The North Carolina Visitor Center




House in the Horseshoe

The House in the Horseshoe




In the summer and spring, bright flowers surround this white plantation house whose name comes from its location on a horseshoe bend in the The Deep River. The house (ca. 1770) was first owned by Philip Alston, whose band of Whigs was attacked in 1781 by Tories led by David Fanning. Later, four-term North Carolina governor Benjamin Williams lived in the house, which today features fine antiques of the colonial and Revolutionary War eras.


Still Bearing the Scars of the American Revolution

As the Deep River wanders through North Carolina's Piedmont plateau and curves in a horseshoe bend, there stands on a hilltop above it one of the first big houses of upland North Carolina frontier country, the House in the Horseshoe. Built around 1772, the house was named "Retreat" by its second owner, Gov. Benjamin Williams. Known as the Alston House, its walls still bear numerous scars and bullet holes from a Revolutionary War skirmish.






During the American Revolution, groups of citizen-soldiers called Whigs or revolutionists, and Tories, who were still loyal to the king of England, waged irregular warfare against each other in North Carolina's backcountry (western frontier).


The House in the Horseshoe was then the home of Whig colonel Philip Alston. On the morning of July 29, 1781, while Alston and his band of revolutionaries were camped at the home, they were attacked by a larger unit of Tories, whose leader was the notorious David Fanning. During the ensuing skirmish, Fanning's forces attempted to light the house on fire by rolling against it a cart filled with burning straw. After several casualties on both sides, Alston surrendered. The house was left riddled with bullet holes, many of which can still be seen today.




Though Alston was distinguished as a lieutenant colonel in the state militia, a justice of the peace, and a state senator, his later career was seen as disreputable. Twice indicted for murder, he was removed as justice of the peace, and suspended from the state legislature for various reasons. In 1790, Philip Alston sold the house and plantation and left the state.




House in the Horseshoe parlor, featuring typical 18th- century paint colors.

In 1798 Gov. Benjamin Williams bought the 2,500-acre plantation. Besides serving four one-year terms as the state's governor and a colonel under George Washington, he was a member of the first board of trustees of the University of North Carolina and served in the national Congress at Philadelphia.


Williams enlarged the house by adding two wings featuring a kitchen and a master bedroom. One of Williams's ambitions was to become a planter. The growing of short staple cotton was highly profitable business because of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, and the Horseshoe land was excellent for that purpose. In 1801 Williams planted 42 acres of cotton; he grew nearly two hundred acres the following year. By 1803 about 50 slaves were working his plantation, which was valued at $30,000 dollars.



House in the Horseshoe north bedroom (note old-fashioned farmer's rope beds).

Williams died on the plantation in 1814. Though he was first buried some distance away, his grave was subsequently moved to the grounds of his former home. His family lived in the house until 1853. The dwelling changed ownership several times until 1954, when it was bought and restored by the Moore County Historical Association. In 1955 the state acquired the property.


Architectural Gem

The architectural style of the house is that of the coastal lowlands. A two-story frame dwelling, it is a typical 18th-century plantation house featuring a gable roof with large double-shouldered Flemish bond chimneys and a shed porch.



House in the Horseshoe sitting room, featuring four poster bed, wicker cradle, and wooden crib.


The center-hall plan reflects Gov. Williams's early 19th-century remodeling of the house. It is distinguished by the strikingly elaborate and well-executed detail of the doorways and some of the interior woodwork, including the especially fine mantel in the north parlor. The interior is furnished with fine late colonial and early Federal-period pieces.




Philip Alston More House in the Horseshoe


Philip Alston led a colorful and controversial life. During the American Revolution, besides the skirmish that took place at his home, he was also captured by Tory forces at Briar Creek, Ga. After being released he kept his militia activities local.


Alston was the son of Joseph John Alston and Elizabeth Chancy Alston of Halifax County. His father was a very wealthy man who at his death, left an estate consisting of more than 150 slaves and over a thousand acres of land. From all this, Alston only received those slaves already in his possession. Many writers describe this fact as being "curious" or "significant". However, Alston married well. His wife Temperance Smith, also from Halifax, received a large piece of land on the Roanoke River, which increased her husband's holdings.


By the time he came to the Cumberland-Moore County area Philip Alston was clearly a man of means and influence. In 1772, he bought 4,000 acres north and south of the bend in Deep River. Soon afterwards, he built the magnificent house still standing on its original site. At the time, Alston's house, which was probably constructed by a Scotsman named McFadden, was one of the finest in this part of the state. At this time Alston also owned several slaves. By 1777 his land holdings incorporated 6,936 acres and Alston quickly established himself as a political leader for this area.


Much has been written about Alston's character. These were reckless times in the North Carolina backcountry and it can certainly be said that he was a bold and aggressive man. For example, Alston got himself promoted from lieutenant colonel in the Cumberland Militia to full colonel by petitioning the N.C. General Assembly. After the war, Alston became one of the first justices at the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions and also clerk of court for Moore County. Later he would become a member of the State Senate. Alston's political success shows he had some support from leaders in this area.


It was during his tenure in the Senate that Alston's problems began. Evidence was presented that he had murdered Thomas Taylor during the war while commanding a corps of militia to suppress British loyalists. It was eventually decided that Taylor's death was a legitimate act of war and Alston was pardoned by Governor Caswell. However, considerable debate and controversy swirled around this decision.


A bitter feud with George Glascock, who had replaced Alston as clerk of court when he was elected to the Senate, followed. After Alston's reelection to the General Assembly, George Glascock; Henry Lightfoot, the county solicitor; and John Cox, a member of the House of Commons from Moore County, contested his seat. They reminded the Senate that Alston had been indicted for murder and George Glascock presented a statement that Alston had threatened to instigate a riot if Henry Lightfoot got elected instead of him. It was also pointed out that Alston did not believe in God. The plot was successful; Alston was removed from the Senate and Moore County was told to elect a new senator.


Philip Alston became a justice of the peace, but in May 1787, Glascock succeeded in getting him removed from this seat as well. However, George Glascock's victories over his rival would cost him dearly. Three months later, he was murdered by "Dave," one of Alston's slaves. It was stated that Alston gave a party at his home the night of the murder, being careful to establish his presence at all times. Alston bailed Dave out of jail but before trial, the enslaved man fled the state, costing Alston 250 pounds.


In May 1788, Alston was fined 25 pounds for contempt of court in Moore County. He was released on bond from the Wilmington jail but soon returned. In December 1790, he escaped from this jail and fled to Georgia where he was murdered in 1791-- someone shot him through a window as he lay in bed. Legend has it that the murderer was Dave. Soon after, the Alston family sold the Horseshoe Bend house and property and left North Carolina.