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Before Biltmore Estate: Changing Ownership

Written By Lauren Henry

Posted 01/15/24

Updated 02/29/24

Estate History

The 8,000 acres of present-day Biltmore Estate have a rich history of inhabitants dating back millennia.

In this two-part blog series, we recognize and share a brief history of some of the many people who have called this land home throughout history.

The Alexander Mill, pictured here ca. 1888, was located southwest of Biltmore House. Members of the Alexander family were early settlers in this area and sold hundreds of acres of land to George Vanderbilt.
The Alexander Mill, pictured here ca. 1888, was located southwest of Biltmore House. Members of the Alexander family were early settlers in this area and sold hundreds of acres of land to George Vanderbilt.

Agriculture in the Antebellum Era

The State of North Carolina sold the former Cherokee Nation land included within its boundaries through land grants to white landowners in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Though these parcels varied in size, agriculture was a primary use of land in the Asheville area, though not on the scale of the larger plantations elsewhere in the Southeast.

Censuses show that prior to the Civil War and emancipation in 1865, there were enslaved people working the farms and living among the white landowners on tracts that now comprise Biltmore Estate. Author Wilma A. Dunaway calculated in her book The First American Frontier that in 1860, 41.7% of farmers in the Appalachian counties of North Carolina were using enslaved labor or a combination of enslaved and tenant labor to work their land. That same year, there were a total of 1,933 enslaved people held in all of Buncombe County.

This excerpt from an Asheville Weekly Citizen article dated June 25, 1891, shows the public fascination with George Vanderbilt's acquisition of land.
This excerpt from an Asheville Weekly Citizen article dated June 25, 1891, shows the public fascination with George Vanderbilt’s acquisition of land.

Arrival of George Vanderbilt

In May 1888, 23 years after emancipation, George W. Vanderbilt began purchasing land in the Asheville area through agents. By 1895, he had acquired many parcels totaling around 100,000 acres, which caused quite a buzz in the local community. The landowners that he purchased from included both white and free Black property owners, both of whom by this date had deep roots, if not comparable land ownership histories, in the community.

The future site of Biltmore House is pictured here ca. 1889 after it and the surrounding area was acquired from Boston Jenkins and others.
The future site of Biltmore House is pictured here ca. 1889 after it and the surrounding area was acquired from Boston Jenkins and others.

New Shiloh

Much of the land that makes up the Biltmore House site and nearby areas to the east was previously owned by members of Shiloh. The community of Shiloh consisted of around 28 African-American landowners, with a total population of more than 100 individuals by 1888. Reverend Boston A. Jenkins, one of the trustees of the Shiloh A.M.E. Zion Church, was the former owner of what is today the location of Biltmore House and the adjacent Stable Complex.

The prices paid for most of the Shiloh tracts averaged around $37 per acre, which was more than the fair market value at the time. Prices paid by Vanderbilt ranged from a few cents per acre to $1,000 for the one-acre parcel that included the Shiloh Church. Biltmore Estate acquired a tract of land on which an upgraded church building was relocated and subsequently transferred ownership to Shiloh residents. The surrounding community then became known as “New Shiloh.”

Archival Guide Map of Biltmore Estate, ca. 1896
Archival Guide Map of Biltmore Estate, ca. 1896

Remembering Biltmore’s Residents

While many people are familiar with the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt, it is vital to Biltmore’s cultural history to acknowledge the many individuals who came before the Vanderbilts and who lived and worked on this land since their arrival, including thousands of tenants and employees.

While there are many oral histories in Biltmore’s archives that speak to the experience of growing up on these grounds in the 20th century, the stories of most of those who came before have unfortunately been lost to time. In lieu of more detailed or personal accounts of individuals and communities who once lived on this land, it is essential that we acknowledge their existence as a way to honor and remember their lives and legacies.

Through environmental stewardship practices, land conservation efforts, and collaborative research projects, Biltmore remains dedicated to being good stewards of this storied land that has been home to so many, including Native Americans, the Shiloh community, and all descendants of the people who came before us.

Further Reading

For information on Native Americans who once called this land their home, read part one of this blog series, Before Biltmore Estate: Early Inhabitants.

Additional resources on this topic:

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