Designing the Plantation
After inheriting land in 1798, twenty-one year-old George Carter began to establish his plantation that he came to call Oatlands. Right from the start, there was an inter-connectedness to slavery. Carter was an educated man who prided himself in keeping abreast of the current news and the latest agricultural practices. He designed his plantation as a reflection of his wealth and prominence and for efficiency in his farming operation. The original approach was from the south, off of present-day Oatlands Mill Road, and designed to impress the visitor. First the stand of oaks came into view followed by the Greenhouse and then the Mansion on the hill, at the center of the domestic layout.
The Oatlands landscape was developed based on function while following a quadrangular layout. The site had been in cultivation by tenant famers since at least the late 1700s and possibly as early as 1728 when the Carter family acquired the Goose Creek Tract. The first extant outbuilding to be constructed near the Mansion was the Greenhouse. This building was oriented to the sun and prominently sited toward the front of the Mansion as a symbol of Carter’s social status and wealth. The plantation’s quadrangular layout, of which the mansion is the centerpiece, was developed with the construction of the Dairy, Meathouse, Garden Dependency and a no longer extant twin to the Meathouse. This layout established boundaries between the domestic landscape (the lawn, yard and garden) and the working plantation. Like the Greenhouse, each outbuilding was sited according to its function. The Dairy was located to the northwest of the Mansion, shaded by a grove of large trees and cooled by prevailing northwest winds. The Meathouse, Garden Dependency and Barn were sited in more open areas and oriented to the south and east to take advantage of the sun.
The entire composition was engineered to be viewed from the original southern approach to the site with the goal of impressing the visitor. It was also designed so work and living spaces for enslaved laborers were close enough to the mansion to efficiently serve the Carter family.
The plantation extended across rolling fields to Goose Creek, where mills and other commercial enterprises were constructed, as well as houses for the miller and sawyer (the man who operated the saw mill). At least one overseer’s house and stone dwellings for the enslaved were built between the barn complex southeast of the garden and the milling complex on Goose Creek.
All of this was designed for the pleasure and economic pursuits of one man – George Carter – who remained a bachelor until age fifty-eight.
In 2017, Oatlands, Inc. received an Interpretation and Education Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, made possible by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant funded a study of the cultural landscape of slavery at Oatlands. A workshop was held in November 2017, bringing together experts from multiple disciplines to analyze the cultural landscape and prioritize locations and topics for research and archaeological work. The team’s recommendations will be compiled into a historic cultural landscape report that will guide future research, archaeology, interpretation, preservation, and programs at Oatlands.