guest post by Susan H. Jackson
EDIT March 6, 2022 Thanks for stopping by–like you, I’m really wondering about the Big House in the Outlander tv series. While watching episode one of season 6, I was actually pausing the video and checking out different aspects of the home, and wow–the interior is rather opulent. I wrote the article to show that large houses (not just rustic cabins) could be built in the wilds of 18th c. North Carolina, as well as a few other places in the state. I do feel, however, that the show’s set for the house is a very wealthy landowner’s house, not the type of house the Frasers lived in according to the books. Jamie and Claire are not filthy rich settlers, so I have to stop looking at the fancy woodwork, glass windows, and gigantic rooms, and just enjoy the show! That said, please read the rest of this with the mindset that though I disagree with the fancy tv set house, there were some rather large homes built in NC during the Colonial period, and they’re still standing as proof!
Well, Outlander friends, we’re less than a month away from the end of Droughtlander–yay! All of the press releases, photos, interviews and sneak peeks have me even more impatient for the beginning of season five! From what I’ve seen, saying it looks like it’s going to be exciting is an understatement! I’ve tried to fill my time with re-watches, re-reads and reading about the history associated with the upcoming season. While the subject I’ve written about for this blog post isn’t historically significant–well, it is to a point–it was something that is important to our favorite show and questions about historical accuracy.
A few months back, social media lit up when one of the Outlander crew shared a last-day-of-filming-Outlander-season-five photo. Most of the cast and crew posed with smiling faces on the set of Fraser’s Ridge, with the Big House in the background. Opinions emerged, and some looked at that gorgeous two-story structure, and said “It’s just like I imagined it would be,” while others said, “No way–how could they build a house like that in such a remote area? Where did that come up with that paint color?!” Jon Gary Steele did share that the paint color was historically accurate, and the house, too, for that matter.
Whether it’s just as you imagined or not, I feel like our assumptions about mountain living are that it’s poor, dirty, and houses were unpainted and without adornment. We almost automatically think that a house such as the structure on set wouldn’t be sitting on a mountain ridge in the wild backcountry of Colonial North Carolina. Granted, the 18th century certainly lacked the construction technology we have today, but, just like today, if someone is well-off financially, they could afford all that modern life offered. There are several homes from the time period of the Fraser’s North Carolina that are still standing, and I’m going to share a bit of history about each one with you! (Disclaimer: I am not an architectural historian by any means–heck, I’m not even a historian, period! I love houses, and I especially love Colonial homes. I don’t claim to know all of the technical stuff, but hope you can enjoy reading my ramblings about these great finds in North Carolina!)
The town of Edenton boasts several homes of original architecture from Colonial times, including the Lane House, the oldest house in North Carolina, the Cupola House, and the 1767 Courthouse.
The two houses of interest that would’ve been standing in the Frasers’ time are the Lane House and the Cupola House. Now, the Lane House is not a big nor a fancy place, but it is important to North Carolina. The Lane House was discovered to have been built around 1719, making it the oldest house in the state! Recently, new owners were having it renovated for renting. A carpenter saw some of the wood under the layers of modern materials, and alerted the owners. Experts were called in, and after performing dendrochronological research, they estimated the age of the structure. (More about the discovery of this architecural treasure from NC Department of Natural Resources.)
The Cupola House, also located in Edenton, was built in 1758 for Robert Carteret, Earl of Granville, one of the Lords Proprietors. This gorgeous structure is a testament to building a house that is anything but a log structure in a remote area. A home in the northeast coastal region of North Carolina would have had to be built of local materials, as the swamps and large bodies of water surrounding the area would have made transport of imported materials difficult and very expensive. (Many census records show that “shinglemaker” was not an uncommon occupation, so if they were making shingles for homes, they were making pretty much everything else, too!) The house began to decline, even though one family owned it for 141 years, but thanks to the efforts of local citizens who organized the Cupola House Association, the house is refurbished and ready for visitors to come and tour the gardens and home. More recent discoveries about the original siding and other architectural details about the cupola can be read at the Cupola House Association website.
EDIT: I discovered these images of the Georgian woodwork from the Cupola House at the Brooklyn Museum website. In financial need, one of the family members sold the woodwork to the Museum in 1918. It is still on display.
Another house in the northeastern part of the state in Perquimans County is the Newbold-White House, the oldest brick house in the state, built by Quaker Abraham Sanders about 1730. I cannot be sure if bricks were made on-site, but I have a feeling that they were, as John Lawson noted in his expeditions that the coastal area had perfect brick-making materials. The house has been restored to its original appearance, and can be toured during the months of April-October.
In the Piedmont region of the Old North State, you can find the House in the Horseshoe near Sanford. The house was built by Phillip Alston (a Whig Colonel), in 1772. It was the site of a fight in 1781 between the Tories and Alston’s soldiers. Note the two porches are open underneath, and at one time, it’s very likely that none of the crawlspace was closed in, as it provided shelter for the roaming farm animals people kept for food during that time. You can find more about the architectural details, including a remodel done by a subsequent owner at the NC Historic Site webpage.
As we get in the Highlands of North Carolina, in Ferguson (not far from the venue of Fraser’s Ridge Homecoming), you can visit the home of William Lenoir, Fort Defiance. Lenoir fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain, and when he found the old fort abandoned, he bought the property and finished the house in 1792. According to the Fort Defiance website, there were five outbuildings located around the house, as well, to serve the family’s needs for food storage and cooking.
Once again, I am far from being an architecture history expert, but after reading a bit about different Colonial homes that are still with us today here in North Carolina, I see that it is totally possible for the Frasers to build such a large “fancy” house in the rugged Highlands of North Carolina. It would’ve taken years, though. The materials for posts, floors, walls and siding were all there in the forests, and would have to be milled by hand. If you’ve ever watched The Woodwright’s Shop on PBS and seen Roy Underhill use all of those non-electric woodworking tools, you can imagine the back-breaking work involved for anyone building a structure during that time period. Chimneys in the mountains were built with stones that lay anywhere and everywhere, likely found while clearing land.
It’s funny what takes up our time during Droughtlander. Any little thing someone from the television series shares just grabs our attention–well, mine, anyway–and I find myself falling down the rabbit hole of history, or searching other fan sites or in the pages of my Outlandish Companion, hungry to learn more until season five begins and the yearning is over! I do enjoy houses, and have especially enjoyed learning more about some of these old homes that have such great historical meaning, and that they’re right here in my home state. Thank you for indulging me and one of my nerdy interests!
For more architectual information, (that I found pretty fascinating), download the pdf of the book Colonial Houses (written by John V. Alcott in 1963) from the NC Department of Cultural and Natural Resources. It describes every style of Colonial home, from the smallest one-room structure to the grand homes of wealthy landowners.
What’s getting you through Droughtlander? One thing that has me looking past the end of season 6 is Fraser’s Ridge Homecoming, taking place October 19-21 in Ferguson, NC! The living history encampment, the interesting workshops and activities, and not to mention the fine entertainment that is scheduled to be there this year give me something to look forward to this Fall. Oh–by the way, Graham McTavish (Dougal McKenzie) will be the celebrity guest! Please check out the webpage for more information, and consider investing in this experience of 18th century mountain life, and the history of the Fraser’s North Carolina. You won’t regret it!