Before Biltmore Estate: Earliest Inhabitants
Written By Lauren Henry
The 8,000 acres of present-day Biltmore Estate have a rich history of inhabitants dating back millennia.
In this blog, we recognize and share a brief history of some of the many people who have called this land home throughout history.
Early Native American Roots
George W. Vanderbilt chose to build his home at this site because of the spectacular mountain views and mild climate. Before his time, there were other reasons why people found this location desirable. Due to the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers, groups have settled here for almost 10,000 years. There were also two major trade routes that passed through this region, making it a much-used area for people from near and far.
Modern archaeological investigations on Biltmore Estate show evidence of significant Native American occupations. They span many years, dating from the Early Archaic period (ca. 8000 BCE) to the late Pisgah phase (ca. 1500 CE) of the Mississippian period.
One of the most significant Native American sites on the estate is known as the “Biltmore Mound and Village Site.” This earthen mound dates to the Connestee phase of the Middle Woodland period (ca. 200–600 CE), or around 1,400–1,800 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that the mound, which has been reduced from several hundred years of plowing, served as the substructure for a series of wooden town or council houses. These buildings were used as the civic and ceremonial centers of the surrounding village and the wider Native American settlements in the area.
Forced Removal of the Cherokee
By the time European settlers began arriving in this region in the late 18th century, this land was officially recognized as Cherokee territory. After the Revolutionary War, pressure on Native populations increased. The Cherokee Nation ceded much of the land that nearly 100 years later would make up Vanderbilt’s 125,000-acre estate to the United States government in the Treaty of Holston and the First Treaty of Tellico in the 1790s. These land cessions were made through coercion and encroachment and rarely represented the wishes of the Cherokee people as a whole.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 granted the government the power to relocate tribes to land west of the Mississippi. Five years later, some members of the Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota, which paid them $5 million to leave their ancestral lands in the Southeast. The forced migration to the new Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839 became known as the Trail of Tears. The few who persevered to remain here or return later are the ancestors of the present-day Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). This tribe now mainly calls the Qualla Boundary their home, located about 40 miles west of Biltmore.
In 1890, when Biltmore House was under construction, an Extra Census Bulletin from the U. S. Census Office totaled the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina at 1,520 members. Despite their proximity, there seems to have been little interaction between George Vanderbilt or the estate and the EBCI. One exception is the sale of timber by a group of Cherokees to Carl Schenck during his time as Biltmore’s forester. There are also a few known early employees documented as claiming Cherokee ancestry.
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 African American Shiloh community, and all descendants of the people who came before us.
Further Reading on This Topic:
As Long as the Grass Shall Grow: A history of Cherokee land cessions and the formation of Buncombe County, by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds
The Trail of Tears: A Story of Cherokee Removal by Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian