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About the Big House…

January 18, 2020

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.

Photo by David A. Stewart on Instagram

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.

The House in the Horseshoe, Sanford, NC. Photo from Facebook

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.

Fort Defiance, Ferguson, NC photo from fortdefiancenc.org

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!

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  • Reply Lisa Margulies January 18, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Completely fascinating! I have to admit I was a little amazed that such a grand S5 “big house” would be possible in the remote 18th century NC backcountry. You’ve done some probable research to restore my confidence however. I’m sure we won’t see the how it happened in the series but now know with the right resources the possibility is real! Thanks!

  • Reply Susan Jackson January 18, 2020 at 11:48 am

    I was the same at first sight, Lisa, but when I thought about these other places–and there are probably more!–I knew I had to write about them and let people know that a big old house in the mountains was possible in the 18th century! What gets me is the work involved. Granted many settlers building a large house would have likely had slaves–even the Quaker who built the Newbold-White house had some slave labor, which was unusual at that time. That house, and the ones in Edenton are close to me, so I used to take their existence for granted. Not anymore!

    Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  • Reply Maryann January 18, 2020 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for your research. It was very interesting. As you mentioned, someone with money, or who lived closer to actual towns, could very possibly have built the house as shown in Season 5. The two that would also seem plausible from your research would be the Fort Defiance house and the House in the Horseshoe, minus the brick chimneys and the fancy trim on the one house. I realize JGS mentioned they did research for paint and style and such, and don’t doubt that it’s accurate for the time period, but don’t agree that it would have been feasible for the Frasers’ location and financial straits. The show has them looking like they have unlimited funds, which they don’t. If the Big House looked similar to the two houses previously mentioned, I wouldn’t have had any problems with it. While it’s certainly beautiful, I just don’t think it’s realistic for the location and circumstances. There’s milled posts, jut-outs which would have involved a lot more detailed work, and lots and lots of brick. Like you indicated, I would think stone found from clearing the land would have been used. Oh, well…it is what it is.

  • Reply Susan Jackson January 18, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    I agree with you, Maryann–the “Big House” in my mind is not as grand as the one on set. I mostly wanted to say that is was _possible_ to build a house like that, if money was not a problem. I think I find the Newbold-White House the most fascinating–I mean, this area is as remote as the mountainous region. I can’t imagine the guts it took to build a house like that here with hurricanes and flooding always a possibility!

    Like you said, it is what it is. I’ll take it until I can’t! 😀

    Thanks for reading my ramblings!

  • Reply Alysen Chappell January 18, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Susan, if I had more time at the moment, I would be doing just as you are. I love investigating and finding answers to historical, architectural & botanical queries. The only thing I have to say about the Big House & many of Bree’s ‘inventions’ are that Bree & Claire put their personal stamp of living in the 20th century on many of Fraser Ridge’s construction projects. Like the hot running water that Bree’s trying to bring to their cabin (Book 6 or 7?). At least that’s what I gleaned from the books. And I think glass windows were something Claire mentioned in one of the books ….

  • Reply Susan Jackson January 18, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    I do love the “upgrades” in the books! I wonder what I’d want most of all–probably running water. I could handle the heating up, but toting it from a well outside to the house, livestock, garden–whew! It makes me tires just thinking about it!

    I’m really blessed to live near Edenton and Perquimans County–speaking of the Newbold-White house, they have a replica boat of the Periauger boat and it was used in the movie “Harriet!” So cool. Anyway, I’m blessed to live in a very historically-significant area in spite of the low population, and knew about the others, so it almost feels natural to write about them in a comparative way with the on-screen Big House. I can’t write an in-depth architectural article, but I can share what I know! 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Reply Lynne Lawson January 19, 2020 at 7:29 pm

    This was a very interesting article. Alysen Chappell made a comment about Bree trying bring water to their cabin, it was in Book 6. They dug a hole to build a kiln, so she should make clay pipes to bring water from the creek to the house. Also I would like to ask about a comment you made in the article, which I’ll quote here. “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.” From which book did you get this information from?

  • Reply Susan Jackson January 19, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    Hi, Lynne! I’ve been a substitute teacher for many years and have learned a lot about NC history when I’m in the 4th grade classes. So instead by of the source I relied on my recollections for most of my info, and that is one.. (I was surprised to learn about his description of “crane-berries” found in the swamps and have even discovered an old tract of land here named Cranberry Island! I just need someone to go traipsing through the woods and fields with me to find it. ?) You can, however, find a copy of his book online at the Documenting the American South website:

    Hope this helps—I see you share a surname—are you related?

  • Reply LINDA MERRILL April 12, 2022 at 10:07 am

    Hi Susan – I just came across this post. I’ve also written about the “Big House” and agree, the overall exterior architecture is a little larger and more ornate than is described in the books, but not out of the realm of possibility for the period, location and their circumstances. But, the interiors are just not remotely realistic. For one thing, like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. The rooms are too large, ceilings too high. The curved staircase is ridiculous. But, as an interior designer, I start to really focus on the decor – the millwork is much too ornate – who would have had time to do that??? People are scratching out a living. The color palettes are pretty, but the dark teal paint would have broken Aunt Jocastas bank, let alone Jamie and Claires. Blues are historically the most expensive colors to produce. And then there’s the wallpaper in J&C’s bedroom, two crystal chandeliers in the parlor and dining room, the matching fine china set, velvet and crewel-work upholstered furniture, formal window treatments with tassels and pelmets. All is historically accurate, but in no way feasible as almost all of those items would have been European imports. And who would have been the decorator – Claire? Clearly, she’s focused on healing, not decorating. The labor alone makes not sense since all the tenants were busy building their own shacks and tending their own lands. Sorry, will get off my soapbox now!

    • Reply Susan Jackson April 21, 2022 at 9:55 am

      Hi, Linda–and I thank you for getting the main point of my ramblings! Every new episode that comes along, I find myself looking closely at the interior and finding more things that just don’t fit right in the book Frasers’ home. The wallpaper in the master bedroom caught my eye, too–wallpaper in a 18th c. home in the backcountry mountains? That was probably more over-the-top than the fancy windows and woodwork. I think about the woodwork in the Cupola House in Edenton (though most of it is no longer in the house), and that’s more feasible–it’s right there by the water where transporting finished items was just an off-the-boat-and-two-blocks-up-the-street kind of things. The millwork would’ve taken years in that remote area where Fraser’s Ridge would be, and that’s not to mention the cost. Jamie and Claire didn’t have that kind of money, and like you said, Claire was not a homemaker first and foremost. As far as I can recall her wanting anything for her home was the blue vase in the shop window from the first book. lol The layout of her surgery was more important than the layout and interior of the house.

      I get it, though–they have created that house for tv–not only for the space needed to house crew and equipment, but as a feast for the eyes. I think tv-oriented people expect the elaborate home while we book-readers know that it wasn’t a showplace like Jocasta’s home, or even Lallybroch, for that matter.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda. Some time ago, I actually read your website article about the Big House, and was grateful to see someone with a trained eye feel the same way I did. I’m not a pro by any means, but I love houses, and thanks to the internet, I can see a historic home, and quickly find plenty of information about it. I’m also very lucky to live in northeast NC where historic houses still exist and they give me great pleasure to visit.

  • Reply Richard Leighton May 9, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    I love the series, but I do take exception to the many “period” errors with the home. I have restored homes from the 18th century though the 19th century. The size is not the issue. It’s with how the details of the home lacked attention. Just one example would be how the exterior treatment of the windows we executed. Windows of the period would have had much thicker window sills. About 2+” thick. Casings would have been larger with multiple layers. No one mitered exterior casings. Window aprons were only used on the inside. This is just one of multiple examples that I saw.

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