. Everyone in town was going to the picnic…so James M. Smith offered to plow the land. He did the work very quickly and the man did not want to pay him for it. But he did pay him the dollar and he kept it as the first dollar he ever earned. He finished in time to attend the picnic.”

     — Harriet (Smith) Brown, May 1872

House Calls


Polly passed away in 1853.

In 1856, James became ill. His doctor made numerous house calls to examine and prescribe medications for James, designated “self” by the doctor in his account books. Then, beginning on April 30, James’s health deteriorated quickly. The doctor visited almost daily until May 18 when he traveled in the rain to pronounce James deceased.

The doctor also tended to people enslaved by the family. Enslaved people were considered an investment by the Smiths, so paying for doctor’s visits helped protect their investments. For instance, in April 1856, the doctor treated an enslaved person named Mary several times, once at night. The Smiths enslaved at least two people named Mary at the time – Mary, who was Tilda’s daughter and would have been about 9 years old, and Mary, who was married to a man named Jeff and had a son named Samuel.

With James’ death, Tilda’s family became the property of John Patton Smith, James’ son, and Mary, Jeff, and Samuel became the property of Elizabeth Smith Gudger, James’ daughter.

Image: Smith family account with Drs. Hardy and Hilliard, 1856, William Wallace McDowell Papers, UNC-Chapel Hill


Without a Will


After James Smith’s death in 1856, this house, along with at least 13 people, including Tilda’s family, passed to the Smiths’ second-oldest son, John Patton Smith. John may have been the first person to live in this house full time.

John died, unmarried and childless, only one year later, at just 34 years of age. Without a will, the future of this house – and the people John enslaved – was now in limbo.

Determined to keep the brick mansion in the family, John’s sister, Sarah Lucinda Smith McDowell and her husband, William Wallace McDowell, bought the house and surrounding grounds at auction in 1858 for just under $10,000. Shortly after finalizing the purchase, the McDowells moved into this house and “made it the home of [themselves] & family.”

Image: Buncombe County Slave Schedules, 1850, John P. Smith

Separation, continued


Tilda’s family was able to stay together until 1858, when her husband and children were sold on the steps of Asheville’s county courthouse, along with this house, as part of John P. Smith’s estate.

Joe Sr. was sold for $501 to Marcus Erwin.
Alfred, 19, was sold for $1,275 to George Spears.
Joe Jr., 16, was sold for $1,181 to J. Zachary.
Mary, 11, and Viney, 9, were sold to A.W. Cumming for $822 and $795.
Jane was unaccounted for.

Image: Asheville News, August 26, 1858

Know Their Names, Learn Their Stories

Slavery in the mountains was different from slavery in the Deep South. The mountain landscape did not allow for large labor-intensive cotton or rice plantations, and the difficulty of travel through the mountains did not encourage large-scale industries or heavy commerce. Enslaved people made up a much smaller portion of the total population than in other areas of the South, and most slaveholders held one or two people captive. The 1850 US Census listed 1,717 people enslaved in the county, about 13% of the population.

Unlike many of their neighbors, the Smiths and McDowells enslaved well over 100 people. Enslaved men, women, and children worked on the Smith farms and in their general store, hotel, tannery, and other businesses. Many were skilled craftspeople. Women cooked, wove, and cared for children and the house. Smith also leased the people he enslaved to his neighbors.

Though many enslaved people worked in this house and on its grounds on a day-to-day basis, we know little about their individual identities. Enslaved people were not legally allowed to learn to read or write, and white historians rarely recorded their stories – or even their names.

By utilizing archival, archaeological, and oral source material, we continue to work to uncover more names and piece together more stories of those held captive by the Smith and McDowell families.


It’s 1859. The parlor is lit only by a few oil lamps and a roaring fire.

A man enters, removes his pistol, and places it on the desk. He paces in front of the fire.

The man, a 36-year-old William W. McDowell had, a week before, been named captain of the newly formed Buncombe Riflemen, a volunteer militia – the first of its kind in western NC. He has been following the calls for the abolition of slavery and is well aware of how that would impact his business interests – not to mention his home life. He enslaves at least 40 people to run his businesses and his household. He already has five young children and another on the way.

Soon two more men arrive, escorted by an enslaved woman, Rebecca. The men are there to meet with McDowell to “select a suitable uniform” for the new militia. McDowell barks, “Coffee,” in Rebecca’s direction. She turns and leaves, soon returning with a heavily laden tray.

The committee decides their uniforms will be made of “steel mixed Rock Island Cassimere” with green fringe and velvet trim.

Committee of Vigilance


The men meeting with William tonight serve on another committee for the militia: the Committee of Vigilance.

This committee, “having reason to believe that this section of the country, like many other portions of the slaveholding States, is infested with itinerant Abolitionists, who, under various disguises are endeavoring to sow the seeds of disaffection among our slave population…” resolves to subject all “…strangers, particularly those from non-slaveholding States, who come in our midst under suspicious circumstances…to the most rigid scrutiny, and if there is probable cause to believe they are Abolition emissaries they shall be taken up and made to undergo a searching examination and be dealt with accordingly.”

Image: Asheville News, Dec. 29, 1859

Civil War in Western NC


Before the Civil War began in 1861, most people in western North Carolina were opposed to secession. After the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, however, many Southern men volunteered for military service. As the war dragged on for four long and brutal years, it took a terrible toll on the mountains. The war brought social chaos and personal suffering. Lawless groups known as “bushwackers” terrorized the population. Basic commodities such as salt became so scarce that people were drive to desperate measures simply to survive.

The economic strain on the communities of western North Carolina was severe but unequal. The local landed and commercial elite suffered losses of revenue. A number of wealthy lowland families who had summer homes in the mountains relocated to the Asheville are to ride out the war. They brought their own provisions and the people that they enslaved. But the majority of the population–small farm owners who did not enslave others – suffered the effects of an economic “perfect storm.” Small farmers who relied on surplus crops to trade for other necessities saw these surpluses go to supply troops. With male members of families in the military many farm fields went unplanted. Consequently, an act of nature such as a cold winter, a drought, a death in the family, a cholera epidemic among the hog population, could spell disaster. In addition most communities lost the services of their most valuable tradesmen, as blacksmiths, millers, tanners, doctors, and shoemakers when to the war effort. There were no railroads in the mountains and the exisiting roads quickly fell into disrepair.

Buncombe Riflemen


Before the war, W.W. McDowell was a farmer, a director of the Asheville Mutual Insurance Company, and an Asheville town commissioner. In 1857 and 1858 he was also an official weather observer for the Smithsonian Institution.

In December of 1859 in response to the raid on Harper’s Ferry, W.W. McDowell organized a local volunteer company known as the Buncombe Riflemen. With McDowell as its captain it left Asheville in 1861 and as Company E of the North Carolina First Volunteer Infantry participated in the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. This was the first major land battle of the Civil War.

After his early service to the Confederacy in 1861, W.W. McDowell fell ill and was forced to return home. He went back to the war the next year to serve as a major in the North Carolina 60th Infantry Regiment and participated in the Chickamauga and Bentonville campaigns.

Both Union and Confederate sides faced increasing difficulty in raising both troops and funds as the war continued for four years. By 1864, W.W. McDowell had returned to Asheville to serve as Confederate Treasury officer for the sale of war bonds.


Dysentery was the single greatest killer of Civil War soldiers and nearly all soldiers suffered from it at some point. As one surgeon put it, “No matter what else a patient had, he had diarrhea,” which was often due to the poor sanitary condition of camps as well as the lack of available or successful treatments.

In William W. McDowell’s 1861 request for leave, the doctor wrote that William suffered from dysentery and a “constant obstinate diarrhea for more than three weeks, and [was] rendered unfit for all Military duty and…[he was] so feeble and debilitated as scarcely able to be up.”

Sarah Gudger


In 1860, 44-year-old Sarah Gudger lived just outside of Asheville on the Hemphill’s plantation where she was enslaved. Sarah’s mother, Lucy McDaniel, had already passed away at a plantation on the other end of the county. Sarah’s father, Smart Gudger, lived nearby, but was enslaved by a different family. Sarah was interviewed in 1937 as part of the Federal Writer’s Project.

I never knowed what it was to rest [while enslaved]. I just work all the time from morning till late at night. I had to do everything they wanted done on the outside. Work in the field, chop wood, hoe corn, till sometime I feels like my back surely break.


Old Master strop us good if we did anything he didn’t like…he tie your hands before you body and whip you, just like you’re a mule. I took a thousand lashing in my day…. They didn’t care how old or how young you was, you never too big to get the lash.


When the darkies get sick, they was put in a lil’ old house close to the big house, and one of the other darkies waited on them. When they wanted medicine they went to the woods and gathered horehound, slipper elm for poultices, and all kinds of bark for teas.


I was getting along smartly in years when the war come…. That was an awful time. Us darkies didn’t know what it was all about…. Many the time we get word the Yankees coming. We take our food and stock and hide it till we sure they’s gone. We weren’t bothered much.


One day, I never forget, we look out and see soldiers marching; look like the whole valley full of them. I thought, “Poor helpless critters, just going away to get killed.” The drums was beatin’ and the fifes aplayin’…. Sometime they come home on furlough. Sometimes they get killed before they get through.


When the war was over…I stay with the white folks about twelve months, then I stay with my pappy, long as he live. I had two brothers. They went to California, never seed them no more, not my sister neither.

Cornelia Henry

In 1860, 24-year-old Cornelia Henry lived in Asheville with her husband, William, and her two children, Pinck and Zona. The Henrys enslaved at least nine people including Atheline, Jim, George, Jinnie, Fannie, Tena, and Sam and forced them to run their household and farm. The Henrys also leased people from neighbors. Cornelia kept extensive journals from 1860-1868.

June 9, 1861 – N.C. is out of the Union. Tennessee will soon be too. There has been two or three little spells of fights, not much. I fear we will have a bloody war yet.


December 29, 1861 – Jinnie had wretched coffee for supper. I sent her after some hickories intending to flog her but got too tender hearted when she came back crying so I could not whip her….


February 21, 1862 – The state of N.C. has a draft out. Oh! How can I give up my devoted husband….The people about here are volunteering at a rapid rate to avoid the draft.


November 22, 1863 – [My husband] came home!… He only stays a day or two & then goes again to serve his country.


December 27, 1863 – I do wish we could…have an honorable separation from the North. They have caused some of our best blood to flow & I never want to live under their rule again.


April 26, 1865 – The yankees, or rather Kirk’s men, came here last night hunting [my husband] to kill him, but thanks to a kind Providence, he was gone. I may never see him any more….


July 5, 1865 – There is a great change in the negroes. They seem not to want to do anything, only as they are hired.


October 15, 1865 – This war has changed our circumstances a great deal. I have done more hard work this summer than I ever did in my life. I can’t see the good of abolishing slavery.



It’s 1865. A 39-year-old Sarah Lucinda Smith McDowell stands by the window watching as Kirk’s Raiders make their way towards the house. Her husband, back at home from the battlefield due to poor health, is out of the house today as part of his job as a Confederate treasury officer.

Sarah paces nervously. The men will certainly pillage the kitchens and perhaps the dining room and parlor downstairs, but surely they wouldn’t feel the need to search the bedrooms upstairs. Weeks earlier, after hearing of the threats of raids, she’d asked Rebecca, one of the women her family enslaved, to bury her silver, including the 1822 cruet stand which normally sat on the dining room table, in the yard below to protect it from confiscation.

Sarah hears the men enter the house. She looks down at the empty cradle, built by her father, at the foot of her bed. Only months before she had rocked 7-month-old Carrie, her 8th child, to sleep in it by the fire. They had buried the little girl last January. Her grief almost overwhelms her, but she suddenly realizes with a jolt that the soldiers are now inside her bedroom.

One of the soldiers holds a pistol to her head and tells her not to move as the others begin pocketing the valuables that she has not managed to conceal. She can see others out the window raiding the smokehouse. One of the officers runs his sword through a large portrait of her father-in-law, James McDowell. Finally, the men, their hands full of all they can carry, vacate the house.

After the men are out of sight, Sarah composes herself and walks outside. All the people who had been enslaved here left days ago, including Rebecca. Sarah begins digging up the silver herself.

Kirk's Raiders

In the weeks after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, Union General George Stoneman’s troops marched toward Asheville, one of the last remaining Confederate strongholds. As they neared the city, Asheville’s Confederate forces, receiving word of Lee’s surrender, agreed to a truce. Stoneman’s men initially retreated, but when U.S. President Andrew Johnson rejected the terms of the truce, the men returned and sacked the city. One local remembered, “Asheville will never again hear such sounds and witness such scenes — pillage of every character, and destruction the most wanton.” Many people who had been enslaved in Asheville left their captors and followed the troops out of the city.

In the following days, however, Union Major George Kirk, leading the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry (better known as Kirk’s Raiders), occupied the city. Resident Ora Jones recalled in a 1917 Asheville Citizen article:

These men also entered the homes of the people, leaving a track of desolation and want in their wake. They left nothing of value behind, taking practically all the old broken down stock that had been refused by Stoneman’s band. They showed not a sign of pity or compassion for the half starved people they were so ruthlessly robbing, and the most piteous appeals fell on deaf ears.

Aftermath of War


When the Civil War ended, western North Carolina lay devastated, even though there had been no major battles in the region. The war left in its wake social disorder, economic suffering, political confusion, and continuing armed conflict. For more than ten years there was violence among various factions and the settling of old scores from the war years. Almost no money was in circulation, and values dropped, roads deteriorated, and commerce nearly came to a standstill. Thousands of men who were killed or disabled in the war were no longer there to work the family farm. The war had taken many of every community’s most productive craftsmen, businessmen and civic leaders. The Southern economy, built on slave labor, was in ruins.

The sketch at left shows the excitement in Asheville surrounding the first-ever Black voter registration. Then in 1868, Asheville witnessed a minor race riot when Black residents attempted to vote in that year’s presidential election. Asheville and many other communities also began to experience the intimidation and violence of the recently formed Ku Klux Klan.

Image: Voter Registration, Asheville, North Carolina, September 1867, Harper’s Weekly Magazine, September 28, 1867, p. 621


Seeking Pardon


Soon after the Confederate defeat, William W. McDowell asked the U.S. government for a pardon. William wrote that though he paid Confederate taxes, voted, and hoped for its success, since the venture had failed he had “truly and sincerely” renewed his loyalty to the United States.



It’s 1870. The war has ended and several white children play in this room attended to by a young Black woman. Her name is Charlotte Bailey. She has served the McDowell family since she was a child. First alongside her mother, Rebecca, enslaved. Now, as an employee.

Charlotte still does much of what she did while enslaved – cleaning and caring for the children. She lives with her parents, James and Rebecca Bailey, on South Main Street in Asheville in a small wooden home. This is the same home, still owned by the McDowells, that the family lived in while enslaved. Now they pay rent to the McDowells.

The lives of the McDowells and many of the people they enslaved continued to be entwined long after emancipation.

In the Parlor

Though this room is decorated to look like a playroom or parlor, it is likely that it would have been more often used as a bedroom.

In 1870, all nine of the McDowells’ children, ranging in age for two years old to 24, lived at home. With 11 family members in the house, even a large house like this, all upstairs rooms (even the attic) were likely used as bedrooms.


A New Home

“[Mr. McDowell has] found himself greatly embarrassed by debts, without any resources with which to meet them, except by a sale of a portion of all of his real estate.”
   – McDowell and McDowell v. Rumbough, Buncombe County Court Records, July 29, 1880.

William McDowell bends over his desk, pouring over his accounts, trying to decide how to salvage his family‘s fortune. Confederate currency is worthless and U.S. dollars are scarce. William decides their only option is to begin selling land.

One of the most valuable parcels is not far from this home and has far ranging mountain views. It is also the location of the family cemetery. To make the sale, the family will have to move the graves, including those of James and Polly Smith.

Even with income from land sales, the McDowells’ debts continue to grow. In 1881, they sell this house. At the same time, they use the money from the sales to finance the construction of a large new home on South Main Street in Asheville (at left).

Image: The McDowells’ new house, South Main Street, Asheville, 1890




It is likely no coincidence that soon after relocating to South Main Street in the 1880s, the McDowells sold an 11-acre tract of land to James and Rebecca Bailey near this house – on McDowell Street. This tract was part of a larger neighborhood, which would soon become a thriving African-American community until urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1889, the Baileys gave their daughter (now a widow, her last name Scales) a 1-acre parcel of their land and a small house on McDowell Street.

Despite working as a cook at a nearby boarding house and taking in laundry, Charlotte struggled to pay the taxes on the property. And, in 1896, the same year James Bailey passed away, Charlotte’s home and land was sold at auction to the highest bidder – Sarah Lucinda Smith McDowell.

In 1903, Charlotte moved to New York City where she passed away just two and a half years later at 53 years old.

Image: Mary and children, c1890


It’s 1881. A woman named Delila looks at the back of a large mansion. She moved to Asheville a few years ago to work as a maid. Soon after arriving, Delila fell in love with James McDowell, who lives in the mansion with his parents, William and Sarah McDowell.

Because of her low social status, the McDowells will not allow Delila to marry James. Instead, James moves Delila into a small structure nearby, which had once been home to a family held captive by the McDowells. Delila now works as a midwife, a skill she learned from one of the women who had formerly been enslaved here.

Because James has been away working on the railroad longer than expected, Delila has run out of the provisions he left.

She hopes the McDowells will take pity on her today, so that she can eat until James returns.



Ten Years Later


James and Delila have many children together; Delila, with James’ help, serves as her own midwife.

They are not married.

Shortly after the death of James’ father, James’ mother shuttles Delila, James, and their children in a wagon filled with all their possessions to the county line.

A minister follows on horseback.

As soon as they cross the border into the next county, the minister pronounces James and Delila man and wife.

Summer Kitchen


The Smith farm included numerous outbuildings. The one-story Summer Kitchen, highlighted in red on this c1915 photograph, was originally detached from the house as was tradition in the mid-1800s. This reduced the risk of fire and kept enslaved workers physically separated from those that held them captive.

In the 1880s, the Summer Kitchen was attached to the Main House via a two-story addition that added indoor plumbing.

Servant's Quarters


The “Servants’ Quarters” building, seen in the background of this c1915 photograph and highlighted in red, was likely one of at least six small homes built on this property to house people enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families. It was demolished in the 1950s.



This small outbuilding seen in the background at left in this 1955 photograph was thought to have been built around 1840 for meat storage. It was part of a large service yard that was used primarily for food preparation and processing. It would have been occupied almost exclusively by enslaved workers until 1865.

Around 1900, the then-owners, the Van Bergens, converted the building into a laundry, adding a chimney and wood stove for heating water and dividing the high-ceilinged space into two stories with stairs.

The Coming of the Railroad


In October of 1880, after forty years of technical difficulties and political bickering, the Western North Carolina Railroad arrived in Asheville. Soon after, other railroad lines came from north and south. The railroad brough massive changes to the life and economy of the region. Commerce boomed as new goods came in and farm products found new markets. Farmers also provided food to the many new hotels and boarding houses that were springing up to meet a flood of newcomers to the area, both new settlers and tourist. Local mountaineers found jobs as waiters, busboys, and drivers. Within ten years Asheville’s population quadrupled to over 10,000.

The railroad also opened up the vast hardwood forests to timber companies who clear-cut the mountainsides and often left little but erosion in their wake. Finally, the railroad made new fence laws necessary to keep farm animals off the tracks. This brought an end to the common practice by mountain farmers of letting their livesotck graze freely. The new laws put even greater pressure on the vast majority of farmers, who had only small land holdings. After centuries of an agrarian economy, trade and tourism were destined to become the driving forces in the evolution of the use of the land.



It’s the summer of 1884; a gentle breeze wafts through the open windows ruffling a blanket on the lap of a frail 36-year-old white woman, Mary Frances Garrett. She is suffering from what is currently known as consumption and often coughs into a handkerchief, which is spotted with blood. Few visitors come to the house; the Garretts are still considered new in town and many of their neighbors are worried about being exposed to the contagious disease.

Today, however, is an exception, and so Mary Frances has vacated her sick bed and come to the solarium to await the arrival of Adeline Gash, the 24-year-old daughter of a local senator, who will be serving as governess for Alexandra, Mary Frances’ young daughter.

Mary Frances peeks through the open window to get a better view as a carriage pulls up to the house. An uneasy feeling that has nothing to do with her ailing lungs grips Mary Frances as she watches her husband, Robert, take Adaline’s hand to help her down from the vehicle.

Mary Frances passed away in 1884. Three years later, Robert married his daughter’s governess, Adaline Gash.

Image: Mary Frances Garrett

New Owners

The new owners, the Garretts, settled into this brick mansion in 1881.

Robert Garrett was born in Downe, Ireland, in 1846 to Alexander and Elizabeth Garrett. The family immigrated in 1847 to the U.S. and settled in St. Louis where Alexander operated a mill and had amassed a sizeable fortune as a businessman in the Midwest. While living in St. Louis, Robert met and married Mary Frances Tarr.

In 1880, Alexander and Elizabeth moved to Asheville, NC, with their son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, Alexandra, to enjoy the climate and to try their hand at land speculation.

Asheville was a logical choice for the Garretts as Mary Frances’ health was failing from tuberculosis. It is possible that Mary Frances spent a good deal of time resting in the solarium to take advantage of the curative properties of Asheville’s cool mountain air.



By the 1880s, tuberculosis (TB) was the leading cause of death in the United States and a worldwide health concern. At the same time, Asheville was gaining prominence as a vacation destination and health resort and as the nation’s leading city for tuberculosis treatment.

Doctors had noticed a correlation between mountain air and relief for TB patients. Patients gained weight and strength, almost miraculously. Pioneering doctors moved to Asheville to specialize in TB treatment and open labs and sanitariums.

When the railroad reached Asheville in 1880, even more people began seeking treatment here. Doctors dreamt of converting Asheville into a mecca for TB sufferers; however, this dream was not shared by Asheville residents, who were afraid the city would become contaminated.

By 1900 tuberculosis hospitals dotted the countryside and boarding houses lined the streets of Asheville.




This machine was used by doctors in Asheville to treat tuberculosis by forcing a patient’s lung to collapse.

It was a prevalent theory that tubercular lungs needed to rest so that lesions caused by the disease could heal.

Beginning in the late 1800s, doctors injected oxygen or nitrogen into a patient’s chest cavity and continued increasing the pressure until the lung collapsed. The process would naturally reverse, so patients had to be treated every few weeks.

As you might imagine, this treatment was not as effective as both the doctor and patient might have hoped.

This portable version could be brought to a patient’s home and was likely used in the 1930s and 1940s.



In keeping with the extravagance of the era, Alexander and Elizabeth Garrett made every attempt to transform this house into a Victorian showplace. The Garretts commissioned the first major renovations here to make this home a fitting showplace for their wealth and social position, setting a new standard for Asheville’s wealthiest residents.

The modest central staircase was replaced with a much more dramatic set of stairs. Extensions to the back of the house contained two bathrooms with the latest indoor plumbing, a back stairway for household staff, a butler’s pantry, and a wine cellar. The original detached kitchen was connected to the house and thoroughly modernized. Other major additions were a carriage entrance on the north side of the house and a solarium on the south side.

After Alexander died in 1895, Robert Garrett Sr. and his second wife, Adaline, inherited this house. Robert’s daughter, Alexandra, continued to live here with her father, stepmother, and newborn half brother, Robert, Jr., until her marriage in 1898.



It’s 1898. Fifteen years after Mary Frances Garrett’s death from tuberculosis, her daughter, Alexandra, now a young woman, stands in this bedroom clothed only in elaborate undergarments.

She can hear her father, Robert, greeting guests as they arrive for her wedding. Just family members and a few close friends are here on this late February evening. The house is “beautifully decorated in white and green—palms, maidenhair fern and Easter lilies everywhere in profusion.” A live singer entertains the guests downstairs. Alexandra has already shipped her belongings to her soon-to-be husband’s home.

Alexandra’s maid of honor helps the bride slip on a long white satin dress with point lace trimmings. This is the same dress her mother had worn on her wedding day.

At 9:00 p.m. exactly, the pianist begins to play the Wedding March and “a pathway was made through to the large parlors [for] the bride leaning on her father’s arm.”

After the ceremony, Alexandra climbed halfway up the main staircase and stood on the landing.

With her back against the curved railing, which her father had installed just for this purpose, Alexandra tossed her bouquet to a group of single women waiting below.

Deceiving Appearances

 “[My grandfather, Robert Garrett,] who had been a rakehell and wastrel in his early days, became fanatically religious. Mother [Alexandra] had few happy memories of her lonely childhood except for those concerning a donkey her father bought her.


Mother used to say that she became serious about the relationship [with my father] during a horse race. The two young people were pushing their mounts as hard as they could when he reined in, turned aside and dismounted. He had seen an injured dog on the roadside and stopped to help.


There was little happiness in her father’s house but she found much in her marriage to my father…. Released from the many restrictions of her father’s puritanical home and from the conflict with her stepmother {Adaline], my mother delighted in operas, concerts, [and] balls….”

– Frances Johnston Ogden, September 30, 1972

The Guilded Age


The last decades of the 1800s were dubbed “The Gilded Age” by author Mark Twain because they were often marked by extravagance – at least for the wealthy. Farming and land speculation continued. Railroads brought new industries, commerce, and people to western NC.

Americans made wealthy by the industrial revolution – the country’s uncrowned aristocracy – flocked to the Asheville area for recreation and business opportunities. Some built (or remodeled) impressive homes while others frequented new luxury hotels.

With these changes came changes in the region’s environment and social structure. The farmland by the river where Daniel Smith had first settled was now covered by railroad yards, factories, and warehouses.

Many local residents felt marginalized by the area’s growth and the money and power of the new social elite.


By the 1880s, George Vanderbilt, heir to a railroad fortune, began touring the area looking for land on which to build his grand Biltmore Estate.

To prevent Vanderbilt from expanding into the area around this house, Alexander Garrett led the effort to convince his neighbors to incorporate in 1887.

Alexander named the town Victoria, after Queen Victoria (1887 was the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee), and served as its first mayor.

“A drive through its borders presents at every point a view such as rarely equaled…. Every dwelling in Victoria seems to vie with its neighbor in setting a good example of neatness and thrift. Lawns closely cut, and shimmering with living green, rest and refresh the eye at every step, and charms us ‘old residents’…”

   – Asheville Daily Citizen, May 8, 1889

It its 18-year existence, Victoria changed greatly. No longer composed of mostly wealthy families and their servants, Victoria’s inhabitants were now more blue-collar. The 1904 city directory showed residents employed as service industry workers in hotels and schools as well as dressmakers, firemen, nurses, carriage cleaners, plumbers, and ice deliverers.

Victoria was annexed into Asheville in 1905.


It’s 1902. A 34-year-old woman stands on this landing conversing with her 39-year-old husband. The woman, Clara Robinson, holds a stack of bright white bed sheets she has just finished washing and pressing. Her employers, the Van Bergens, have recently purchased this house and converted the old meat-curing building into a laundry.

Employed here as a chambermaid, Clara is responsible for keeping this large house clean. Her husband, William, works as a butler here and is in charge of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry.

The couple and their three children live in a small house next to the laundry building. They are required to rent it as a condition of their employment.

Though William was born enslaved in Georgia, he gained his freedom at three years old. William and Clara married while William was serving in the U.S. military.

Though neither William nor Clara were able to attend school, they both learned to read and write. Now their three children, Joseph, 15, Lilly, 12, and Andrew, 9, attend the nearby segregated Catholic Hill School during the day.

When the Van Bergens packed up their things, sold this house, and moved to France in 1907, the Robinsons also relocated. The Robinson family first moved to Connecticut and, by 1915, were living in Manhattan – about 75 blocks north of where the Van Bergens kept an apartment. In New York, William continued to work as a butler and Clara as a chambermaid.

The Jim Crow South

In 1896, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal in response to a Black man who attempted to sit in a whites-only railway car in New Orleans. Over the next two decades, the State of  North Carolina and the City of Asheville passed laws mandating segregated schools, libraries, hospitals, bathrooms, water fountains, and prisons. Interracial marriage was illegal.

Soon, even some outdoor spaces became legally segregated. In 1915, the city began enforcing separate white and Black areas of Pack Square park in the center of downtown Asheville.

New Owners, Again


Less than a year after Alexandra’s 1898 wedding, feeling that the extravagance of this mansion and the Victorian lifestyle was antithetical to his puritan religious beliefs, Robert Sr. sold the house to Charles and Amelia Van Bergen, and the Garretts moved to a smaller home around the corner.

The Van Bergens had recently relocated to Asheville, and Dr. Van Bergen was working as the assistant physician at a nearby sanitorium.



The Addition

Both the Garretts and the Van Bergens were responsible for the many architectural changes in this house around the turn of the 20th century. They constructed a two-story addition at the rear of the house connecting the Summer Kitchen with the main house.

The new wing added indoor plumbing for the benefit of the owners and their guests as well as a wine cellar and butler’s pantry. It also added a space specifically for employees to work while remaining mostly out-of-sight.

As a condition of their employment, staff were required to rent a house on the property so that they would always be on-site when needed.

The Servant's Quarters


The Van Bergens came to Asheville just as George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate was completed. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, also designed the landscape for Biltmore. And, in 1899, the Van Bergens, in the tradition of ultra-wealthy Asheville, hired Olmsted’s sons, the Olmsted Brothers, to produce a planting plan for this house.

When these plans were rediscovered in the early 1980s, the location of a small house, where the Robinson family could have lived while working here, was also rediscovered. It is very likely that this small structure once also housed people enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families.

There were numerous outbuildings associated with this house, including at least six “slave houses.”

The “Servant’s House” shown on the planting plan was razed in the 1950s when the main house was taken over to serve as a dormitory for the nearby Catholic School.



New Owners, Again


The Van Bergens sold this mansion and its extensive gardens to the Bates, who gifted it to their daughter and son-in-law, the McKees. The families, who were friends of the Vanderbilts, had resided on the Biltmore property before moving to this house.

The youngest McKee, Francis, recalled accidentally dropping a ring from the third story nursery window while under the watch of a private tutor. Just five-years-old at the time, she never went looking for the ring, afraid that she would get in trouble. As an adult, Francis wore the Hope Diamond at her coming out party, was presented to the Queen in England, sailed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, played doubles with Kathryn Hepburn, and flew with Charles Lindbergh.


It’s 1920. A young man, Herman Gudger, a distant relative of James M. Smith, sits on the built-in window seat reading a book. The butler approaches and hands him a telegram.

Thanking the man, Herman opens the telegram. He reads the missive and jumps from his seat. His life-long friend and partner, Brewster Chapman, has been found gravely injured in Canada and taken to the hospital. In shock, Herman immediately begins the trip north. By the time he arrives, Brewster has passed away.

Leaving the hospital, Herman makes his way to the Western Union office to send a telegram, which reads:

“Mr. Chapman died Saint Boniface hospital here following a fall in bath with shock from effects hot water. Leave here this afternoon Southern line via St. Paul, and Chicao, Pennsylvania from Chicago to Newark, arriving Newark Sunday morning at six thirty. Services probably in Glenn Ridge Monday. Burial family cemetery in Connecticut.”

In his will, Brewster left this mansion to Herman. Herman, devasted, moved shortly after.



When millionaire Brewster Chapman purchased this mansion from the McKees in 1913, he hired architect Richard Sharp Smith, who had been the supervising architect on the Biltmore Estate, to renovate the home. Many of the architectural features that you see today remain from Chapman’s residency.

At Brewster’s request, the new plans called for oak hardwood flooring to cover up the original wide-plank pine floors, new ornate mantles, a new Vermont red-slate roof, updated bathrooms, and closets in the bedrooms. Brewster also added the archway on the first floor and the columns on the side porch entrance.



Were Brewster and Herman in a committed romantic relationship?

We don’t know.

For most of the 20th century, the personal lives of gay and lesbian individuals in North Carolina were shrouded in silence. Homosexuality was considered a taboo subject and typically only a person’s closest acquaintances knew of their sexual orientation.

Though this began to change in the late 1960s, gay marriage was not legalized in North Carolina until October 14, 2014.


It’s 1937. This house has seen a rotating series of occupants – some owners, some renters, and lots of summer residents – since Brewster Chapman’s death in 1920. Wisteria covers the front porches, slowly eating away at century-old woodwork, brick, and mortar. No one has lived here full time in years. The house often sits vacant. Across town, however, many of the people who were once enslaved by the owners of this house – like George Avery and Ben Ragsdale – have formed a vibrant, thriving community of their own known as South Asheville.

George and Ben live at the center of South Asheville on Dalton Street, a road that dead ends into St. John “A” Baptist Church and the South Asheville Cemetery. The cemetery is situated on land deeded over to George and other elders of his church by the McDowell family in the 1890s. It had been founded as a burial ground for the people enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families in the early 1800s. After 1865 it became a public cemetery.

George, now in his 90s, had escaped bondage at 18 years old and joined the Union Army. When he returned from war, he made a home on Dalton Street and became the caretaker of the cemetery. Just a few doors down from George’s home is the home of Sarah Gudger, who is now 121 years old.


A woman knocks on the door of Sarah’s house. She has been sent by the federal government to record the stories of formerly enslaved people. Sarah is willing to share her experience. As the two women sit on the front porch, Sarah looks out at Dalton Street and remembers:

Old Master strop us good if we did anything he didn’t like…. He tie your hand before your body and whup you, just like you’re a mule. Lawdy, honey, I’s took a thousand lashings in my day. Sometimes my poor old body be sore for a week.

I remember when my old mammy die. She lived on Rims Creek with [another family]. She sick a long time. One day a white man come to see me. He say, ‘Sarah, did you know your mammy was dead?’ ‘No,’ I say. I went to the house and say to Old Missie: ‘My mother she die today. I wants to see my mother before they puts her away,’ but she look at me mean and say: ‘Get on outta here, and get back to your work, before I wallup you good.’ So I went back to my work, with the tears streaming down my face… About two weeks later, Old Missie she get terrible sick…Wasn’t long before they put her away too, just like my mammy.


When the war was over, Master William he say: ‘Did you all know you all’s free now.’ I chuckle…I tell them I go live with my pappy, long as he live.

George Avery passed away on May 19, 1938, and was laid to rest in the South Asheville Cemetery. Sarah Gudger passed away peacefully in her sleep five months later at 122 years of age.

A Catholic Boys' School

In 1951, the Catholic Diocese purchased this house for a boys’ dormitory for Asheville Catholic High School, which was operating their school on the property adjacent to this house. By 1974, the Catholic school had closed, and the Church became interested in selling the property. 

A National Historic Landmark

The then-dilapidated house and grounds were purchased by Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in 1974. That same year, the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) negotiated a lease to restore the house as a museum and heritage center. The house is now owned by WNCHA and included on the National Register of Historic Places.


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