Pilgrimage tours through Beechwood, homes, churches in West Feliciana
St. Francisville — Even without its fine country home, Beechwood would be an important place. The property, about 6 miles north of St. Francisville, was originally part of a Spanish land grant to Alexander Stirling, one of the Felicianas’ great landowners.
“This place and Rosale and Wakefield are all part of Stirling’s land,” said Mary Frances Brandon Smart, whose family owns Beechwood. “Right here in this front yard, they made plans for the West Florida Rebellion.”
Those attending the 42nd annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 15-17 will have the opportunity to tour Beechwood, the third home on the property, and visit its historic cemetery, where Alexander Stirling and other family members are buried.
Stirling was born in Scotland in 1753. Although there are no known records of when he arrived in America, by 1781, he was serving as an overseer on a plantation in Pointe Coupee. It is there that he met Ann Alston, whose father, John Alston, a loyal Tory, had a British land grant near Natchez.
In 1781, after an unsuccessful revolt at the fort in Natchez, then under Spanish control, John Alston, one of the leaders in the revolt, was imprisoned in New Orleans by the Spanish. He sent his family to safety in Pointe Coupee. Stirling was helpful to the Alston children, whose mother had died. In 1784, he and Ann Alston were married.
Beginning in 1787, Alexander Stirling received three Spanish land grants in West Feliciana. His first was a tract of 600 arpents on Thompson’s Creek, several miles east of the present location of St. Francisville.
An arpent is an old French land measure equal to about 5⁄ 6th of an acre.
There he established a store and a residence at a place called Murdock’s Ford.
According to research by Ann Alston Stirling Weller, the second land grant in 1795 included the property on which Beechwood is located. U.S. land records indicate that the property, which at some time acquired the name Egypt, was “cultivated and inhabited” from 1802.
Alexander Stirling obtained a third land grant and continued to purchase property until, according to family tradition, he owned a total of 10 square miles, although not all contiguous properties.
He served as alcalde, or mayor, of the District of Bayou Sara Creek and as a second lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers in the campaign under Bernardo de Galvez to defeat British colonial forces at Manchac and Baton Rouge in 1779.
An excerpt from the diary of Samuel Donnell, who was traveling down the Mississippi River on a flatboat in winter 1806, tells of his impressions of Stirling, whose home he visited.
“This gentleman I found to be an old Scotchman, plain and blunt in his manners, but possessed of an immense fortune, owning eight miles square of the best of this country with a multitude of slaves, whose annual profit is $20,000 clear,” Donnell wrote. “Shortly after we arrived a splendid dinner was brought forward and abundance of the very best wine, with which the guests made themselves merry.”
After his death in 1808, Stirling’s parcels of land were divided among his heirs. Ann and Alexander Stirling are buried within a wrought-iron enclosure in a beautiful cemetery at the rear of Beechwood.
“Steele Burden used to say that this ironwork was finer than that at St. Louis Cathedral,” Smart said.
The cemetery is also the resting place of Lucy Alston Gray Pirrie, mistress of Oakley Plantation and the sister of Ann Alston Stirling. Lucy Pirrie’s daughter, Eliza, who was tutored by John James Audubon, and Eliza Pirrie’s second husband, the Rev. William R. Bowman, the first rector of Grace Episcopal Church, also are buried in the historic cemetery.
Alexander Stirling’s original plantation house burned in 1840.
“Another home was built on the original foundation,” Smart said. That second home burned in 1899.
The present Beechwood was built in 1900 by W.J. Fort. It was named Beechwood for the massive beech trees on the property.
Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the major portion of Beechwood passed through a number of hands and portions were carved out for family members and through sales. In 1922, the house was renovated by a doctor from New Orleans.
Mary Frances Smart and her late husband, Larry, a native of New Orleans, purchased the house in 1972.
She grew up nearby at Desert Plantation in Pinckneyville, in Wilkinson County, Miss., 3 miles from the Mississippi-Louisiana line. She is a descendant of Eliza Pirrie, who is buried in her backyard.
Larry Smart was a great collector of antique furniture and filled the house with some of the finest pieces in the Felicianas. These include a Philadelphia-made desk signed and dated by the cabinetmaker.
Over the living room mantel is the portrait of Mary Frances Smart’s ancestor, William Lindsay Brandon, brother of the first territorial governor of Mississippi.
The Smarts’ three daughters and their husbands — Sarah and Greg Feirn, Catherine and Semmes Favrot and Elizabeth and Andrew Wooten — all live in New Orleans, but they return to the home often with their families.
They love the busy life of New Orleans and especially the excitement of Mardi Gras.
They also love the country life outside St. Francisville.
When the daughters were grown, the Smarts added a swimming pool and made a guest house out of the home’s old kitchen, a building that predates the present house.
When they visit, they “live” around the pool and on the property surrounding the home.