The Carter’s of Colonial Virginia
John Carter, immigrated to Virginia from England in 1625 aboard the “Safety”. Living in Jamestown, no one know why he came to the Virginia colony, perhaps to leave the political strife in Great Britain, possible to better his station in an already hard world. Within a year his neighbors were so taken with his character, they asked him to represent them at the House of Burgesses.
In 1642, after acquiring some 13,500 acres in the Northern Neck between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers building his family estate called “Corotoman”. He became a successful planter and businessman, also serving first as an elected Burgess, and then, as a member of the Governor’s Council.
Marrying in 1650, his first wife, Jane Glyn, gave him three children, George, who dies young, Elizabeth and John II. After the early death of his wife, he married Eleanor Eltonhead Brocas in 1656. It was about this time he was elected to the House of Burgesses that automatically made him the commander of the local militia. This militia was responsible for ridding the area of the last of the Rappahannock Indians that brought to its commander more accolades. Eleanor died the next year leaving no children.
His third wife, Anne Carter, daughter of Cleve Carter of England, whom he married in 1658, died within the first year of their marriage, leaving no children.
In 1660, he married Sarah Ludlow, and had two more children, Sarah, who died young, and Robert Carter. Sarah Ludlow Carter died in early 1668 and her family had inscribed on her tombstone, “May her descendants make their mother’s virtues and graces the pattern of their lives and actions”. Little did anyone realize to what great heights her son Robert would achieve.
John Carter took a fifth wife marrying Elizabeth Shirley in late 1668. A son, Charles, was born in 1669. That same year John died. As a young man, Charles moved to England to live and died there sometime after 1690. John Carter the émigré, achieved prominence, wealth, political power, material goods and social prestige that he had earned for himself, but his sons and grandsons were to carve out an empire, such as he had never envisioned.
Upon his death, John’s main estate, holdings and slaves went to his oldest son, John II, with 6,000 English pound’s going to his wife, Elizabeth. Robert “King” Carter was seven years old when his father died. Upon gaining his majority, being a second son, his prospects were not exceptionally bright. He had inherited 1,000 acres near the Corotoman River and one third of his father’s personal estate valued at 1,000 English pounds consisting of a library of Latin books, a few slaves, and some other personal items.
Then by a sudden turn of events, his older half brother, John II, who ad married twice and had one daughter, Elizabeth (1675-1693), died at age 43, leaving Robert the sole adult male representing the family and inheriting the family estate.
Two years later in 1688, now at age 25, Robert married Judith Armistead, who gave him five children. John III (1689), Elizabeth (1692), Judith (1693), who died in infancy, Sarah (1694), who died at eight years of age, and another Judith (1695), named after the first daughter who died. Judith Armistead Carter passed after eleven years of marriage.
In 1697, Robert married his second wife, Elizabeth Landon Willis, the 16 year old widow of Richard Wilis and they had ten children. Anne (1702), Robert II (1704), Sarah (1705) dying as a young child, Betty (1706) who also died as a young child, Charles (1707), Ludlow (1709) who died young, Landon (1710), Mary (1712), Lucy (1714) and George (1716).
Robert Carter, being born into the Tidewater gentry of the young colony, eclipsed his father’s accomplishments. Becoming a member, and later, speaker of the House of Burgesses, a member of the Governor’s Council, a vestryman in Christ Church, a Justice of the Peace, and acting governor of the colony from 1726-1727 until William Gooch arrived. He was also a rector of the College of William and Mary, seeing that institution through the most trying of times. Because he so eclipsed his father, he has been regarded by historians as the founder of this Virginia family and was nicknamed “King”. He ultimately became the richest and perhaps the most powerful man of his day.
Realizing the need that future generations would have for fresh lands, he obtained for his heirs some 333,000 acres.
Robert “King” Carter had arranged that the bulk of his lands would go to his eldest son, John Carter III (1689-1742) who married in 1725 Elizabeth Hill of Shirley Plantation.. He also saw to it that his other sons, Robert II, Charles, Landon and George would have ample estates. Robert “King” Carter died at the age of 69 in 1732 leaving an estate of 333,000 acres, more than 1,000 slaves and 10,000 English pound, a tremendous fortune in those days.
Robert Carter II (1704-1732) died unexpectedly at age 28, only months after his father, leaving his wife of seven years, Priscilla Churchill (1705-1757), a daughter Elizabeth born in 1725, and a son, four year old Robert III, born in 1728.
Priscilla Carter later married Colonel John Lewis from a family as ancestral and honorable as the Carters. Colonel Lewis was a widower with five children and when Elizabeth moved to his home, “Warner Hall” in Gouchester, her two children joined an already active household.
When Robert Carter III reached his majority, he became the master of more than seventy thousand acres including 5,025 acres in old Prince William County, inheriting his father’s portion of his grandfather’s estate. Young Robert, at age nine, went to the College of William and Mary. When the young man turned twenty-one, he went to England leaving Colonel Lewis in charge of his affairs. For the next two years historians presumed this trip to England was to complete his education following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncles, although it was also a time to explore the arts and other diversions of the day. It was said that a young gentleman, “lacking a broad basis of knowledge would be unfit for any gentlemen’s conversation and therefore a scandalous person and a shame to his relations, not having one single qualification to recommend him”. It was quoted of one colonial father to have said, “that his children had better be never born than illbred”.
Upon young Robert’s return to the colony of Virginia in 1751, he was steeped in public duties. At age 28, he was made a member of the Governor’s Council and, by virtue of his belonging to the Council, he also served as a colonel in the militia. As was customary, he was known as “Councillor” Carter. He lived at Nomini Hall, the elegant manor house his father built about 1729 in Westmoreland County, overlooking the Potomac and Nomini Rivers, a plantation of about 2,000 acres. The square Georgian style home with four chimneys was made of brick, two stories high, located on a hill with a spectacular view of the rivers. Robert “Councillor” Carter married Frances Ann Tasker (1720-1787) on April 2, 1745, in Annapolis Maryland by the Reverend Mr. Malcolm, the minister of St. Anne’s Parish. His wife, the daughter of the Honorable Benjamin Tasker, one of the foremost citizens of the colony of Maryland, brought to the marriage, not only family influence, but also a large dowry. The marriage also enabled her husband to secure a one fifth control of one of her father’s businesses, the Baltimore Iron Works.
Together they had seventeen children. Benjamin (1756) dying at age 23, Robert Bladen (1759), who died unmarried at age 34, Priscilla (1760-1823), all born at Nomini Hall. About 1761, Robert “Councillor” and his growing family moved to Williamsburg to a home he purchased adjacent to the Governor’s Palace where the following three daughters were born. Ann Tasker (1762- ), Rebecca (1762) who died in infancy, and Frances (1764-1795), returning to Nomini Hall for the birth of his remaining children. Betty Landon (1765-1842), Mary (1767) who died at age four, Harriet Lucy (1768- ), Amelia Churchill (1769) who died in her first year, Rebecca Dulany (1770) who also died in her first year. John Tasker (1772- ), Sarah Fairfax (1773-1829), Judith (1775) who died as an infant, George (1777-1846), Sophia (1778-1832), who died without marrying and Julia Carter (1783- ). In spite of such a large family, “Frances Tasker Carter remained elegant and beautiful in a youthful way, ever cheerful and agreeable”. She managed the household with great success and carefully trained and helped educate their children.
Managing seventy thousand acres demanded foresight and planning. Robert III cultivated as many as fifteen large plantations and farms at once. Each plantation and farm had an abundant amount of buildings used for storing tobacco, corn and wheat. Shops for weavers, carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, as well as the manor houses and/or estate managers quarters. There were many independent buildings such as kitchens, bakeries, dairies, meat houses, slave cabins, stables, mills for grinding grains and factories for the production of textiles. Indentured servants were brought in from Ireland to spin and weave as well as to teach the Carter slaves these skills. The training of slaves in the trades was a necessary result of the conditions of life on large estates where free artisans found it difficult to serve more then a limited clientele. Many Carter slaves were trained as coopers, carpenters, blacksmiths, millers sailors, brick makers and layers and shoemakers. This training also increased their worth.
Though tobacco was the crop of importance, Robert also would devote entire plantations to producing grain and other supplies needed at Nomini Hall. Running the plantation, clearing new land for planting, civic and family duties, proved to be a laborious task. Though the basis of life was agricultural, the great landowners fulfilled a wide variety of other economic functions. They served as factors for their neighbors, buying their crops, and selling them supplies. When European conditions interfered with the import trade, enterprising men frequently set up grist mills, textile factories, and foundries on their plantations, to supply their own and their neighbor’s needs.
Robert “Councillor” Carter was a patriot during the American Revolution and as a member of the court of Westmoreland County he took an oath as prescribed by the Virginia Assembly renouncing allegiance to George III, pledging loyalty to Virginia and to the Continental Congress. At one point, he sent 50 bayonets to Captain Burgess Ball and also furnished him with other supplies. He sent Colonel Thomas Jones beef, hops, 2,950 lbs of flour as well as many loaves of bread. In September 1776, he supplied the commissary of Lancaster County with 2,000 lbs of bread and the same amount of flour. He also secured iron for the manufacture of munitions.
During the American Revolution rapid adjustments had to be made. Wheat, corn, hemp, flax, cotton, oats and barley were cultivated extensively by Robert III, while tobacco became less important in his scheme of operations. By the end of the 18th Century, the tobacco industry had sunk into a state of chronic depression. The rapid depletion of soil, the wasteful agricultural methods and over production were all making themselves felt. Robert III was ahead of his time in raising other grains for cash crops. He had set up and equipped so many plantations and farms that he resorted to naming twelve of them after the signs of the zodiac. Two of these farms, Leo, consisting of 809 acres with 309 acres cleared, and Cancer with 700 acres of which 400 were cleared, were dedicated to the growing of tobacco, shipping 79 hogshead of tobacco, between the two in 1785. In 1791, there were 509 slaves, with an estimated worth of well over a hundred thousand dollars, belonging to Robert III, a number that was large enough to generate efficient cultivation of his many plantations. He was also the largest single slave- holder in Virginia at that time. During the year 1791, Robert “Councillor” Carter provided, in a Deed of Manumission, for the freeing of almost all of his 509 slaves. This was to be accomplished on a gradual basis over a period of twenty years since to have set all free at once would have resulted in great distress for the slaves and chaos for the community. He gave or rented lands to some of his former slaves as they were freed.