I’ve sometimes heard Raleigh history enthusiasts speculate about the location of the mansion known as Wills Forest, traditionally located in the Glenwood-Brooklyn neighborhood between Peace Street and Fred Fletcher Park. The existence of a street named Wills Forest Street in that neighborhood gives rise to the question whether that street marks the location of the long-gone mansion of Major John Devereux and his wife, Margaret Mordecai Devereux.
If Wills Forest Street were the historical location of the mansion, that would place the Wills Forest House to the west of Glenwood Avenue, just south of Fred Fletcher Park. However, my research using historical maps indicates that the actual location was east of Glenwood Avenue, between Tilden and Devereux Streets, near Governors Hill Lane. None of these streets existed during Civil War times, but it’s possible now to correlate historical maps with today’s landscape with a fair degree of accuracy.
The Wills Forest house was demolished near the end of the 19th century, when the Devereux family sold its property for development. I know of two photos of the house, one of which is this picture, which appears in Plantation Sketches, a 1906 collection of reminiscences by Margaret Devereux (Cambridge: Riverside Press).
Indications From the 1863 Guion Map
My initial interest arose through researching the topic of this website, that is, the fortifications built in 1863 to encircle Raleigh during the Civil War. As I discussed in a previous article here, the northwest section of fortifications enclosed the property of Major John Devereux, who served as Chief Quartermaster for North Carolina State Troops during most of the Civil War. (See “Raleigh’s Civil War Fortifications Protected the Home of Quartermaster John Devereux.”)
One of my primary sources for researching the Raleigh fortifications is the 1863 map drawn by Henry T. Guion, C.S.A. Lt. Col., Artillery and Engineering, who designed the fortifications and supervised their construction. These fortifications consisted of a rough circle of about eight miles, with 18 redans, or artillery emplacements, located at strategic points to protect the approaches to Raleigh. (See “1863 Map of the approaches to Raleigh NC and Civil War entrenchments (Guion map).”)
The likely location of Maj. Devereux’s Wills Forest house arose through examination of the stretch of entrenchments near his property. If you look at this detail from the Guion Map, you’ll see that some buildings are indicated on the hill marked at Devereux’s property:
Guion’s map shows two clusters of buildings located on the Devereux hill: one cluster of three structures on top of the hill toward the northeast; another cluster of two structures on the north slope of the hill.
After examining these structures, it seemed to me more likely that the Wills Forest mansion would have been built on the hilltop, rather than on the north slope. So far, I find this hypothesis confirmed, based on documentary and further cartographic evidence, as I will discuss here.
Will’s Forest the Forest, and Daddy Will’s Cabin
The Wills Forest (a.k.a. “Will’s Forest,” possessive) house was built by Margaret Devereux’s mother, Nancy Lane Mordecai, granddaughter of Joel Lane, who sold to the state of North Carolina a tract of land that was used to establish Raleigh as capital of the state after the American Revolution.
The mansion itself derived its name from the woodsy area where it was built. This area was known as Will’s Forest after a man called Will, thought to have been the survivor of the wreck of a slave ship. Will and his companion Mark were supposed to have been taken in by Joel Lane and given a cabin in the forest.
In her ca.-1906 memoir, Gleanings From Long Ago, Ellen Mordecai (1820-1916), great-granddaughter of Joel Lane, wrote about Will and the the land where he lived. This book gives some small clues about the location of Will and Mark’s cabin. I think these clues suggest the location of their cabin could correspond with the two structures shown in Guion’s map on the north slope of the Devereux hill. Ellen writes:
“The spring that he used was a pretty little spring down in a dell at the foot of a steep little hill and when we were children we went to it and it was always called ‘Daddy Will’s spring.’
“… The spring is there now, but it is choked with washings, etc. It was a pretty little dell and birch trees grew all along there.”(Page 29)
My observations suggest that the location of Daddy Will’s spring was at the southeast corner of Fred Fletcher Park, near the slope leading up to the Devereux Hill. The cluster of two buildings next to the 1863 entrenchment lines could correspond to the location of Will and Mark’s house, and possibly slave quarters in later years. Interestingly, right near that location is a short street called Spring Street, indicating that a spring was once found there. Off the end of Spring Street and at the bottom of the slope is a small waterway and a boggy area, marked “Devereux Branch” on at least one map I’ve found. This area seems the likely location of Daddy Will’s house, his spring, and the dell described in Ellen Mordecai’s reminiscences.
Following is a markup of the Google Map of the 1863 fortifications, with key locations marked:
Here’s a photo I took of the boggy Devereux Branch area, from a parking lot at the end of Spring Street:
The Wills Forest Home of John and Margaret Devereux
Commenting previously on my detail from the Guion map, I said that I think the location of Devereux’s Wills Forest house was the one indicated by a cluster of three buildings toward the northeast end of the hilltop. It makes more sense that a mansion house would be built at that spot, rather than on the north slope. The hilltop location would have provided a view to the east toward the Pigeon House Branch and the meadow below, where the baseball park called Devereux Meadow was built later, during the 1930s.
Margaret Devereux’s account in Plantation Sketches tends to support the hilltop as the mansion’s location, especially when you consider that location’s proximity to the Pigeon House Branch. In her reminiscences, Margaret tells some interesting stories from the Civil War era. According to her writings, after Raleigh was surrendered in April 1865, troops under Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan camped in the vicinity of Wills Forest.
Margaret uses the word “grove” to describe the area around the house and the area where the Federals camped. “Grove” generally denotes a wooded area with little undergrowth, which fits the appearance of Wills Forest’s surroundings in the photo shown previously. In connection with Union encampments, she also mentions a “branch,” that is, a small waterway or creek. Here is an interesting excerpt:
“It was towards noon upon that fatal day [13 April 1865] that we espied a long blue line crawling serpent-like around a distant hill. Silently we watched, as it uncoiled itself, ever drawing nearer and still nearer, until the one great reptile developed into many reptiles and took the form of men. Men in blue tramping everywhere, horsemen careering about us with no apparent object, wagons crashing through fences as though they had been made of paper.”(Page 160)
What Margaret describes here fits with my thinking that the house was located near the northeast end of the hilltop. From there, Margaret might have been able to see Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee entering the Raleigh vicinity, approaching from the east and south, around the hills seen beyond the downtown street grid.
In this account, Frank, apparently one of the family’s enslaved servants, came to the house to speak with Maj. Devereux:
“When your grandfather came [Margaret casts Plantation Sketches as a series of stories told to her grandchildren], Frank almost whispered his communication, as though afraid of being overheard. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I come to ask you, please, sir, don’t go out of the house today;’ he would not say why he gave this warning, and it was not until afterwards that we found that the Federals had intended to hang your grandfather up until he told them where our silver was hidden. I rejoice to say that they did not get one piece of it, although a part of it was buried in the branch that runs at the foot of the grove, and, in digging out a place for watering their horses, they had actually thrown the sand upon the box, thus burying it deeper.”(Pages 167-168)
This description of the family’s hiding place for their silver fits the scenario of the Union troops’ camping in the grove that covered the Devereux hill, with their camp extending down into the valley and meadow around the Pigeon House Branch.
Where Exactly, Then, Was the Wills Forest Mansion?
Based on this documentary evidence and the 1863 Guion map of Raleigh’s entrenchments, the location of the Wills Forest mansion better fits the cluster of three buildings shown toward the northeast end of the Devereux hill, rather than the two structures shown on the north slope. Since this article has gotten rather long, let me show that detail from the Guion map again:
In 1865 at the end of the war, the “grove” and the “branch” described by Margaret Devereux better fit the hilltop, its southeast slope, and the Pigeon House valley, all of which could have afforded a large encampment. The other location where structures are shown, that is, the northwest slope, was where the fortifications were built, and the slope down to the area of the Devereux Branch had been clear-cut and covered by abatis, that is, a field of defensive entanglements made of felled tree branches. This north slope would not have been described as a “grove,” having been denuded of trees.
When I first created it, the Google Maps takeoff of the 1863 Guion map suggested a location for the Wills Forest house to the east of Glenwood Avenue, somewhere along today’s Tilden Street. My first shot at estimating the mansion’s location resulted in this illustration:
However, a more precise identification was made possible by the recent online release of a large number of historical Wake County property maps. Included among these maps is a greatly detailed 1881 map of Raleigh by A.W. Shaffer. I was delighted to find that the Shaffer map actually showed the location of the Wills Forest house and surrounding Devereux property before the land was sold and subdivided. Look at this section of the map, and notice in the upper left-hand corner the rough circular road. This is actually a drawing of the carriage drive leading to the Devereuxs’ Wills Forest house:
The Shaffer Map consists of 12 sheets, so I had to stitch a couple together to make the following detail. Also, I had to tilt the map a few degrees to match the Raleigh street grid, which is not precisely north-to-south:
The street grid as shown on the Shaffer map doesn’t line up absolutely with the modern map, but it is really quite close, and laying out the Devereux carriage drive onto GoogleMyMaps yields the following placement for the drive and the Wills Forest house:
On this Google Map, the red point at the north end of the carriage drive represents the Wills Forest house. You will note that it is just a little to the south and west of the orange points, which are the locations suggested by the Guion map. I’m assuming that this position, based on the Shaffer map, is likely to be more precise, as Shaffer’s was drawn for establishing street and property locations, whereas Guion’s was for military purposes.
I think this analysis of historical maps permits us to say that that John and Margaret Devereux’s Wills Forest House was located to the east of Glenwood Avenue, within the quadrilateral formed by Devereux Street, Governors Hill Lane, Tilden Street, and the Norfolk Southern railroad line to the east.
This location might seem to be contradicted by the presence of a street called Wills Forest Street on the other side of Glenwood Avenue. However, it might be good to take into account that “Will’s Forest” was the name for the woodsy area on the Devereux hill before it was the name of a house. Also, Wills Forest Street could very well be near the site of the cabin of the African immigrant known as Will.
I would be interested to hear from residents of Glenwood-Brooklyn or other Raleighites who know the history of the neighborhood and might be able to comment on the location of the Wills Forest mansion. Primary sources are always the best kind of evidence for this kind of research, but oral history can be interesting and of value also. Please feel free to add your comment below.
Following are some references on the families and individuals mentioned here:
+ Armistead, Terrell L. “John Devereux.” Bio at NCPedia, State Library of North Carolina. 1986. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/devereux-john-jr
+ Devereux, Margaret. Plantation Sketches. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1906.
+ Mordecai, Ellen; and Morel, Anne Valleau, Gleanings From Long Ago. Savannah: Braid & Hutton, 1933.
+ Mordecai Historic Park History. City of Raleigh, North Carolina. https://cityofraleigh0drupal.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/drupal-prod/COR24/mordecai-historic-park-history-information.pdf .
+ Murray, Elizabeth Davis Reid. “Joel Lane.” Bio at NCPedia, State Library of North Carolina. 1991. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/lane-joel
+ Murray, Elizabeth Davis Reid. “Mrs. Ellen Mordecai.” Bio at NCPedia, State Library of North Carolina. 1991. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/mordecai-mrs-ellen
+ Waugh, Elizabeth Culbertson. North Carolina’s Capital: Raleigh. Raleigh: The Junior League of Raleigh, 1967.
3 thoughts on “Historical Maps Reveal the Likely Location of Raleigh’s ‘Wills Forest’ House”
Fantastic analysis. I would agree with every part you’ve put forth. I’m slightly curious about Pidgeon vs Wolf. I had thought them the same, but on one map here, it looks like they originated in different areas and run parallel and later meet. Today, they seem to be the same creek. Love reading your analysis, can’t wait for more. I would hope that maybe some property owner finds something weird, like a foundation while making a garden and let us know one day.
Dennis — Good to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading this and commenting. Yes, researching the neighborhood has gotten me wondering also about the Wolf-versus-Pigeon-House question. One problem is that these streams have gotten rerouted and covered up over the years, making them a little harder to study. One historian I spoke with recently called Raleigh an “estuary,” which I thought was an interesting term to use. Makes me want to learn more about the waterways in the city. I did find a useful map at https://raleighnc.gov/SupportPages/find-your-watershed and hope to study this a bit more.
I was recently going to get involved in volunteering to test the Richland branch for the City of Raleigh. Love walking the streams when I legally can.