The Development of Birdwood as a Southern Plantation


By the time William Garth (1794-1860) built the Birdwood Mansion, 1831-1834, the Garth family had assembled a large amount of land and wealth within the county. They were active members of the local government, militia and wealthy land-owning class. The culture of the county had changed over the 18th century, moving from frontier settlement to an area of established agriculture, and the Garth’s changed with it. Thomas Garth Sr. and Jr. both bought up large amounts of acreage, established their own plantations and even gave farming advice to Thomas Jefferson. William continued with this expansion and upward mobility by purchasing 689 ½ acres of land from his brother Jesse W. Garth in 1817; this was in addition to the 322 acres which was given to him by his parents in 1814.1 From the date of this purchase forward, William developed a successful plantation and continued to accumulate wealth until his death in 1860. Many of the original agricultural structures and buildings associated with the enslaved did not survive, and only four dependencies remain standing on the property today, concentrated around the main house.  However, using both primary and secondary sources of the time, the larger picture of the development of Birdwood as a planation and what life was like on the farm can be identified.

The Birdwood Mansion was not the original house that William Garth lived in. He inhabited the David Lewis house when he bought the land in 1817. This was referred to as the Greenfield place, which later became the overseers house near the cemetery. This original house was wooden, and small in comparison to the mansion. An account in the memoir of Ada P. Bankhead, of her grandfather William, explains that he “built the first Birdwood house across the main road, opposite the avenue from the present.”2  This house did not survive and consequently little is known about it. Ada describes it as remaining in partial ruin during the civil war, but no structure survives today. Ada’s account claims that William and his family lived at the old Birdwood house, as it came to be called, until 1831. According to The Garth Family book, it was not until 1832 that William began to build the Birdwood Mansion, described as “one of the finest mansions in Charlottesville.”3 Constructed with brick, this house was grand in comparison to the previous houses. The Virginian National Register nomination describes it as both Jeffersonian Classicism and Neo-Classical Revival style architecture.4

                                                                                         Davis, Rosalie Edith Rogers. The Garth family: descendants of John Garth of Virginia 1734-1986.Manchester, MO: R.R. Davis, 1988. 139 

Over these 40 years that William owned the land, the enslaved population more than quadrupled and the size of the Garth family grew. Using both U.S. Census of agricultural and industrial schedules and slave schedules, the picture of Birdwood as a bustling plantation can be represented through this increase in population. In 1820 the records show that there were 16 enslaved individuals, by 1830 there were 36 and by his death in 1860 the number had increased to 75.5 Unfortunately, the location and proximal relationship of the slave landscapes to the mansion are not know, as the land is now developed by a golf course and the once cleared farmland is now overgrown with brush. Without these structures, we can still understand that the planation was expanding, as William owned 1,070 acres by 1860. The cash value of the farm was $53,000 and 900 of the 1,070 acres were cleared for farming. His livestock, which included Horses, Oxen, cattle, sheep and swine, valued at $4140 and the value of his slaughtered animals was $2400. The farm’s main crops were tobacco, corn, and wheat, but the farm also had an active saw mill.6 The Will and Account of Sales of William Garth in 1868 left a greater picture of the accumulated wealth of the plantation. His accounts show that the family had copious amounts of carpets, china, including champagne and wine glasses, marble tables, mirrors, nice bedding, a piano and a plethora of different kitchen appliances for the cookhouse. It is clear that entertaining, dining and drinking were part of the family’s daily life.7


  Albemarle County Courthouse archives. Will of William Garth. 161                                                                                          1820 U S Census; Census Place: St Anns Parish, Albemarle, Virginia; Page: 27; NARA Roll: M33_130; Image: 60


Performing status and creating a gentile environment were important for the culture of the southern planation. Is Birdwood different in its development from other plantations in the area, or is its progress and ownership representative of the trends of this class of people? The Garth family were strong members of the county’s community by the 19th century and William Garth participated in his family’s accumulation of land and wealth. What does Birdwood say about William and his legacy? The house, being visible from the main road, would have been a marker of the status and class that William entered into. Like other members of the Virginian planting class, the house would have been a place to act out his status and make a statement within the community.




Work Cited

1 Charlottesville Historical Society. Birdwood. Pp:1-3

Davis, Rosalie Edith Rogers. The Garth family: descendants of John Garth of Virginia 1734-1986.Manchester, MO: R.R. Davis, 1988. 135

3 Ibid

4 <>

5 1830; Census Place: Albemarle, Virginia; Series: M19; Roll: 197; Page: 254; Family History Library Film: 0029676. Year: 1840; Census Place: St Annes, Albemarle, Virginia; Roll: 549; Page: 142; Family History Library Film: 0029683.

Year: 1850; Census Place: Albemarle, Virginia; Roll: M432_932; Page: 265B; Image: 535

1820 U S Census; Census Place: St Anns Parish, Albemarle, Virginia; Page: 27; NARA Roll: M33_130; Image: 60

6 Census Year: 1860; Census Place: Saint Anne Parish, Albemarle, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 5; Page: 111; Line: 9; Schedule Type: Agriculture

7 Albemarle County Courthouse records. William Garth Account of Sales. 1868. Volume 28. PP: 180-189.



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