Laying Bricks in Colonial Williamsburg


Carter’s Grove. 1995 photo by Melissa Wilkins via Wikimedia Commons

Overlooking the James River not far from Williamsburg stands a beautiful mansion called Carter’s Grove, built between 1751 and 1753. Carter Burwell, the grandson of one of colonial Virginia’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen Robert “King” Carter, paid for its construction on property purchased by his grandfather. It is a structure routinely included in books on architecture in early Virginia, and happens to be one of the few mansions of that era still standing.

Famous legends inhabit the walls. There are sword cuts on the wooden railing of the great stair allegedly made by Banastre Tarleton during British occupation of the house, when he rode his horse to the second floor as a dramatic method of wakening his sleeping soldiers who were quartered there. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are said to have had their hearts broken in the west drawing room, each having a marriage proposal rejected by the target of their affection. (Rebecca Burwell was the recipient of Jefferson’s proposal. The story of Washington’s proposal to Mary Cary may be apocryphal, as he was most known for admiring Mary’s unattainable sister Sally.)

Brick mason David Minitree of the Tenery family built Carter’s Grove. Extant accounts of Carter Burwell show that Minitree was paid £115 for the brick structure, with a £25 bonus for work well done. Minitree was apparently very well known for his brick work prior to this commission. In 1724 he had acquired two lots in Williamsburg which archaeologists discovered were used as a yard for brick-making. It is believed that he was actively involved in construction of buildings in and around Williamsburg for many years, at least until 1736 when he sold the two lots. By then he was receiving commissions from around tidewater Virginia, such as the Mattaponi Church near Cumnor in rural King and Queen County which still exists today. Visitors can see Minitree’s name carved into a brick above the west door.


Mattaponi Church, constructed 1732-1734. 2015 photo by Jody M. Brumage via Wikipedia.

David’s father had also been active in the construction trade in Williamsburg. The elder Minitree – also named David – was a blacksmith whom records show worked on both the Capitol building and the Public Gaol which were constructed after the state capital moved to Williamsburg from Jamestown in 1699. The Capitol building that visitors now tour in Colonial Williamsburg is a 1930s reconstruction; fire destroyed the original in 1747. Small portions of the original Public Gaol still survive in Colonial Williamsburg, but it is unknown whether any of these pieces include Minitree’s work.

The older Minitree was a refugee immigrant from France, part of the exodus of 400,000 French Protestants  who fled as persecution increased in the late 17th century, culminating with King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the initiation of explicit government measures to eliminate the faith. Five boats carrying about 700-800 of these refugees – known to the world as Huguenots – arrived in Jamestown in 1700. By prearrangement, the Huguenots were given supplies and land for a settlement just above the falls of the James River on the site of a former Indian village near where the city of Richmond is now located. Unlike later American settlements of Scotch-Irish and Germans that remained ethnically cohesive for many generations, the Manakin Town settlement fairly quickly broke up, in part because its mostly-urban migrants were ill-suited for life on the American frontier. Its inhabitants moved to other communities and inter-married and assimilated with other colonists.


Portion of the 1751 Jefferson-Frye Map of Virginia and Maryland, with Manakin Town circled. Via

The immigrant David appears as “David Menestrier” on the ship passenger list of the “Peter and Anthony.” The spelling of the name varied considerably from record to record, appearing as Minatra, Minatree, Minetree, and Minutree among others. Within the family record, the next generation after the two Davids was Archibald Minitree, who established a home in Petersburg, Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Archibald’s son and grandson in this family once again caught the usual naming convention and were called “David.” Lola Belle Tenery‘s maternal grandmother was Elvira Minitree, daughter of the fourth David Minitree and his wife Elizabeth Dunnavant who moved from Virginia to Giles County, Tennessee sometime before their first child was born in the mid-1820s.

Elizabeth Dunnavant also had Huguenot ancestry, her mother being Lydia Flournoy whose ancestor Jacob Fleurnoir was a Huguenot goldsmith who had lived in Geneva, Switzerland, after his family left France. Although this Huguenot match-up is likely just a coincidence, Fleurnoir happened to be a fellow passenger of David Menestrier on the “Peter and Anthony” in 1700. He also moved to the Williamsburg area and was the first owner of the lot where the Alexander Craig House now sits in Colonial Williamsburg.

Dedicated readers of this website may remember a vague reference to a Huguenot goldsmith from Switzerland in a previous post regarding the ancestors of Pleasant Johnson. While yet another coincidence, the references are to the same goldsmith – Jacob Fleurnoir is also an ancestor within the Nelson family tree. His very-distant-cousin descendants would marry in Tennessee 264 years after he disembarked in the New World.


Living history actors  make bricks at Colonial Williamsburg. Photo from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

A note on sources:

There are many published sources which detail the work of David Minitree of Williamsburg. The most useful found by the author are:

Waterman, Thomas Tileston. The Mansions of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946. This work provides a very good overview of Carter’s Grove within the context of other, similar Virginia mansions and discusses Minitree’s role in its construction.

Lynch, Gerard. The History of Gauged Brickwork: Conservation, Repair, and Modern Application. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Ltd., 2007. This book has a section specifically on David Minitree, with extended quotes from the archives of Colonial Williamsburg. The archives may contain additional material, although it appears previous researchers have already extracted and related the most pertinent information.

The descendants of the Huguenot community are very active and have multiple organizations dedicated to preserving their history including The National Huguenot Society and the Huguenot Society of the Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia. Membership requires proof of descent from one of the established Huguenot immigrants. While David Menestrier clearly appears on the passenger list of the Peter and Anthony, none of his descendants appear to have established further documentation to prove eligibility for membership.

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