GRANTS OF LAND, large and small, flowed from Virginia’s Council in 1753. One of the largest, with no fixed number of acres, gave the Virginia portion of the Dismal Swamp to four men. Three were merchants in or near Norfolk. Robert Tucker, not content with his growing trade to the West Indies and his work in the House of Burgesses, wished also to “cultivate and improve” the swamp. His friend Edward Hack Moseley owned a plantation in Princess Anne County between the Dismal Swamp and the seacoast. Francis Miller opened trade in the new town of Portsmouth, established the previous year on the south bank of the Elizabeth River, opposite Norfolk, near Tucker’s mills and bakery. The fourth member of the group—his name came first in the Council’s grant—was Francis Farley, a sugar planter from the island of Antigua, who was visiting friends in Virginia: among others, Robert Tucker and William Nelson.
The Council agreed that the Dismal Swamp was “at present altogether useless.” Making it “beneficial” to new owners called for “great Labour and Expence”; so Farley, Moseley, Tucker, and Miller had seven years free of the usual payments to the Crown in which to survey and patent the land.
On the night of Friday, May 4, 1753, three days after the Council’s action, Joanna Tucker gave birth to her tenth child, just as her oldest son, Robert, sailed for England, at the age of twelve. The baby, Elizabeth, was baptized a week later. Her godfathers were Edward Hack Moseley, godfather to most of the Tuckers’ earlier children, and Francis Farley.
Farley stood at the center of society and commerce among the 3,400 white Antiguans, who lived on the labor of 31,000 slaves. A young newcomer hoping to enter trade could ask for no better help than “Introduceing me to dine at Collo Farleys with a number of Planters.” Farley knew many people in the mainland colonies, eight of which he traveled in. Both Antigua and Virginia friends praised his kindness; William Nelson wrote: “He is a good man.” Farley said of himself: “neither Ambition nor Avarice influence me much.” Others trusted him.
His wife, Eleanor, was the daughter of James Parke, nephew of Antigua’s murdered governor, Daniel Parke. The Farleys thus knew the Byrds, who owned the Virginia estates once belonging to Daniel Parke. By his marriage Francis Farley acquired the plantation his wife had inherited from James Parke: 166 acres known as the Mercers Creek estate on the northeastern coast of Antigua. In the rainy season a creek flowed along the southern edge of the plantation, below the fields of sugar cane, and emptied into a small bay, which opened into a larger bay a mile wide, separated from the sea by islands, rocks, and reefs. The northeast trade winds that gave the Leeward Islands their name raised steep swells. These rose higher, sometimes cresting, near the rocks and the coast, making heavy seas for sugar droghers or shallops bearing the plantation’s produce to St. Johns. Rising from the sea, the green hills of eastern Antigua overlooked the island and its neighbors. From a summit one could see the central plain, covered with sugar cane, then a steeper range of hills in the west and, in the northwest, less than ten miles away, the capital, St. Johns. In all these sectors Francis Farley owned plantations.
In a productive year, with the work of two hundred slaves, the Mercers Creek estate yielded 140 hogsheads of sugar and 80 hogsheads of rum. Each hogshead of sugar was the product of at least ten tons of cut cane hauled from the fields. Around the plantation’s stone windmill tower, where cane was crushed, stood a boiling house, a curing house, a refining house, a rum distillery, a trash house, and a cooper’s shop. Skilled slaves working as coopers needed about 6,500 staves, often from Virginia, to make 140 hogsheads. The frenetic, yet precise, labor of boiling, clarifying, and curing came sixteen or eighteen months after the first and hardest work: digging holes with hoes, planting cane, and manuring the field. This work, under white overseers and black “dog-drivers,” filled almost all daylight hours six days a week.
One of Francis Farley’s sisters was married to Alexander Willock, Antigua’s most important merchant. They lived on a plantation in the northwestern part of the island, near St. Johns. In town the wharf held hogsheads of sugar, thousands each year. The customhouse stood along the water’s edge at the foot of High Street. About five hundred low houses, made of wood and covered with broad shingles, lined wide streets, leading uphill from the harbor to the heights and the army barracks. An assistant justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Francis Farley spent hours in a long ground-floor room of the new stone courthouse at the center of town. The governor, Council, and Assembly held their meetings upstairs. The courthouse had been built on a site once used as a marketplace. Slaves now held their Sunday market on the southern edge of town. Hundreds of black people offered for sale pigs, chickens, goats, yams, eddoes, plantains, and other fruits and vegetables raised on small plots they farmed for their own benefit. The St. Johns market attracted vendors and visitors from all parts of the island. Each year, vessels from the western coast of Africa, sailing windward of the shoal, under the guns of the fort overlooking St. Johns Harbor, entered with replacements for slaves who had died.
Francis Farley lived part of the time at Mercers Creek and part at his plantation called Murrays, a short ride southeast of the capital. The road out of St. Johns, cresting the heights, revealed a ridge stretching southward, parallel to the coast. Where hills were fertile, sugar cane waved in the wind. Along the eastern base of the slope, Farley owned two plantations: Hamiltons and Farleys Garden. Extending to the northwest of the island and to the south stretched an archipelago of steep-sloped green islands, many devoted to sugar.
Farley watched not only his own plantation but also those of men living in England. He was a trusted attorney, or agent, supervising young Scottish overseers. Some people thought that working for others as an attorney yielded a more reliable income than owning a plantation. But Farley said that he served without pay and lost money by neglecting his own business. Antigua’s planters and merchants strove to amass fortunes from sugar. A newcomer noticed: “Every Man seems to live here with a View to some other Place to which he hopes to remove at some future Period.” Farley’s friend Samuel Martin, a veteran planter, kept warning that ruin awaited the sugar islands from repeated droughts, from French invasion, or from other threats. In the summer of 1751, before Farley left for Virginia, Martin advised his son to invest in “Lands in North America, as a safe retreat.”
Farley had two brothers: John lived in England; Simon lived in Antigua. Francis and Simon agreed to invest jointly in Virginia land. Leaving Antigua during an epidemic of fever, Francis Farley sailed for Virginia in 1755. In Norfolk he learned that his goddaughter had died the previous summer and that Joanna Tucker was pregnant again. One of his partners in the Dismal Swamp grant, Francis Miller of Portsmouth, bought a plantation jointly with the Farley brothers. The Antiguans relied on Miller to represent their interests in their absence. The three men purchased four tracts, totaling more than 1,000 acres, thickly timbered, near the Dismal Swamp along the main road 12 miles west of Norfolk. Sixteen miles farther west lay the growing town of Suffolk, where a new courthouse for Nansemond County was almost finished.
Farley visited the Byrds at Westover. His stay came at the end of a summer of harsh drought. Travelers saw fields of withered corn stalks and parched, stunted tobacco. At Westover in October, Farley bought the Land of Eden. William Byrd could show Farley, who had not seen the 25,800 acres, his father’s manuscript book of land titles. Old Colonel Byrd had called the soil “as rich as any in Egypt or on the Banks of Euphrates.” Farley offered £1,000 sterling, and Byrd accepted, making a deed to Francis and Simon Farley. As Farley passed through Norfolk on his way back to Antigua, he could congratulate Robert Tucker, the new high sheriff of Norfolk County.
Simon Farley died the following year. Francis came into sole control of the Land of Eden and of the tracts near the Dismal Swamp after buying Miller’s one-third share. Francis always thought of himself as holding Simon’s share in trust for Simon’s son and daughter, but he never conveyed title. Twenty years later, Francis Farley valued his investment “in a very growing country” at more than £3,000. He had come to believe that Britain was “a very declining almost ruined country.” One was wise to hold “valuable property” in North America. Farley, Robert Tucker, Edward Hack Moseley, and Francis Miller did not survey and patent the Dismal Swamp within seven years. Their grant lapsed. Even so, Farley and Tucker still wished to own and drain the swamp.
During Farley’s visit, Virginia was at war. Although the colony had only a small part in worldwide rivalry between Britain and France, Virginians began the fighting, and many people traced the war to the colony’s new resident governor, Robert Dinwiddie.
Taking the oath of office in Williamsburg on November 21, 1751, Dinwiddie returned to a familiar place with new authority. Since 1738 he had been surveyor general of Customs for Pennsylvania, the southern colonies, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. He settled in Virginia in 1741. His office gave him a seat on the Council, which he took over the objections of other councillors. He won advancement from Robert Walpole and the Duke of Newcastle, exposing frauds in customs offices and collecting duties more stringently. Virginians knew Dinwiddie’s cool stare, clenched jaw, and compressed lips—the face of a longtime tax collector. They knew him both as a servant of the Crown and as a man “bred up in the way of turning a penny the rite way, into his own pocket.” He had done this so well that some Virginians borrowed money from him.
Dinwiddie set out to collect more taxes. He demanded that recipients of almost 1,000,000 acres in grants pay arrears of quitrents they had evaded by not taking patents. Calling them “land jobbers,” he said their conduct was “a Fraud to that Revenue.” He added almost 300,000 acres to the rent rolls in his first two years. This angered many burgesses and others, but they grew “too warm to be reasoned with” after he introduced a new fee, payable to him. With the Council’s approval, he proposed to charge one Spanish pistole, a coin worth almost £1 sterling, to sign patents for land surveyed after April 22, 1752. Dinwiddie’s critics denounced his greed, mocked his Scots accent, and tried to raise “a very general Disgust & Alarm.” They pledged to defend liberty by sending to London an agent able to deprive him of support from the Board of Trade. William Stith, president of the College of William and Mary—the college licensed surveyors for a fee—said he would “break the Neck” of the governor’s pistole fee. Speaker Robinson opposed Dinwiddie bluntly; the burgesses chose Robinson’s ally, Peyton Randolph, to go to London. With good reason, Dinwiddie feared that “some Managem’t” there would turn the Board of Trade against him. He told its members that Virginians’ anger arose not so much from the “petty Fee” as from the quitrents he had pressed them to pay at last.
Dinwiddie did not oppose all land-jobbing and westward expansion. A member of the Ohio Company, two months after taking office, he wrote: “I have the Success and Prosperity of the Ohio Company much at heart.” Virginia ought to gain a larger share of the trade with western Indians who dealt mainly with Pennsylvanians and with the French. Philip Ludwell Lee persuaded his colleagues in the company to appoint a factor whose father had been in partnership with Dinwiddie. Lee reported that the governor “likes this man well.” The company also expected to profit by settling tenants on its grant. The Delawares, Shawnees, and Iroquois of the Ohio River watershed, pressed by both French and British, wanted no such encroachments. As the company’s agent, Christopher Gist, traveled the region to map it, he kept his compass out of sight and posed as an emissary from the king. He lied to the Delawares, who nevertheless correctly “suspected he came to settle their lands.” After Pennsylvania’s officials decided not to build a fort, Virginians urged the leader of the Ohio Iroquois, Tanacharison, to accept both a fort and the white people’s—that is, the Ohio Company’s—claim to land. At the Logg’s Town meeting in the first two weeks of June 1752, Virginians got what they sought and handed out wampum, liquor, butter, salt, cornmeal, beef, and tobacco. But the Indians still did not want settlers.
Dinwiddie’s alliance with the Ohio Company and his push into the Ohio Valley aroused “unfavourable Surmises” in the minds of “many Gentlemen that had a share in Government.” Speaker Robinson and his friends had no wish to serve the interests of the Lees or of the Ohio Company. Anyone convinced that Dinwiddie desired above all to make money could believe that he would “go to the French & provoke them.” When he warned that the French were invading Virginia, he aroused suspicion that this was “a Fiction; and Scheme to promote the Interest of a private Company.” In 1752, Dinwiddie called on the burgesses to counteract French designs by overtures to western Indians and by improving the militia. The General Assembly did nothing to help Dinwiddie’s advance in the Ohio Valley but exempt settlers along western waters from taxes for ten years.
The French and their new governor, the Marquis Duquesne, were invading Virginia only by trying to expel British traders from the Ohio Valley and by claiming the forks of the Ohio and the land west of the Allegheny Mountains. Their presence in the upper valley disturbed the Duke of Newcastle, the ministry in London, Governor Dinwiddie, and members of the Ohio Company more than it disturbed other Virginians. Soldiers sent beyond the mountains by the French and British governments went looking for a fight. The British ministry told Dinwiddie that he could build a fort, as the Ohio Company had promised to do, sent him artillery, and said that French interference or French attempts to construct a fort were aggression. A few weeks later, Duquesne ordered French troops farther south along the Allegheny River toward the forks of the Ohio.
When news of this reached Williamsburg, with warnings that the Ohio Company’s traders must flee, George Washington offered his services to Governor Dinwiddie. Washington’s older half brother, Lawrence, had died in July 1752, when George was twenty years old, and George would inherit Mount Vernon. Washington aspired to distinction, preferably military. Dinwiddie tried to alarm the House of Burgesses with the French menace, but Speaker Robinson and his friends cared more about the pistole fee. Unable to make a show of force in the west, Dinwiddie and the Council nevertheless sent Washington to the upper Ohio Valley to tell the French to leave. Even with the guidance of Christopher Gist, he had a hard time finding some Frenchmen to threaten. He accomplished a long, dangerous march, but he won no support from the Iroquois and no respect from the French. Dinwiddie provided materials for the Ohio Company’s fort at the forks of the Ohio.
In April 1754 the French seized that uncompleted fort and established their own, Fort Duquesne. George Washington, with 150 men, was on his way toward it when he learned that it had fallen. He moved near the French, though his force could not rival theirs. He invited combat, which ended with his surrender in the first week of July. Three weeks later, Dinwiddie asked the government to send British regiments to Virginia. In September the Duke of Newcastle, with the help of the Duke of Cumberland, persuaded the king to do so. Newcastle thought the British could repel French aggression at the forks of the Ohio without starting a war. But Cumberland and others wished to attack the French at many points. Before the British regiments marched toward Fort Duquesne, French officials, explaining British aggression, found its excuse in the Ohio Company’s claims. The Comte de Jouy wrote in February 1755: “The grants made to merchants in the Ohio territory are the work of the English government. They may even be regarded as the origin of the present dispute.”
The year 1754 was hard on Robert Dinwiddie in more ways than military defeat. The burgesses voted only £10,000 for troops and arms, an insultingly small sum. In February, with the Council’s assent, he offered free land in the Ohio Valley to men who would volunteer for military service. He seemed preoccupied with “rich soil” and “Millions of Acres” that might be lost to the French. The volunteers did not make an impressive force. Dinwiddie tried to get other colonies to send soldiers. All, except North Carolina, refused, though he arranged for the Board of Trade to order the governor of South Carolina to send some. A “general opinion” prevailed in Pennsylvania that Virginia land companies were trying “to embroil all colonies in a war to defend their lands.” A few weeks after learning of Washington’s surrender, Dinwiddie received the Board of Trade’s ruling on his pistole fee. Their instructions confined his collection of a fee so narrowly that it would yield little. He grew more strident. His speech to the burgesses in August reminded them that France oppressed Britons in Asia and America. He warned that for many years the French had been planning to rule the world with a “universal Monarchy.” The burgesses voted £20,000 for Virginia’s forces and included in the appropriation £2,500 to repay Speaker Robinson, who had advanced money from the treasury for Peyton Randolph’s trip to London to undercut Dinwiddie’s pistole fee. The governor and the Council rejected this bill, thereby losing the £20,000 until October. Soldiers serving with Washington went unpaid and ill supplied. They said they had been “bubbled.” Many deserted; complaints by others discouraged new enlistments. In October the burgesses authorized justices of the peace to draft unemployed men.
During the October session, Speaker Robinson tried to make the frustrated governor feel better. With his usual charm, he called on Dinwiddie and asked pardon for the burgesses’ “great ill manners.” Robinson could afford to be conciliatory, since the Board of Trade, beyond burying the pistole fee, had told Dinwiddie to reappoint Peyton Randolph to the post of attorney general. He found doing so “very disagreeable.” Though outwardly on “a very good Footing” with Robinson, the governor expected to get even with the speaker after the next election by not allowing him to remain both speaker and treasurer. Dinwiddie complained that newspapers published “unjust and false” criticism. In November and December he became the object of satire, circulated in manuscript. He found himself portrayed in verse as a greedy, cowardly, lying warmonger. A mock-rustic letter making fun of Scots and opposing war with France was shown to him. The governor “said that the Author of that, & of the Poem too, might kiss his honrs. A-se.” Speaker Robinson for his part, upon reading the satires, smiled.
Dinwiddie learned in mid-December that two British regiments were coming to Virginia to take Fort Duquesne. The government’s strategy also called for the capture of Fort Niagara, of Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and of Fort Beauséjour in Acadia. British troops and Virginia recruits needed supplies. Dinwiddie appointed two commissaries: Dr. Thomas Walker and Charles Dick, a merchant in Fredericksburg and partner with Walker in the Loyal Company. Using their own credit, they must find contractors to furnish cattle, horses, wagons, and flour. Despite low pay, £200 in Virginia currency, they undertook the work, Dick mainly in Fredericksburg, Walker on the road. Walker went to Philadelphia in February 1755 to get help from “the Ingenius Franklin” and the Assembly of Pennsylvania, arranging delivery of 14,000 bushels of wheat. To assist Lewis Evans’s work on a new map, Walker recalled details from his western explorations on behalf of the Loyal Company. Cynics in London said that the regiments were ordered to go by way of Virginia rather than Pennsylvania because the ministry listened to John Hanbury, who received a commission of 2½ percent for transferring money to the army in Virginia. Hanbury was a member of the Ohio Company; the army began its march at an Ohio Company post on the Potomac River and cut a road along a familiar route toward the company’s lost fort. Lewis Evans disputed the cynics, showing by his map that the army followed the shortest, easiest approach.
While Walker was in Philadelphia, General Edward Braddock, commander of the expeditionary force, arrived in Williamsburg, soon followed to Virginia by troopships and the fleet commanded by Commodore Augustus Keppel. Walker joined Braddock for the march toward the French, as did George Washington, still aspiring to a military career. Washington included both Speaker Robinson and Governor Dinwiddie among those he called “my Friends.” Though he said he pursued no “lucrative ends,” he had the general’s promise of “preferment equal to my Wishes.”
Braddock grew more and more angry with Dr. Walker and with Virginians as he spent several weeks along the upper Potomac, surrounded by raw logs of the new Fort Cumberland, which an Englishwoman called “the most desolate Place I ever saw.” Braddock deplored his “daily Experience of the Falsehood of every person with whom I was concerned.” He got stinking meat, corn instead of wheat, moldy biscuit, and too few horses and wagons. Though one of Walker’s contractors for cattle failed to deliver, blaming the House of Burgesses but offering to deliver later at a further markup of 33⅓ percent, Walker and Dick said they had furnished enough provisions. By the time Braddock’s army headed across the mountains, it had accumulated too many wagons, horses, and supplies. Walker recalled the “grave smiles” with which a Philadelphia Quaker had tried to shave 2,000 bushels of wheat off of Virginia’s order. Yet Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvanians won praise from the British, who damned Virginians for “Bragging and false Promises.”
Thomas Walker rode in Braddock’s column as it slowly climbed the Allegheny ridge, following axmen who cleared a narrow road through the forest. George Washington was eager for the army to push ahead more quickly, but “the old Soldiers” were “all uneasy for Fear of being attack’d on the long March in Defiles.” With a few wagons and provisions, Walker accompanied Braddock and 1,200 men, leaving part of the force behind and advancing along the Monongahela River, within less than eight miles of Fort Duquesne. And Dr. Walker came under fire on July 9, as the enemy—250 Frenchmen and Canadians, with 640 Indian allies—sprang their ambush from the woods above the Monongahela. After three hours of intense but confused fighting, during which the British fired into one another, their retreat began. Wagon drivers and others bore the wounded Braddock in a litter. Neither Walker nor George Washington was hurt, though musket balls pierced Washington’s coat. Walker lost two horses and his gear, including his spare clothes. He stayed with Braddock until the general died four days later. Then he accompanied the remnants of the column back along the new mountain road to Fort Cumberland. Braddock’s successor, Colonel Thomas Dunbar, moved his force to Philadelphia, taking Dr. Walker with him.
Thomas Walker and Charles Dick had trouble obtaining reimbursement from the House of Burgesses. Speaker Robinson and the new committee supervising expenditures demanded vouchers and receipts. Walker’s accounts were not settled until the following spring. Nevertheless, he and Dick continued to serve, obtaining beef and pork for the Virginia regiment. Under the command of Colonel George Washington, it was the colony’s western defense.
General Braddock had hoped to be joined by Indian allies. The Delawares wished the British to expel the French; yet no Delaware men had come to Braddock after his conversation with their emissaries. The general died without knowing all the results of his words to Shingas, their leader: “No Savage Should Inherit the Land.” Though Indians of the Ohio Valley sought to get rid of the French, they could see that British success would bring the Ohio Company and others into the valley more quickly. Braddock’s failure made alliance with the French look advantageous and politic. During the summer after that defeat and in later months, Indian allies attacked the westernmost British colonists, killing cattle, burning crops and houses, “cutting off numbers of families.” Outlying farmers fled their homes, moving toward safety “in droves of fifties.” Thomas Walker fed cattle for Washington’s men with corn left standing in the fields. The Loyal Company’s surveyors stopped work; its settlers abandoned their tracts. Escorting ammunition for the Greenbrier Company, James Patton encountered Indians in a meadow above the headwaters of the Roanoke River. They killed him.
The burgesses moved slowly. Only after Braddock failed, Indians raided, and Charles Dick refused to provide further supplies without payment did the burgesses appropriate large sums for the war. They relied chiefly upon paper currency. The colony printed it, spent it, then drew it back into the treasury by a head tax, a land tax, and taxes on slaves. These treasury notes were redeemable with interest at specified future dates. Between May 1755 and March 1756 the burgesses authorized an emission of £115,000; the amount soon grew much larger.
Too few men enlisted in Washington’s regiment, even after the colony offered a bounty of £10. The militia, which one Virginian called “a mere Farce,” would not stay long in the field. Speaker Robinson told Dinwiddie: “they will all desert.” Some lawyers offered to defend deserters for a small fee. In June 1756, Washington’s force at Winchester was shrinking. Dinwiddie and Washington envisioned a chain of forts in the west. Washington proposed a provincial force of 2,000 regulars; rumors in eastern Virginia said that he tried to deceive the burgesses with a false alarm about the Indian threat “to cause the Assembly to levy largely both in Money & Men.” The burgesses eventually authorized forts in the Shenandoah Valley and as many troops as Washington had requested, but a majority opposed “the most vigorous measures” and rejected Richard Bland’s scheme to attack Fort Duquesne.
After Virginia raised a second regiment, William Byrd became its commander in the summer of 1758 at the age of twenty-nine. Early in 1756 he and Peter Randolph had gone to South Carolina to win allies for the British among the Catawbas and the Cherokees, whose men fought in Virginia and Pennsylvania. At the end of 1756, Byrd traveled to Nova Scotia to join the Earl of Loudoun at Halifax. Loudoun took a liking to him; Byrd accompanied the regulars on their campaign. In the spring of 1758 he returned to the Cherokees. His “good Offices and Generosity” enabled him to bring more fighting men to the Shenandoah Valley.
Travel took Byrd away from his troubles in Virginia. In the summer of 1754 he said that he was “surprised and sorry” that a bill of exchange he had drawn was returned protested. Soon, his bad bills surprised no one. He borrowed money from Governor Dinwiddie. After selling the Land of Eden to Francis Farley, he drew a bill for £1,000 on a merchant, James Buchanan, getting Mann Page to endorse it, despite Page’s heavy debts. Byrd’s creditors grew more pressing in 1756.
At the same time, Byrd lost patience with his wife. Though Elizabeth Carter Byrd was the mother of five children, she sometimes still behaved like the sixteen-year-old Byrd had married: buying more “finery” than she could wear, lying in bed until noon, and sending peremptory letters to her mother-in-law at Westover. Maria Byrd sarcastically labeled her “the Belvidere lady.” George Washington heard in August 1756 that William Byrd had repudiated his wife and that she was “in a Dilirium for his Behaviour.” Byrd sent their three oldest children to his relatives in England and avoided his wife. In one of her plaintive letters to him, she described herself as “your wife, that you once honored with your love.” Before leaving for Halifax, Byrd advertised in the Virginia Gazetteto tell his creditors that his property and affairs now lay in the hands of trustees: his friends Speaker Robinson, Peyton Randolph, Peter Randolph, and Presley Thornton; his wife’s brother, Charles Carter; his sister’s husband, John Page; and his business manager, Charles Turnbull. His deed of trust ordered them to pay Byrd’s mother £500 per year and his wife “what they think necessary.”
While Byrd marched with the Earl of Loudoun and met with Attakullakulla among the Cherokees, his “many importunate Creditors” pursued his trustees, who said they might have to sell his estate. They gave bonds on his property to cover his protested bills. Late in July 1760, Elizabeth Byrd, with her two youngest children, visited her brother at Corotoman. There she died at the age of twenty-eight. The Carters said she had an accident. Her mother later convinced William and Elizabeth Byrd’s oldest son that Elizabeth “had been badly used” by the Byrds. William Byrd’s financial situation that fall was “Terrible”; his trustees believed that his debts almost equaled his assets. In January 1761 he was married again.
George Washington resigned his command at the end of 1758. He was succeeded by William Byrd. Washington had entered military service declaring: “I have … resolution to Face what any Man durst.” He attracted notice and praise from the Nelson brothers, Speaker Robinson, Governor Dinwiddie, Philip Ludwell, Warner Lewis, General Braddock, and Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts. Though the burgesses remained skeptical about Dinwiddie’s war, refusing to give Washington all he requested, they thought highly of him and twice voted him their thanks. Still, he often complained and spoke of resigning. His grandest ambitions went unfulfilled. He wished to be taken, with his regiment, onto the regular establishment of the British Army. British and provincial forces with their Indian allies ought to advance boldly, he said, and take Fort Duquesne in the summer of 1758. They did not; he vented his frustration to Speaker Robinson: “That appearance of Glory once in view—that hope—that laudable Ambition of Serving Our Country, and meriting its applause, is now no more!”
The fall of Fort Duquesne came almost as an anticlimax. In October, the Delawares and the Shawnees abandoned their alliance with the French. Late the following month, just before British troops arrived, the small garrison blew up their fortifications, set fire to the barracks and other buildings, then fled.
By the time Washington stood among the ruins of Fort Duquesne, his mind already had turned toward his postwar career. On a trip to Williamsburg in March he had again met Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow for the past eight months. She was being “attacked” by Charles Carter, whose hopes made him “very gay.” But Martha Custis and George Washington soon agreed to be married. Four months after his betrothal, he won election to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County. At the end of the year he resigned his commission. On Saturday, January 6, 1759, he and Martha Custis were wed.
Through this union, George Washington acquired an amiable wife, a suffering epileptic stepdaughter, a spoiled stepson, a substantial fortune, and a tedious lawsuit. Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, was the son of John Custis and grandson of Daniel Parke, assassinated governor of Antigua. John Custis had outlived his wife, had managed his property prudently, and had left his son a rich estate. George Washington now controlled that legacy.
The estate might have been larger had John Custis not spent so much money on litigation. The husband of Governor Daniel Parke’s “little bastard” daughter in Antigua pursued Custis with a suit in Chancery, trying to make him pay debts Parke’s estate had incurred in Antigua. The plaintiff’s heirs continued the suit after his death. At the time of Martha Dandridge and Daniel Parke Custis’s wedding in 1750, the suit had lasted for twenty-seven years. During her widowhood, her attorney complained that he had received less payment for representing the Custis cause than Secretary Nelson had received in fees for copies of papers used in the suit. Speaker Robinson became legal guardian of the two Custis children, lending his weight to their side, but the case in Chancery wore on. George Washington was still paying attorneys’ fees fifty years after John Custis first had been sued under Daniel Parke’s will—written, Custis said of his father-in-law, “possibly to please that adultrous strumpet, who so unfortunately intoxicated him.”
Washington wished to own much more land. He planned large purchases and sought grants in the Ohio Valley promised to veterans by Dinwiddie. He and George Mercer, a partner in the Ohio Company, agreed to meet in Williamsburg in November 1759 and there “leave no Stone unturned to secure ourselves this Land.” It promised so much profit that they would have to fight for it. Mercer detected “mighty Schemers” who conspired to get “all the best Land” by keeping the surveying in their own hands, excluding him. One of his rivals, Adam Stephen, slyly said: “I find the advantage of the Ohio lands despised” by the burgesses, even as he worked the capitol to make himself and his friends “absolute Proprietors.” The French had withdrawn only a year past. Around its ruins, one could still trace outlines of the fosse of Fort Duquesne. Yet Virginians already wrangled over the spoils of victory.
Two harsh wartime droughts, in 1755 and 1758, left Virginia with two of its smallest crops of tobacco. In the latter year many planters grew none. Virginia’s exports fell from more than 49,000 hogsheads to 24,169, of which 5,000 came from an earlier crop. In August, Dr. Thomas Walker heard an estimate that the colony’s income from the year’s tobacco would be £250,000 sterling less than usual. One could only guess because a shortage drove up prices. In May 1757, the “common Price” in Hanover County was 20 shillings for a hundredweight—112 pounds of tobacco. In June 1758, it had risen to 30 shillings, “all cash.” In January 1759, it stood at 40 shillings, and some planters held out for 50. Even a merchant ready to pay cash was “continually riding” to find a cargo.
The colony’s laws and longtime practice made taxes and fees, with a few exceptions, payable only in tobacco, as were many private debts. Crop notes and transfer notes issued by inspectors showed how much tobacco a planter had deposited in public warehouses; these circulated in lieu of transferring tobacco from hand to hand. But contracts, debts, public levies, and salaries fixed when tobacco sold for twopence per pound or less fell due in tobacco worth twice as much at the end of 1758. Amid the first drought in 1755, the House of Burgesses passed a bill by a majority of one, over Speaker Robinson’s opposition, making obligations due in tobacco payable in cash at a rate of twopence per pound of tobacco. This provision expired after ten months. In 1758 the burgesses and the Council voted almost unanimously for another Twopenny Act, to last twelve months. They said the law was “founded upon the principles of Humanity and Justice intended to preserve the people from Rapine and Oppression.” Planters could sell their tobacco for cash at the new, high price, then pay their creditors, usually merchants, at the law’s lower rate. The larger a planter’s property in land and slaves, the more money he saved by paying his taxes in cash rather than in tobacco.
Most Virginians paid their debts to merchants each year and owed less than £50. Even so, more planters were buying more goods from Britain, running up larger debts. With exaggeration, a British writer said of Virginia planters in 1757: “they live in general luxuriously, and to the full extent of their fortunes.”
In the first years of his marriage, George Washington did so. He bought land and slaves; he spent more than £350 each year on china, silver, and decorative objects for Mount Vernon. Within five years he found that these things had “swallowed up before I well knew where I was, all the money I got by Marriage nay more, brought me in Debt.” He owed £1,800 to his London merchant.
Virginia was growing. At the start of the war with France, the colony held 230,000 people. When war ended, there were 340,000. Counties split to form new counties. More land came into cultivation, and more slave ships arrived from Africa and the West Indies. Though many people delayed payment, Virginians were good customers. A British officer said that, while a Pennsylvania farmer would buy a durable kersey coat, a Virginia planter would buy something gaudy. Storekeepers spread throughout the colony, purchasing tobacco, selling merchandise, and, to win customers, extending easy credit. Always seeking a good investment, Dr. Thomas Walker put up one-third of the capital for a new store in Charlottesville in 1761. Three years later he had “a Great Deal of money Due to him.”
Many of the new young men came from Scotland and worked for companies opening strings of retail stores. Known as factors, they strove to get the trade of “the common People … who make up the Bulk of the Planters.” They did so well that Virginians came to speak routinely of “Scotch stores.” Scots specialized in inferior grades of tobacco, which made up most of the crop and was re-exported from Britain to France. It had one buyer: the French state monopoly, the Farmers-General. Since that market was certain and growing, Scottish companies confidently extended credit to Virginians, knowing that money spent on land and slaves would yield more tobacco. Money spent on merchandise marked up 100 percent, 150 percent, or 200 percent came back to the factor’s company as profit. Long credit excused a higher markup.
To rise in the esteem of his employers and to return to Britain with a modest fortune, a factor needed ambition. As the number of merchants in Virginia grew, competition increased. Even so, in the 1750s and 1760s the Scots’ share of Britain’s tobacco trade steadily rose until they controlled more than half. The great Glasgow firms had found the enterprising men they needed. One of the quickest ways to get a planter’s tobacco—some said the only way—was to lend money or extend credit. In 1760 a planter could “command double the Cash his Tobo was worth besides credit for what goods he had occasion for.” This method of business was called “engaging of Customers.”
Virginians often said that they disliked Scottish merchants as a group. Scots for their part seldom hid their opinion of colonial planters, whom they called “common buckskins.” The mayor, aldermen, and Common Council of Norfolk demanded a public apology from some young Scottish merchants and others two days after the mayor took office in 1755. On election day the young men had chosen their own mayor: Richard Scott’s slave, Will. They “seated him and drank to him as Mr. Mayor by way of Derision.” As debts swelled in the following years, many Virginians concluded that these people who had lent them money had made fools of them, that they were “held in Derision by the Merchts … of the Metropolis & Factors of Glascow.” They discerned a pattern: Scots took care of one another; Scots had “secrets in the Tobo Trade”; Scots were “Engrossers.” With “the artful Craftiness and Cunning natural to that Nation,” Scots had conspired to grow rich at the expense of Virginia. By this line of thought, victims saw themselves as “unfortunate Debtors,” reduced to “Vasalage & Dependance.”
Virginians remained optimistic, seeking more land and more slaves. Though they were promising to pay 5 percent interest on their debts, might their property not rise in value at an even greater rate? They needed only “prudent Management,” frugality, and higher prices for tobacco. Rather than resort to slow courts, merchants often found it simpler to take a debtor’s bond and hope for the best. The “maxims so generally embraced” in Virginia, Robert Beverley wrote in 1761, were: “being in Debt & making great Promises for the future.”
Virginia had few if any debtors more stubborn than John Syme of Hanover County. He ran up a large account in the 1750s with Lidderdale, Harmer & Farell, merchants in Bristol, who shipped goods to him on credit and lent him money by accepting his bills of exchange. He consigned his tobacco to them, but its value fell far short of the advances he received.
Turning twenty-one in 1750, Syme came into possession of his late father’s estate. He knew his father’s face; he had the same “remarkably homely” features. The elder William Byrd noticed this when Syme was only four years old. Byrd said that, although Syme’s lively, cheerful widowed mother “seem’d not to pine too much for the Death of her Husband,” no one could doubt that her little son was legitimate. To celebrate his new independence Syme built a house overlooking the South Anna River, sparing no expense on a granite foundation, rose-colored brick, sandstone quoins, pedimented doorways, and rich interior woodwork. By the spring of 1753 he was “beginning housekeeping.” His wife was Mildred Meriwether, daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker’s wife by her first marriage. The Symes’ first son was born in 1752. On the recommendation of Peter Randolph, Syme shipped 50 hogsheads to Lidderdale, Harmer & Farell, then began to “Draw largely” on them, promising to ship 100 hogsheads from his new crop. The following year he was “Oblig’d to draw largely” to buy slaves. He won a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1756 and allied with John Chiswell, father of Speaker Robinson’s new sweetheart. Syme and Robinson jointly owned tobacco warehouses in Hanover County. The speaker put him on one of the most important committees. “My situation in a Publick Place,” he explained to his Bristol merchants, “Obliges me to live in a Way, somewhat Expensive.” In a visit to Syme’s home and to other plantations, an English clergyman found Virginians hospitable but guilty of “extravagance, ostentation, and a disregard of economy.”
Syme assured Lidderdale, Harmer & Farell that his influence would obtain consignments and customers for them. He did get a shipment of tobacco and an order for goods from his mother-in-law. Despite the short crop of 1755, Syme drew more large bills of exchange in 1756. This time, however, the Bristol firm returned his bills protested. He renewed them, promising not to draw more than £300 in bills each year, but he drew for much larger sums. Joseph Farell, forming a new firm, protested to Syme, saying that he and his partners had to live. Syme replied: “I am heartily for your living, & that you would let me live also.” He asked for a loan of £1,000 to buy slaves. He and a partner opened a store, for which Syme ordered a stock of goods. After Farell refused to advance more, Syme got store goods from Glasgow on fifteen months’ credit.
In 1763, Syme promised to “Clear off the old score,” nearing £6,000 sterling, but thereafter he shipped too little tobacco to meet his current account, much less reduce his debt. To the new firm, Farell & Jones, he described a series of schemes for raising money to pay them: import a stud for his thirty or forty mares and breed horses; start a commercial gristmill; collect thousands of pounds owed to him in Virginia. Syme sought help from Farell & Jones to win the lucrative post of surveyor general of Customs in the southern district, now that its former occupant, Peter Randolph, had died. He wrote: “I always knew Colo. Randolph’s Were of a Short Liv’d Family & I was Contented to Wait for a Vacancy.” Instead of aiding him, Farell & Jones returned his bills of exchange protested, then returned them a second and a third time after he renewed them. Syme complained: “my Old Freinds, for whom I have Done so much, are Determin’d to Ruin my Credit.”
Syme had many assets, amounting, Farell & Jones heard, to £15,000 or £20,000. The partners realized that Syme was “trifling” with them. Having promised that Dr. Walker would give a bond as security for the debt, Syme instead produced a letter from “his toadeater,” John Hawkins, a “worthless sharping sort of a fellow,” who offered to be Syme’s security. The firm wanted not Hawkins’s bonds but Syme’s tobacco, remittances, and payment of damages for protested bills. Syme told Farell & Jones: “nothing has ever given me so much Pain as this affair, & your Usage to me lately.” He never would have run up so large a debt, he said, but “for advantages Promis’d me, wch you now refuse.” The firm ordered a suit brought against him. He began to avoid the sheriff.
Robert Dinwiddie concluded that he had made a bad bargain with the Earl of Albemarle for dividing the income of the governorship of Virginia. In the spring of 1755, Dinwiddie regretted having taken the office. Though another fifteen years of life lay before him, he felt ill. In the fall of 1756 he asked the Board of Trade to relieve him of the governorship, and late in 1757 he returned to England. The Board of Trade and the Privy Council chose as his successor Francis Fauquier, a trim, handsome man in his mid-fifties, as affable as Dinwiddie was dour.
Fauquier had an elegant demeanor and refined taste for good living. He knew William Hogarth and other artists; he also knew George Frederick Handel. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society; he had published an essay on the political economy of financing war with France. He sought the lieutenant governorship, rumor said, because he needed money. Virginians were told that Fauquier, an avid gambler, had lost so much money to Admiral George Anson, first lord of the Admiralty, that Anson felt obliged to use his influence to get the resident governorship for him. In London, Fauquier’s behavior showed that “no Governor ever went abroad better disposed to make a people happy.”
Robert Dinwiddie thought that some Virginians, especially Speaker Robinson and his friends, were already too happy. Dinwiddie appeared before the Board of Trade to urge that Robinson not remain both speaker and treasurer. Dinwiddie called Fauquier “a very good-natured Gentleman”; he thought the new governor needed “some directions … upon this point.” Two days later Fauquier met with the Board of Trade, who told him what Dinwiddie had said and pressed him to end the “highly improper” practice of giving both offices to the same man. The vessel bearing Fauquier to Virginia also held letters from Dinwiddie, exulting that he had gained a victory over the speaker.
Fauquier took the oath of office in Williamsburg on June 5, 1758. Within three weeks the “principal People” had convinced him that John Robinson would be speaker and treasurer for life. Robinson had learned of Dinwiddie’s appearance before the Board of Trade, and he was vexed. He dismissed it as Dinwiddie’s attempt at revenge for loss of the pistole fee. The Nelson brothers, Peyton Randolph, and others scared Fauquier by saying that a mere attempt to deny Robinson one of his offices “might throw the Country into a Flame.” The governor told the Board of Trade that only by winning the good opinion of the speaker’s friends could he get appropriations for the colony’s defense. On September 14 the burgesses unanimously re-elected Robinson speaker. He remained treasurer. A few weeks later a visitor to Williamsburg wrote: “The Govr is in general well Spoken off.”
In the fall session Fauquier assented to an emission of paper money, though merchants in Britain objected vehemently. He assented to the Twopenny Act, though merchants protested and clergymen of the established Church felt cheated. They said their rightful annual salary was 16,000 pounds of tobacco no matter how short the crop or high the price. Governor Fauquier was violating his instructions. Only in this way, he wrote the Board of Trade, could he gain influence among the councillors and burgesses. He knew that he had won the esteem of the speaker and his friends. Peyton Randolph published a pamphlet in Williamsburg, defending the colony’s currency. In it he addressed Fauquier: “it is the Patriot GOVERNOR alone that can represent the Patriot KING. Nor deem thou this as a Drop bubbling from the nauseous Fountain of Flattery.”
The governor’s house, grandly called a palace, was pleasant to visit in Fauquier’s time. He played music well, joining other amateurs in weekly concerts. Champagne, white Rhine wine, Tokay, and malmsey flowed. Speaker Robinson called every so often. Fauquier thought him “the Darling of the Country, as he well deserves to be.” Before long, it became clear that the quickest way to get something from the governor was to approach the speaker; “for by a proper exertion of his Interest, which is very prevailing at the Palace, any reasonable point might be carried.” The Earl of Halifax, his colleagues on the Board of Trade, and others in London thought that Fauquier was too good-natured and eager to please. The governor ought not to be so accommodating to “designing People.” Learning of aspersions cast on Fauquier, the speaker and the councillors came to his defense. The colony’s committee of correspondence sent a letter, prepared by Peyton Randolph and others, to their agent in London, urging him to prevent any “ill impressions” arising from Fauquier’s conduct. The governor, they said, had given “universal satisfaction.” The House of Burgesses voted Fauquier an unusually generous present of money.
On the day Fauquier took the oath of office, Dr. Thomas Walker was working in Philadelphia, buying tents, kettles, and provisions for troops at Winchester and Fort Cumberland. Fauquier retained him as commissary for the rest of Virginia’s campaigns, lasting three more years. Dr. Walker suffered censure in the autumn of 1758. Thomas Johnson, a burgess, learned that the commissary had furnished supplies for troops in Augusta County by contracting with their commander, his friend, Major Andrew Lewis, a resident of the county who wielded “great Influence amongst the Inhabitants of that Country.” Walker had kept Lewis’s role secret, since it obviously permitted abuses: The man furnishing rations to soldiers was also the commander attesting that the right quantity and quality had been supplied. Food bought with public funds could be falsely declared spoiled, then used elsewhere. Soldiers could be stinted in their rations while the commissary and the contractor collected the full sixpence per man per day allowed in the colony’s contract. Thomas Johnson told his guests that Walker had cheated the colony out of £1,100. They asked how burgesses could be so blatantly deceived. Why did burgesses still court Walker, begging him to continue as commissary? Johnson replied: “You know little of the Plots, Schemes, and Contrivances that are carried on there; in short, one holds the Lamb while the other skins; many of the Members are in Places of Trust and Profit, and others want to get in, and they are willing to assist one another in passing their Accounts.”
The House of Burgesses convened in February 1759. Johnson’s remarks had been widely repeated. Dr. Walker asked for an inquiry into his conduct. Peyton Randolph and other members of the committee of privileges and elections judged the agreement with Lewis improper, but reported that soldiers had suffered no abuse and that Walker had perpetrated no fraud. Three weeks later Randolph’s committee recommended that Thomas Johnson be reprimanded for his “false, scandalous, and malicious” words, as well as his criticism of the manner in which Randolph and other friends of Speaker Robinson’s secured a high salary for the clerk of the House of Burgesses. Opinion was divided. After a debate, during which Johnson remained outside the chamber, the committee’s resolution passed by a vote of 37 to 32. Johnson then took his place, and Speaker Robinson, from the chair above the mace, reprimanded him for his words, which “reflect highly on the Honor of the House.”
Though the British had taken the forks of the Ohio and, in September 1759, France’s chief American city and fortress, Québec, Virginians were still at war in 1760 and 1761 with a new enemy, their former allies the Cherokees. South Carolinians and British regulars did most of the fighting; William Byrd and his regiment went no nearer than the upper reaches of the Holston River, 200 miles from any Cherokee town. Walker said he could not supply them farther south.
Walker resumed his journeys in the spring of 1761. From Williamsburg, he went in May to Philadelphia to contract for provisions. In the last two weeks of June he traveled from Philadelphia to Fort Chiswell in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains near the North Carolina line. He and John Chiswell served as Virginia’s commissioners to the Cherokees, paying ransom in return for release of prisoners. Most Cherokees sought peace that summer, but the British did not end the war until Sir Jeffery Amherst sent a force of regulars on a punitive campaign of destruction among Cherokee towns.
William Byrd resigned his command in August. He went to Philadelphia, where his pregnant wife had remained with her parents. Mary Willing Byrd was twenty-one years old, child of a marital alliance between two prosperous merchant families, the Willings and the Shippens. She gave birth to a daughter in November. The following summer, Dr. Walker came north; and he and Byrd called on Sir Jeffery in New York to present their accounts. Amherst was both British commander in North America and successor to the Earl of Albemarle as sinecurist governor of Virginia.
Members of the Loyal Company and the Ohio Company, looking toward the return of peace, wished to make their titles secure. They sought friends. One land company made Governor Fauquier’s son a partner. The Ohio Company invited Colonel Henry Bouquet, British commander in the west, to join and receive a full member’s share, 25,000 acres. Fauquier and Bouquet, however, were discovering that the government in London no longer encouraged settlement west of the mountains, at least not the land grants and migration of the years before the war. The ministry preferred peace with the Indians, and the Ohio Company had disrupted peace. The new policy favored what Fauquier called “well settling and peopling a Colony.” This meant controlled, orderly movement and, for a while, no movement. Bouquet told the Ohio Company: “no settlement will be permitted upon the Ohio till the Consent of the Indians can be procured.” On October 13, 1761, he made this an order, prohibiting whites from living west of the Alleghenies. Later he suggested that all grants in the west be annulled and that the region have a “new government under Military Tenure.”
Two years later Bouquet’s policy became a royal proclamation forbidding westward migration and assigning governance of the west to the commander in chief in America. Yet many colonists thought as George Washington did: the proclamation was only “a temporary expedient to quiet the Minds of the Indians & must fall of course in a few years.” Families with no grants or legal claims crossed the mountains, built homes, and began farms in “stragling Settlements” along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Men who disapproved called them “Vagabonds” and “borderers.” Washington found them “very troublesome.” Still, packhorses climbed through passes. Despite orders to the settlers from the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania to return east, more and more went west. Everyone knew that soil in the Ohio Valley was “extremely fine,” and, General Thomas Gage reported, “it is the passion of every man to be a landholder, and the people have a natural disposition to rove in search of good lands, however distant.” Of course, the Crown could not expect payment of two shillings quitrent each year for every 100 acres occupied this way. Even holders of lawful grants living in the west refused to pay after the proclamation.
The proclamation especially displeased George Washington, Adam Stephen, the Lee brothers—four sons of Thomas Lee—and some of their friends. Just two weeks earlier, they had written to Thomas Cumming, a merchant in London, describing a new “Scheme” they had formed in June: the Mississippi Company. Their memorial to the king asked for a grant of 2,500,000 acres stretching eastward from the Mississippi River, embracing part of the watersheds of the Wabash, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers. They hoped to get this tract without paying the Crown anything for twelve years or longer. They offered to settle two hundred families on it. The company’s fifty “Adventurers” would each own 50,000 acres separately, not jointly, “any thing in the said Grant to the Contrary notwithstanding,” a provision they did not mention in their memorial or their letter.
Mary Willing Byrd, Matthew Pratt. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia. Second wife of the younger William Byrd, daughter and sister of Philadelphia merchants, and mistress of Westover for almost fifty years.
The founders presented the Mississippi Company as a public-spirited undertaking. The “poorer sort” could obtain land more cheaply from the company than from the Crown because they need not hire surveyors or pay cash for patents. The region would produce commodities Britain needed: “above all things Hemp it appears peculiarly adapted to.” Such a westward movement violated the government’s promise to Indians to allow no settlement beyond the mountains; but, the company’s founders said, Indians’ attacks already had broken that agreement. To ensure the prosperity and “public utility” of the company, its memorial said, several partners had formed “a determined resolution … to be themselves among the first settlers.”
The founders’ letter to Cumming explained that they sought a patent from the Privy Council in London, rather than an order directing the governor and Council of Virginia to make a grant. In Williamsburg, measures that Speaker Robinson and his friends disliked often did not prosper: “so many persons of the first influence here, are concerned in Land Schemes; that a thousand nameless, artfull obstructions would be thrown into their way to prevent the success of their enterprize.” The Crown’s answer to the Mississippi Company’s memorial, coming even before the memorial could reach London, was the royal proclamation forbidding migration to the west.
Dr. Walker did not let the proclamation stop his Loyal Company. On May 25, 1763, complying with instructions from London, the Council refused to confirm or renew the company’s grant. The clerk recorded in the minutes that the Council had “postpond” the petition for renewal. Walker did not take this as a rejection or a ban. He believed that councillors approved of the Loyal Company’s claims, a reasonable belief, since Councillors Thomas Nelson, William Nelson, and Richard Corbin were members of the company. Walker acted as if his petition had been approved. He summoned settlers who had fled their homes during the war to return; he sent surveyors to extend the company’s lines; he signed contracts with hundreds of new settlers. They accepted the original terms, to take effect as soon as the company’s grant was confirmed: £3 for each 100 acres, with surveyor’s fees, patent fees, and composition money, on all of which 5 percent annual interest accrued until the buyer paid in full.
Within an expanse of 5,000,000 acres of mountainous watershed of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, surveyors marked more than 150,000 acres of the best land for the Loyal Company. Later, a North Carolinian, objecting to Virginians’ claims, said that “secret Surveys were made in these parts by an old Land monger.” But anyone interested knew what Dr. Walker was doing. People came from other colonies and settled on plots already purchased from the Loyal Company by Virginians. These squatters said that the king’s proclamation annulled all western grants, throwing open the land “to the occupation of the first Adventurer,” as if the proclamation had not also forbidden them to move there. Settlers taking Walker’s contracts knew that recent surveys were “illegal.” They, too, defied the Crown and the governor by refusing to leave. Some later petitioned to quash the Loyal Company’s grant, under which they had bought their farms. They said they saw with “disappointment and regret” that Dr. Walker persisted in pressing them to comply with his terms for holding what they called “our possessions.” The company, they contended, should derive no title from its “forcable or clandestine Surveys.” Those who thought that “The Doctrs grant is broke” had yet to learn that they underestimated Thomas Walker.
Robert Tucker served another one-year term as mayor of Norfolk in 1759–60. Joanna Tucker conceived and gave birth to their fifteenth child, a daughter. Norfolk was growing; the county and borough held about 12,000 people at the end of Tucker’s term. The borough opened its first school-house. Redrawn boundaries added new streets and residences. Tucker and other merchants acted as trustees and directors for construction of a new wharf and built more warehouses. Norfolk had become the chief port of Chesapeake Bay. While Tucker was mayor, John Sparling and William Bolden of Liverpool established their firm, Sparling & Bolden, in Norfolk. Representing Glasgow merchants, Neil Jamieson arrived in 1760, beginning a successful business. He soon owned a fine brick house with a 60-foot front and, in back, two ranges of warehouses along the east and west sides of his wharf. Thus he outstripped his fellow merchant and fellow Scot, Dr. Archibald Campbell, who had left medicine for trade and had built in Cumberland Street a house with a 50-foot front.
As George Washington and other Virginians planted more wheat, the colony became the largest exporter of grain in North America. The bulk of Chesapeake grain passed through Norfolk, bound for the West Indies in sloops and schooners often recklessly overladen. Norfolk’s wharves also held bales of shingles, stacks of staves, barrels of pork, bars of iron. Proud civic verse said that a poet
Saw ships unnumber’d riding in thy port,
And groves of masts in mazy prospect stand;
Saw commerce spreading sail for distant climes,
And well-earn’d profits brought in full return.
Many of these graceful vessels, with much sail and little superstructure, had been launched from Norfolk. Slave shipwrights “were able to build a Ship amongst themselves without any assistance but of a Master Builder.” Merchants exported masts cut in the Dismal Swamp. From a ropewalk’s constantly turning wheels emerged strands of cable, rope, and other cordage for the rigging of new vessels and for refitting those careened for cleaning and repairs.
No one knew from day to day how many seamen were in town. There they found brothels and taverns such as John Reinsburg’s, run by a former fencing master from Annapolis. Sailors who had jumped ship met crimps ready to advance money and find them a new berth. A seaman’s monthly wage was £5. Masters of undermanned vessels bound for Britain, trying to complete their crews, had to pay between 10 and 16 guineas per man for the voyage. Sailors spent most of that money in the borough. Vessels not trading through the port nevertheless called at Norfolk in search of sailors.
Everyone knew that merchants were divided between “the Scotch Party” and “the Buckskin party.” Though Scots took much of Norfolk’s business, the Virginia buckskins controlled the borough’s closed, self-perpetuating corporation. One Scot, William Aitchison, represented Norfolk in the House of Burgesses while Robert Tucker was mayor. He had come to Virginia shortly before the war, at the age of forty, and soon was married to Rebecca Ellegood, daughter of one of the borough’s founders. In 1758, Aitchison joined a younger Scottish merchant, James Parker, a little man called Jamie, to establish the firm of Aitchison & Parker. Two years later, Parker was married to Margaret Ellegood, Rebecca’s sister. The two sisters’ cousin, Fernelia Ellegood, was married to Neil Jamieson. The Aitchisons lived in an “elegant and well furnished” house. His firm’s success enabled William Aitchison to own six houses, while Parker acquired five. Their trade grew; yet they pointedly bought barrels of bread not from Robert Tucker’s bakery but from Baltimore.
These Scots took an interest in North Carolina—primarily its trade, but also its land. In 1755 a seventeen-year-old boy, Thomas Macknight, arrived in Norfolk from Scotland and for three years lived with the Aitchisons. The new firm of Aitchison & Parker employed Macknight in North Carolina to open a store at Windfield on the Pasquotank River, south of the Dismal Swamp. They financed a North Carolina firm, Thomas Macknight & Company, to get a share of the colony’s wheat, pork, pine tar, and lumber, as well as its retail trade. As Parker said, Macknight went to do business with the “Crackers,” who “made Shoes played the Fiddle & sung Psalms for a livelyhood.” He soon cut a big figure among these “¾ Checque Squires.” Macknight patented and purchased property, foreseeing that better roads and easier, growing trade from North Carolina to Norfolk would raise the value of arable land. When Aitchison and Parker turned their attention to the Dismal Swamp, after noticing what the Virginia buckskins were doing, they brought in Macknight to help.
As more of North Carolina’s products came into Virginia, the town of Suffolk grew to fifty or sixty houses, with a public wharf on the Nansemond River. Smaller vessels in the West Indies trade sailed up the Nansemond to take on their cargoes. Other vessels, bay craft that did not sail beyond the capes, took commodities to Norfolk. By making the last 28 miles to Norfolk a water carriage, facilities at Suffolk reduced difficulties and expense in the Carolina trade. Visitors found Suffolk “a pretty little Town,” though goats and hogs roamed at large. One of its principal merchants, James Gibson, had arrived from Scotland soon after the town became important enough to erect its beautiful brick courthouse. He established connections in North Carolina; his business widened; he built more warehouses. Gibson specialized in exporting pork and importing dry goods, but he also dealt in naval stores, deerskins, and rum. If Aitchison and Parker needed a friend in Suffolk, they called on James Gibson.
Robert Tucker added another port to the destinations of his grain shipments. Already exporting to Lisbon and Madeira, he sent a cargo to Tenerife and imported hundreds of gallons of the Canary Islands’ sweet wine. His brother-in-law, Richard Corbin, invested £50 in the venture. Tucker and Corbin shared their troubles. Despite ceaseless work, Tucker fell behind in some transactions and shipments he had promised to complete. Corbin held more than £2,500 in bills of exchange drawn by Speaker Robinson, which had been returned protested. And the two men had the unpleasant task of sorting out the estate of Gawin Corbin, half brother of Richard Corbin and brother of Joanna Tucker; he had died in January 1760, still owing more than £1,200 to “impatient” merchants in Britain. His widow, Hannah, sister of the Lee brothers, and Richard Corbin, with the Lees’ help, put up for sale some of the estate’s land and slaves, hoping to pay Gawin Corbin’s debts. Thus the Corbins and the Tuckers had several reasons to travel along the Mattaponi and York rivers between Norfolk and King and Queen County.
In August 1761, Richard Corbin’s eldest son returned from three years in Christ’s College, Cambridge, and two years at the Middle Temple. This Gawin Corbin, namesake of his uncle and grandfather and now twenty-one years old, was open, unaffected, lovable. Before the end of 1762 he was married to his cousin, Joanna, daughter of Robert and Joanna Tucker. Sixteen months later they made the Tuckers grandparents.
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On Saturday, August 20, 1763, the ship Two Sisters, commanded by Captain Jeremiah Banning, sailed up Chesapeake Bay into the estuary of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and dropped anchor near the warehouses and stores of Oxford. Her passage from the coast of Senegal had taken thirty-seven days. She had five slaves on board. Anthony Bacon, the merchant in London who had bought the Two Sisters in a public auction at Lloyd’s Coffee House, would have been happy for her to take more slaves to Maryland. Three years earlier his ship Sarah had borne eighty from Senegal. But Captain Banning’s chief duty was to take liquor and wine to British garrisons on the west coast of Africa, then return to London with tobacco from Maryland. He took slaves for his own profit, and he had difficulties doing so on this voyage.
Running southward along the Barbary Coast late in May, the Two Sisters was threatened by one of the Algerine cruisers that raided passing vessels. Her six artillery pieces caused the raiders to change their minds. Anchored off the sandbar that made the mouth of the Senegal River dangerously shoal, the Two Sisters waited while Captain Banning by barter and purchase acquired eleven slaves: six men, one woman, and four children. They were too few to pose a threat to the crew; he left them unchained. Also anchored in Senegal Roads were troop transports filled with British soldiers. A night riot among the soldiers kept Banning’s crew and boats busy rowing army officers to each transport. Banning’s men were tired when they returned to the Two Sisters.
Just before dawn, three of the African men on board saw that the seamen on watch had fallen asleep. They lowered a boat from the ship’s stern and drifted seaward. Captain Banning came on deck at dawn. He found the watch asleep and a boat missing. A quick search between decks revealed that three Africans were gone. As Banning and his men looked out to sea, the moon, setting in the west, cast a long stream of light across the water. In its glow they saw their boat and the Africans. The captain ordered out a boat in pursuit. The Africans could not hope to outrun the rowing seamen. Both were followed by sharks. As the sailors’ boat closed, two Africans jumped into the sea. Sharks ripped them apart. The third man hesitated; he could not bring himself to jump, and fell into the sailors’ hands. Weeks later, he was one of the five slaves Captain Banning took onto the wharf at Oxford, Maryland.
After a stormy winter voyage to London, Captain Banning left Anthony Bacon’s service. Bacon, in his mid-forties, was a contractor for the government. He supplied provisions for soldiers in Senegal and for sailors of the Royal Navy in the West Indies. He kept an agent in Antigua, where the navy had its main port facilities and safest anchorage in English Harbor on the island’s southern coast. His roving partner on the North American mainland, Gilbert Francklyn, arranged for shipments of 100 barrels of pork at a time from Norfolk to Antigua.
Bacon had other representatives along Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, seeking cargoes for his ships King of Prussia, Desire, Unity, Peggy, and Sarah. One was Fielding Lewis of Fredericksburg, to whom Bacon gave power of attorney in 1759. At the age of thirty-four, Lewis had been a big man in Fredericksburg since his twenties. The same year he allied with Bacon, he and Dr. Walker’s colleague, Charles Dick, added a private gallery for their families in the Church of St. George’s Parish. Into the gallery filed Lewis’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine Washington Lewis, and four sons by his second wife, the late Catherine’s cousin, Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington’s sister. Owning thousands of acres in the Shenandoah Valley, Fielding Lewis helped elect Colonel Washington to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County. He joined his brother-in-law as a burgess in 1760.
Fielding Lewis began his career as a merchant at the upper end of Fredericksburg’s main street with help from his father, John Lewis of Gloucester County. Fielding learned from his father’s first representative, John Thornton. When Fielding was thirty-two, Thornton recommended him to the governor and Council to replace the drunken, foul-mouthed John Spotswood as county lieutenant for Spotsylvania County. Thornton’s sister, Mildred, was Dr. Walker’s wife. Of course, Walker and John Lewis, in founding the Loyal Company, had brought in Fielding Lewis and John Thornton. They all had reason to agree with Anthony Bacon and other London merchants who congratulated William Pitt on the fall of Fort Duquesne and Britain’s reconquest of “the extensive and fertile Lands of the Ohio.” Fielding and Betty Lewis also owned many acres in and around Fredericksburg. Their steady sale of lots marked the town’s growth. They rode past their properties in their new post chariot, drawn by six horses. Despite advantages from allying with Fielding Lewis, Bacon had cause to complain: Lewis’s imports from London exceeded in value cargoes he sent to Bacon.
Among Bacon’s customers in his consignment trade was George Washington, who bought materials for fancy clothes, paying in tobacco. Bacon also shipped to Charles Carroll of Annapolis in return for pig iron and to George Braxton, son of Speaker Robinson’s late colleague from King and Queen County. During the war Bacon supplied arms and ammunition to Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. He was versatile.
Anthony Bacon went from Whitehaven to Maryland as a boy. By the end of his stay, at the age of twenty-two, he ran a store at Dover, far enough up the Choptank for fresh water to kill marine clams known as boring worms in the hulls of tobacco vessels. Months after his return to England, he became Captain Anthony Bacon, master of the York. In 1740 she bore 114 felons to Maryland as indentured servants, returning with a cargo of tobacco for the House of Hanbury.
After a few years, Bacon began to call himself a merchant, at an address in Threadneedle Street, between the Bank of England and the South Sea House. He still went to sea and visited Maryland, where he formed a partnership with James Dickinson at Dover. His older brother, the Reverend Thomas Bacon, had taken a parish at Dover. Thomas and the other wit-crackers of the Tuesday Club of Annapolis made Anthony their first honorary member, calling him Captain Comely Coppernose. After tobacco merchants in Whitehaven engaged him as their London agent in 1752, Bacon began to prosper. By 1757, he had moved to larger quarters on the west side of Copthall Court just off Throgmorton Street. Surrounded by merchants, bankers, and brokers, he no longer went to sea.
In his days on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Bacon knew the Waters family of Northampton in the Virginia section of the Eastern Shore. The family owned several plantations and vessels, as well as an estate in Britain. They gave Bacon power of attorney to act for them in England. After the elder William Waters died without leaving a will, Bacon served as administrator of the estate for the benefit of William Waters, the son. Retaining property in Northampton, Halifax, and Nansemond counties, the younger Waters spent most of his time after 1754 in Williamsburg. He was a “most amiable” gentleman, living comfortably with his wife, Sarah, and young daughter, Sarah, in a house holding prints, maps, a few books, and a large stock of wine, madeira, and peach brandy.
Perhaps because William Waters lived conveniently at hand, the House of Burgesses chose him, with two other men, to oversee the printing of Virginia’s new paper money in 1757. They numbered treasury notes and made sure the printer did not run off extras. Such currency alarmed and irritated Anthony Bacon and other British merchants. The burgesses made their notes legal tender; merchants feared that debts owed in sterling would be paid in paper “of a local, incertain & fluctuating value,” causing creditors to lose by the exchange. Eventually, however, they saw that currency benefited their trade. Bacon studied ways to profit by the rate of exchange between currency and sterling.
Bacon joined other merchants in a petition to the Board of Trade, opposing North Carolina’s legal tender paper money. Their protest showed that the colony’s law treated £133 6s. 8d. in paper as equivalent to £100 sterling; yet that amount of paper bought only £70 sterling. Speaker Samuel Swann and his allies in the Assembly did not take offense. They wished to make Bacon the colony’s agent in England in 1760. At the same time, their friend, Thomas Child, North Carolina’s attorney general and Earl Granville’s agent for the Granville proprietary, persuaded the earl to make Bacon his agent in London. Child and Bacon proposed to remit quitrents and fees from the proprietary to Granville. The system they devised would have profited them at the expense of the rent-payers, the colony, and the earl.
The quitrent was three shillings sterling per year for each 100 acres. Propertyholders paid, however, in North Carolina currency, while, at the London end, Granville wished to receive sterling. Bacon and Child intended to exploit a gap between the market rate of exchange of paper for sterling in North Carolina and the lower official rate set by a law passed by their friends in the Assembly. Thus, if part of Granville’s proprietary paid the market equivalent of £578 sterling, this sum would come to the collector’s hand as £1,000 in paper money at the market rate of £190 paper for £100 sterling. The colony, however, was obliged by law to redeem its currency with its sterling tax revenues at the official rate of £133⅓ paper for £100 sterling. For his £1,000 in paper money quitrent payments, Bacon would receive £752 sterling from the treasury of North Carolina. But Bacon’s agreement with Lord Granville called for him to remit to the earl only the original £578 at the market rate. Bacon could hold all the money for a year before paying the earl; he would charge Granville a commission of 5 percent on money he paid; and he would collect a salary of £200 sterling per year as the colony’s agent, as well as £200 per year as Granville’s agent.
Members of the North Carolina Council and Governor Arthur Dobbs saw through this scheme. They refused to concur in making Bacon the colony’s agent, despite Thomas Child’s assurances of Bacon’s “unbiased integrity.” Dobbs also objected to Bacon’s testimony to the Board of Trade, in which he accused the governor—falsely, Dobbs said—of misconduct. For part of 1760 and 1761 the Assembly retained Bacon as its agent. He petitioned the king on behalf of the Assembly, accusing the governor, the secretary of the colony, and the president of the Council of misapplying money appropriated for the war. After Thomas Child failed to get Bacon appointed as North Carolina’s agent, Child moved to Suffolk, Virginia. There he continued to issue grants of land in the proprietary until news came that Earl Granville had died in January 1763.
With such examples before him as the growth of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Fredericksburg, Mann Page devised a scheme in 1761: a new town to rise on 100 acres of his property along the right bank of the Pamunkey River not far from Hanover Court House. A road parallel to the river passed through the site, as did an intersecting road from the courthouse to the river. Two tobacco warehouses stood on the bank. A town ought to flourish.
His mansion at Rosewell had four more children running among its many rooms. Mann Page had reason to wonder whether he would be able to give each of his sons an estate and his daughter, Judith, a marriage portion. He owed thousands of pounds to the House of Hanbury. He had endorsed a bill of exchange drawn by William Byrd for £1,000. Unlike Byrd, Page did not send his oldest son, John, to England for schooling, though he had promised his first wife that he would. Page was nearing an indebted Virginian’s last resort: a mortgage on land and slaves.
Two days after the House of Burgesses convened in November 1761, Page petitioned to dock the entail on land in Hanover and King William counties so that he could sell it, entailing other land for the benefit of his heir. These sales were to include lots in a new town, Hanover-Town. Speaker Robinson liked Page. To consider the petition the speaker chose a committee, putting on it Peyton Randolph, the burgesses for King William County—Bernard Moore, Robinson’s former brother-in-law, and Carter Braxton, Robinson’s former ward—John Syme, burgess for Hanover County, and Benjamin Grymes, Page’s partner in western land grants. The committee and the House of Burgesses acted within a week. Two days later the Council and Governor Fauquier gave their assent.
The following year, Page laid out Hanover-Town on paper. Surveyors marked and numbered 177 lots. Page announced his first sale for November 15, 1763. He and his friends had high expectations, relying on “the anxiety of numbers to become Purchasers,” as one of them told Page’s creditors. But bad weather ruined the day. So few of the many expected buyers appeared that Page took his friends’ advice to put off a sale for three months.
Governor Fauquier and the Council met as usual on Friday, July 30, 1762. Present were John Blair, who had served on the Council for seventeen of his seventy-five years, the Nelson brothers, Richard Corbin, John Tayloe, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, and Presley Thornton. To their surprise, they had received from London the king’s warrant appointing the Nelsons’ brother-in-law, Robert Burwell, to the Council. He stood before them. They must administer the oath and let him take his place.
The governor then presented a letter he proposed to send to the Board of Trade. It said that Burwell ought not to be on the Council because he was not mentally qualified for such a position and because he had “an unwarrantable Impetuosity of Temper.” The councillors had “prompted” Fauquier to write and to protest against letting “private Friendships” in England determine appointments. The Council found the governor’s letter “very proper and expedient to be sent immediately.” Thomas Nelson proposed a further measure, a request from the Council to the king that Burwell be removed and that “some other more able and discreet person” be put in his place. The men decided to wait until they had fuller attendance before acting on Nelson’s suggestion. Burwell’s brothers-in-law and other councillors felt embarrassed that the British government would put him on a level with them. After hearing that the king’s warrant for Burwell’s appointment was coming, they convinced Governor Fauquier that theirs was “the concurrent Voice of the Colony.”
Richard Henry Lee expected Burwell to be removed “on account of his extreme incapacity, to discharge the important duties of that station.” Lee wished to sit on the Council, as no Lee had done since the death of his father, Thomas Lee. In a letter to Virginia’s agent in London he suggested himself as a replacement, saying: “The desire I have to do my country service, is my only motive for this solicitation.” The agent knew that appointments more important than the Virginia Council were “dayly done by particular Interests”; he worried that Fauquier would hurt himself in the eyes of the Board of Trade by this protest.
Robert Burwell, after hearing his kinsmen, the governor, and other leading Virginians publicly declare him unfit, wrote to his friends in London to tell them what Fauquier and the Council were doing. His friends were the heads of the House of Hanbury, Capel and Osgood Hanbury, and former Governor Robert Dinwiddie. They had persuaded Earl Granville, president of the Privy Council, to choose Burwell. Dinwiddie knew the Burwells; in the 1750s he had many chances to see what the family and its connections by marriage thought of Robert Burwell. Obviously, Dinwiddie had recommended him to insult the Virginia officials who had made his governorship so trying.
The new councillor’s friends in London stood by him. The Board of Trade sent Fauquier a tart letter, telling him that they did not always need the governor’s recommendation and that “many very respectable persons” supported Burwell. Fauquier’s letter, for which the Board of Trade chided him, had conveyed not only the councillors’ opinion of Burwell but also their resentment of Robert Dinwiddie’s insatiable desire for revenge. Through Fauquier they asked: “if a private Man can obtain his Wishes to serve his Friend, will he not afterward laugh in his Sleeve and despise Consequences?”
Burwell stayed on the Council. Richard Henry Lee turned his eye to other offices. He began to suggest that John Robinson, as speaker and treasurer, held too much power. Governor Fauquier assured the Board of Trade that, among the councillors, “all is quiet.” The Nelsons were willing to include Robert Burwell in their new Dismal Swamp Company.
The few people who had filed papers with the surveyor of Norfolk County to obtain land in the Dismal Swamp had sought plots of 100 acres, 300 acres, 400 acres. Robert Tucker claimed 1,000 acres in May 1762. He began a causeway through the eastern margin of the swamp. Since the expiration of his and Francis Farley’s grant, ways to improve the swamp had occupied his thoughts. He was part of “a scheme” becoming public in March 1763: some men organized to drain the Dismal Swamp “at a small Expence,” then profit from the “extremely Valuable” land they would hold as proprietors. A North Carolinian heard that the group consisted of “the two Nelsons Colo. Washington Colo. Fielding Lewis one Doctor Walker” and others, perhaps even Governor Fauquier. Rumor said they had “certain assurances” of a grant free of quitrents on the Virginia side of the line, and that they had made overtures to Thomas Child, Earl Granville’s sometime agent living in Suffolk, for a grant on the North Carolina side.
Norfolk, Suffolk, and the Dismal Swamp. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library. Drawn during the Revolutionary War by a British Army cartographer who depicted the region surrounding the northern part of the Dismal Swamp.
The Dismal Swamp Company announced itself on Wednesday, May 25, 1763. William Nelson presented to his colleagues on the Council a petition for a grant of the swamp, signed with 151 names. The Crown lately had confined grants to 1,000 acres per person. The partners, with most of the work done by Washington, Lewis, and Walker, drew up a list of names equal to the number of thousands of acres they sought. All but a few of these signers had no interest in the project. The company would have only twelve shares and twelve members: William Nelson, Thomas Nelson, Thomas Walker, George Washington, Fielding Lewis, Robert Tucker, John Robinson, Robert Burwell, William Waters, John Syme, Anthony Bacon, and Samuel Gist. The Council postponed consideration of Nelson’s petition, but his partners expressed no fear of failing.
While Nelson dealt with the Council, Washington, with his brother-in-law, Fielding Lewis, his cousin’s husband, Dr. Walker, and another brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett, left Williamsburg, taking a ferry to Norfolk. They were going to ride around the Dismal Swamp. After a visit to the Norfolk ropewalk to see hemp fibers made into cordage, they crossed the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth and headed toward Suffolk and the swamp.
For two days the four men, with servants and a guide, rode southward along the road bordering the Dismal Swamp, then eastward in North Carolina, crossing the Pasquotank and Perquimans rivers, then northward back into Virginia, cutting through part of the swamp along the new road. As they began, just south of Suffolk among plantations of the large Riddick family, they reassured themselves that the swamp was passable, riding half a mile into it, their horses wading in water a few inches deep. The company would begin its work there, in the northwestern sector, among white cedars, gums, and cypresses. Most soil along the road into North Carolina was sandy and poor. Yet Washington was sure that within the swamp all was black and fertile. He tried to discern subtle contours in the almost level terrain, with an eye to channels for draining. Their shortcut while riding northward on the other side took them through the Green Sea, the vast, open tract of tall, waving reeds which had impressed William Byrd thirty-five years earlier. Though local people thought it “a low sunken Morass, not fit for any of the purposes of Agriculture,” Washington felt certain that it was “excessive Rich.” Passing Robert Tucker’s mills and returning to Norfolk, Washington, Lewis, Walker, and Bassett spent the night at Reinsburg’s Tavern, then went on board a ferry for Hampton.
In October, Washington briefly visited the Dismal Swamp again, and Robert Tucker made entries with the surveyor of Norfolk County for 2,000 more acres. At the Council’s meeting on November 1, William Nelson renewed the petition “of himself and many others” for a grant of more than 150,000 acres. Since the postponement in May, the first petition had been mislaid, but the Council approved Nelson’s new one. Governor Fauquier was away from Williamsburg, meeting with Indians in South Carolina and Georgia. Upon his return, the partners he called “Gentlemen of large Fortunes and great Consequence in this Colony” convinced him that their “warm Expectations” were sound.
The Dismal Swamp Company held its first meeting in Williamsburg on Thursday, November 3. In the room were William Nelson, presumably smiling, as he often did; his less voluble brother, Mr. Secretary; the restless, overworked Robert Tucker; Dr. Thomas Walker, glad to cooperate again with some of those men so understanding in the matter of the Loyal Company’s surveys; George Washington, youngest man in the room and most confident of the new company’s success; Fielding Lewis, a heavy, round-faced man; William Waters, living in Williamsburg, doing as little work as possible; and Robert Burwell—as everyone else in the room knew, he would rather have been at the racetrack. Dr. Walker had power to act on behalf of two absent partners, John Syme and Samuel Gist. The group already had decided to invite Speaker Robinson, but he had been too ill to do business since September. The company soon chose to gain a friend in London by making Anthony Bacon a partner.
These men agreed that they were starting a “great undertaking”: “draining Improving and Saving the Land.” The project needed managers to establish its claims with county surveyors, gather slaves and tools, and buy a plantation near the swamp to make the operation self-supporting, as William Byrd had recommended. To no one’s surprise, Dr. Walker, George Washington, and Fielding Lewis volunteered. Byrd had written that draining could begin with ten slaves, but the partners voted to assemble fifty “able male labouring Slaves,” five from each of the ten signers. The managers must report on the progress of the work. Each shareholder must contribute to defray expenses. They issued no stock. Since the days of the South Sea Bubble, incorporated joint stock companies needed a charter from the Crown. The partners foresaw that one of them or his heir might sell his share, might even sell it to “many Persons.” But each share would have one vote, and the founders intended to keep as many of those twelve votes within the original circle as they could. As the meeting closed, the partners appointed the absent Samuel Gist “Clerk of the Company” and ordered him “to register all the proceedings in a Book.” Dr. Walker and Colonel Washington, working together more smoothly than during the war, soon left Williamsburg to present proof of the Council’s grant to the surveyors of Nansemond and Norfolk counties.
Samuel Gist once had been a clerk. He meant never to be a clerk again. He was eager to leave these provincials and return to England. No one again mentioned a book registering the company’s proceedings. If Gist stayed away from the meeting because he expected to be insulted and if he read the word “Clerk” as a sneer from William Nelson and others wishing to freeze him out of the company, he saw truly. But Dr. Walker did not mind doing business with him, and if the Nelsons could bring in their shallow brother-in-law Burwell, Walker could bring Gist.
Samuel Gist was born in Bristol in January 1726. He apparently never spoke of his father, John Gist, or his mother. His uncle, Thomas Gist, was a weaver. Until his fourteenth year, Samuel was one of forty boys in a charity school, Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital. He rose every morning at five o’clock to a breakfast of bread and table beer. He wore a blue uniform with a scarlet cloth breastplate bearing the initials “JC” in honor of the school’s founder, John Carr. Samuel and the other boys were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and navigation to prepare them to be useful and morally respectable artisans. When a boy was ready to leave, the school paid £8 8s. to bind him out as an apprentice.
Samuel’s turn to leave came late in 1739. Among the scores of vessels moored along Bristol’s curving quay, lined with houses on both sides, the York, the New Kent, and the Virginian were bound for Virginia. On board one of these, the small boy passed from among Bristol’s old wood and plaster houses, its new brick houses, its streets crowded with women, children, sailors, burdened animals, loaded drays, and movable goods, to a country store near the right bank of the Pamunkey River in Hanover County, Virginia.
Years later, one of Francis Farley’s friends in Antigua wrote: “for my amusement I am writing to Bristol for an hospital boy, of a good temper and well qualified as Reader & Writer, whom I may breed up to a Plantership.” Similarly, a Bristol firm trading to Virginia sent Samuel Gist to its factor in Hanover, John Smith. At Gould Hill the boy learned storekeeping, selling the usual goods: hats, cloth, ribbon, thread, needles, salt, hoes, nails, seeds, traces, and rum. He learned well. He later said: “Store keeping requires the utmost attention.” When Gist was twenty, John Smith died at the age of sixty, leaving a widow, Sarah, and two young sons. Gist took over Smith’s affairs, paying doctor’s bills and funeral expenses, running the store, and administering the estate of one of Sarah Smith’s dead kinsmen, of which John Smith had been executor. Two years later, in May 1748, Gist and Sarah Smith were married. She was more than ten years older than he. They later had two daughters.
None of the executors named in John Smith’s will oversaw any part of his estate. Gist retained control. He did not keep separate accounts for that portion of the estate bequeathed to Smith’s sons, as George Washington did for the children of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Custis. On May 7, 1752, Gist sent an advertisement to the Virginia Gazette, announcing his intent to move to England, but he did not leave Virginia then. In June he obtained from Hanover County Court an order making him guardian of his stepsons. Their slaves worked their land; crops and income went to Gist. He bought land, much more than John Smith had owned. To the original three houses and 440 acres in Hanover County he added 1,960 acres. From his wife’s relatives he bought plantations in Goochland and Amherst counties. He became the sole Virginia representative of the English firm, Brown & Parks. Late in 1752 he imported three apprentices from Bristol. Gist’s dealings in tobacco and merchandise grew to be the most extensive in Hanover County. Account books and ledgers from John Smith’s store disappeared. No final accounting or settlement ever closed Smith’s estate. Smith’s sons remained Gist’s dependents. Gist had good reason to detect one of William Nelson’s satirical cuts in the Dismal Swamp Company partners’ order to him to register the company’s proceedings in a book.
At the age of thirty-one, Samuel Gist chartered a new ship, the Peggy, to transport freight to England. His tobacco could not fill her, especially since he had lost three hogsheads in warehouse fires. To turn a profit on such a voyage he needed to load her quickly and fully. He solicited freight from merchants and planters so assiduously that he agreed to ship more than the Peggy could hold. After she sailed, leaving hogsheads Gist had said she would take, a disappointed merchant wrote: “I had his promise, but I believe he never intended to comply with it.” Gist had risen in a hard school. And he did not see these provincial planters and merchants, or even a room in Williamsburg holding the Nelsons, Dr. Walker, young George Washington, and various brothers-in-law, as the peak of his ambition. Nevertheless, if the Dismal Swamp Company expected immense profits, he could swallow an insult to get a share.
Four weeks after the company’s first meeting, Samuel Gist testified in a trial in Hanover County Court. The Reverend James Maury had sued collectors of tithes in his parish for damages. While the Twopenny Act had been in force in 1759, he had received as his salary not the 16,000 pounds of tobacco prescribed for a minister of the established Church but paper money worth much less. Since the Twopenny Act had been disallowed by the Crown, Maury sought payment in full. This trial was to set the amount due him. Except for his attorney, Peter Lyons, and Lyons’s friend, Gist, Maury had few supporters in the county seat. Instead of trying to impanel gentlemen, the sheriff rounded up jurors from “the vulgar herd,” including several dissenters opposed to an established church and to taxes for its clergy’s salaries. The justices on the bench accepted this jury. Gist was the first witness for the plaintiff. One of Hanover County’s largest purchasers of tobacco, he testified that the price in May and June 1759 had been 50 shillings per hundredweight and that he had sold several hundred hogsheads. Testimony by another merchant confirmed the price of 50 shillings. With these witnesses Lyons had proven the loss Maury had sustained by being paid in currency as if tobacco had been worth twopence per pound, that is, 18s. 8d. per hundredweight.
Then a young attorney for the defendants, Patrick Henry—half brother of Gist’s Dismal Swamp Company partner, John Syme—rose and spoke to the jury for an hour. Warming to his subject, he argued that the Twopenny Act had been a good law and that the king, by disallowing it, had broken the original compact between king and people, had degenerated from being a father to being a tyrant, and had forfeited all rights to his subjects’ obedience. Lyons interrupted indignantly, telling the justices that Henry had spoken treason. Lyons said he was astonished that the justices could listen “without emotion, or any mark of dissatisfaction.” At the same time, some gentlemen behind Maury murmured: “Treason, Treason!” Henry went on to attack the Anglican clergy for objecting to the Twopenny Act, calling them “enemies of the community.” In conclusion he invited the jurors to make an example of Maury unless they wanted to rivet chains of bondage on their own necks.
The only evidence offered by the defense was a receipt showing that Maury had received £144 in Virginia currency. One of the defendants’ lawyers reminded the jurors that they could set damages as low as one farthing. The jury retired for less than five minutes, then brought in a verdict for Maury, with damages of one penny. The justices rejected Lyons’s motions to send the jury out again and to record the evidence given by Gist and the other witness. Nor would they find the verdict contrary to the evidence and order a new trial. After the court adjourned, Henry approached Maury and apologized for what he had said to the jury, explaining that “his sole view in engaging in the cause, and in saying what he had, was to render himself popular.” Shortly after the trial, Patrick Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses. Samuel Gist renewed his plan to move back to England.
Maury’s case provoked “much conversation” in Williamsburg. He and his even more outspoken colleague, the Reverend John Camm, were trying to get more money from their parishioners while the market for tobacco, as well as Virginia’s trade and credit, had fallen into depression. Receiving less for their crops, planters drew fewer bills of exchange. And the rate of exchange was so high that £160 of Virginia currency bought only £100 sterling. Virginians received urgent demands from British creditors; more suits were filed. Merchants in Britain were suffering the consequences of a series of financial crises and a depression marked by a rising number of bankruptcies. The more bills of exchange that came back to Virginia protested, the less capital Virginians could command and the less planters could or would pay anyone, creditor or clergyman.
British merchants and Virginia burgesses quarreled about paper money. Merchants opposed colonial currency as a device to cheat them. Burgesses explained, and some merchants understood, that paper money made commerce possible. Demand gold and silver from every debtor, and create a colony of bankrupts. In fact, merchants were relieved to get remittances in any medium.
Seeing the need to use currency, Virginians still wondered why they had to pay so much paper to get so little sterling. Was Speaker Robinson, as treasurer, drawing in the full amount of taxes payable in currency? Was he forestalling inflation by burning retired currency as it came back into the treasury and expired? Anyone who cared to find out knew that the answer was no. Burgesses chided sheriffs for neglecting to collect and remit taxes. Burgesses devised new taxes to speed retirement of the currency. Still, much old paper money circulated because cash was convenient, and paper was Virginia’s main form of cash. Speaker Robinson had much power, but he could not cause large fluctuations in the transatlantic rate of exchange. Burgesses seemed to believe that reducing the amount of currency in circulation would lower the rate of exchange. They knew that the treasury in May 1763 was holding almost £50,000 of notes “to be burnt.” For those trying to lower the rate, the obvious next step was to bring more paper notes into Robinson’s hands. But the timetable for destroying notes could be accelerated only by a change in the law, a change which the Board of Trade thought unlikely to win the Crown’s assent. Governor Fauquier said that Robinson’s “Hands are now tied up.” As tax revenue came in from sheriffs, he did not burn this currency.
Some men’s minds turned toward projects for easy riches. Several people noticed that wealthy Virginians were showing an interest in the Dismal Swamp. If, as rumor said, these partners had brought Governor Fauquier into their company, they must foresee large profits. If the Dismal Swamp had so much more value than anyone had guessed, why let a few rich Virginians take it all?
Joseph Jones of Suffolk parish in Nansemond County secured on July 7, 1763, a grant of two tracts in the Dismal Swamp, totaling 772 acres. James Murdaugh lived on a small plantation seven miles outside Suffolk. Only one-third of his 179 acres had been cleared for crops, but he suddenly acquired bigger dreams. In August 1763, while the Dismal Swamp Company’s petition awaited the Council’s action, Murdaugh entered with the surveyor of Nansemond County a claim to 2,000 acres in the sector of the swamp sought by the company. Of course, no person was supposed to receive more than 1,000 acres, but if the company could add more than 140 ghost signers to its petition, Murdaugh could try for a double portion.
James Parker and William Aitchison felt more disposed to ridicule than to emulate Robert Tucker, the Nelsons, and other Virginia buckskins of high standing. Yet, as soon as they learned of the Dismal Swamp Company early in 1763, they liked the idea of acquiring a huge tract of valuable land “convenient to Navigation” simply by draining the swamp. Parker and his North Carolina partner, Thomas Macknight, had been thinking about the swamp since 1758. In 1761, Macknight sought from the Granville proprietary 1,400 acres near the southern reaches of the Dismal Swamp. Parker, Aitchison, and Macknight heard that the Dismal Swamp Company partners had approached Thomas Child in hope of adding the North Carolina part to their Virginia grant. The three Scots formed new visions. As Parker put it: “we enlarged our plan.”
Macknight went to Edenton, North Carolina, to see Samuel Johnston, nephew of a former governor, just appointed clerk of the Superior Court. Macknight told Johnston what the Dismal Swamp Company was doing and invited him to join the Scots in their rival firm, the Campania Company. They would acquire the North Carolina portion of the Dismal Swamp—as much as 120,000 acres. True, people who lived near the Dismal Swamp said: “The soil was worth nothing.” Macknight knew better. “The soil of these lands was rich,” needing only to be drained. The Scots and their partners intended, Macknight said, to “avail ourselves” of the Dismal Swamp Company’s scheme by controlling the North Carolina acreage. The Virginians would not profit from that vast tract “unless they took us in as part of their Company.” If they refused, the Scots need only wait while Virginians drained, then “reap the Benefit of their Labour.” But the Scots calculated that the Dismal Swamp Company “will gladly Join us if We can only appear tolerably formidable in our first Outset.”
Samuel Johnston embraced this strategy. On March 26, 1763, he made entries with the Granville proprietary’s land office for 2,800 acres in the Dismal Swamp. Macknight entered for 700 acres the same day. Three weeks later, Macknight entered for another 5,600 acres. They took care to specify that they were selecting land “in the great Dismal Swamp, & joyning the so. side of the Virginia line.” Whatever the Dismal Swamp Company might do, Johnston said, these holdings would “secure something to ourselves and incommode them.” He thought that the Virginians “will be making a push very soon as it is a scheme of great Expectation.”
Parker and Macknight also wished to include in their Campania Company James Gibson, merchant in Suffolk; another merchant in Norfolk, James Campbell; another North Carolinian, Joseph Montfort, who was clerk of the Superior Court in the Halifax district; and another brother-in-law, Alexander Elmsly. Unfortunately for them, Earl Granville had died on January 2, 1763. No grants in the proprietary after that date were valid. The land office closed in the spring of 1763. Thereafter, Parker and Macknight based their claim on a North Carolina law conferring title after seven years of possession. Alexander Elmsly later recalled that “he was one of the first concerned” in the Campania scheme. But by the time he moved to London in 1768, it was his habit “to Curse & dam all swamps & everybody Concerned in them.”
In anticipation of beginning drainage, the Dismal Swamp Company partners in January 1764 rushed through the House of Burgesses and the Council a law granting them the right to dig canals or build causeways through any land adjacent to the Dismal Swamp. The company must submit to arbitration to determine compensation due to any property-holder claiming to have suffered loss. But property-holders could not sue the company because, the law read, rendering the swamp fit for cultivation “will be attended with publick utility.”
The General Assembly adjourned. George Washington and Fielding Lewis left Williamsburg, took a ferry across the York River, and spent several days as Mann Page’s guests at Rosewell before continuing northward to their homes. Page’s son, John, about to turn twenty-one, was to be married to Frances Burwell, daughter of Robert Burwell and Sarah Nelson Burwell. Mann Page promised to give Rosewell to his son, and Robert Burwell promised his daughter a dowry of £1,000. To further seal this alliance between the families, Burwell, early in 1764, sold to Mann Page half his share in the Dismal Swamp Company.
At the time the Dismal Swamp Company was formed, hemp enjoyed a vogue in London, in Virginia, and in other colonies. Political economists deplored Britain’s dependence on Russia and the flow of large sums of cash from Britain for hemp. One estimate showed Britain paying Russians £740,000 per year for naval stores. Another set the value of hemp and flax consumed in Britain at about £300,000 per year. In 1762 the Empress Catherine cornered the Russian hemp market and ran up the price. Greater demand in wartime had shown how Britain’s need could be exploited. The first lord of the Admiralty warned in April 1764 that the Royal Navy had insufficient reserves of rigging and cordage. Britain’s desire for a reliable supply of hemp within its empire was common knowledge.
For some Virginians concerned about planters’ heavy debts and their reliance on tobacco, even during a depression, hemp promised salvation. Charles Carter thought that people might quit smoking tobacco if fashion changed or if they learned “of the great Proportion of poysonous Quality contained in this Narcotick Plant.” What would happen to Virginia then? Carter felt confident that the American colonies could fully supply Britain with hemp if they turned to that crop. Robert Beverley wondered how Virginians could escape indebtedness while tobacco prices remained low and merchants refused to honor a bill of exchange unless a planter sent enough tobacco to cover it. After careful study, he wrote: “I firmly believe the Cultivation of Hemp is the most probable Method of Discharging our Debts.”
With encouragement from colonial agents, 102 London mercantile firms, including the chief firms trading to Virginia, petitioned the Board of Trade, urging Parliament to revive and increase the lapsed bounty on American hemp. Such a premium would reduce or remove the disadvantage colonists suffered in competing with Russia. Parliament enacted a twenty-one-year bounty, beginning at £8 per ton, gradually falling to £4 per ton. After accounts of this incentive reached Virginia, Governor Fauquier was happy to report good news to the Board of Trade. He told its members about the Dismal Swamp Company. The partners were “pretty sanguine in promising themselves Success.” Once the swamp was drained, they assured the governor, the company would grow hemp. “I am credibly informed,” Fauquier wrote, “that it will soon produce hemp sufficient to supply his Majestys Navy.”
Anthony Bacon signed the petition supporting a bounty on hemp. By the time the House of Commons was ready to act, he had become a member of Parliament. He served on the committee to prepare a bill granting the bounty. A man holding government contracts and hoping to hold more found it useful to have a seat in the House of Commons. He provided a reliable vote and other aid to the ministry. In return, the ministry favored him with contracts, concessions, and a friendly eye when he submitted his accounts to the Treasury. While seeking a seat, Bacon, with his partners, Gilbert Francklyn and Anthony Richardson, applied for a grant of 2,000 acres on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They planned “very extensive” catching and processing of cod, walruses, whales, and seals.
Bacon first stood for Parliament at a by-election in the corrupt Devonshire borough of Honiton in November 1763. Before doing so he consulted the head of the ministry, George Grenville, whom he had known for some time. Grenville told him that the election would be won by Sir George Yonge. Sir George supported the administration, and Grenville could not encourage or aid Bacon. Nevertheless, Bacon tried, and, rumor said, spent £8,000 in the borough. Sir George won. Bacon learned to listen to Grenville.
George Grenville wore a sardonic, condescending air—smooth in success, obstinate and nasty in defeat. A rival wrote: “he had a better opinion of himself than he, or perhaps anybody else, ever deserved.” He took a patronizing tone toward the king. Grenville wished to help Bacon get into Parliament. An opportunity arose when the member for Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, John Wilkes, got himself into even more trouble than usual.
Wilkes won election to Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757 and retained his seat without a contest in 1761 by outbidding his opponents in buying votes. He despised “the vulgar,” “the rabble,” as he privately described voters, but he paid their price: five guineas to each of about three hundred men. Aylesbury was a poorly paved, dirty town of four hundred houses about 40 miles northwest of London. George Grenville and his brother Richard, Earl Temple, lived nearby. Though Grenville had become the king’s first minister in 1763, the earl encouraged Wilkes’s attacks on the ministry and on the sinister influence wielded by the loathed favorite of the king, Lord Bute. Wilkes did this through The North Briton late in 1762 and early in 1763. After he published Number 45 on April 23, 1763, censuring the king’s speech from the throne, the Earl of Halifax ordered Wilkes arrested and charged with seditious libel. Wilkes did not remain imprisoned for long, but he gave new offense later in the year by publishing another number of The North Briton and by printing a few copies of an impious, obscene parody of Alexander Pope called An Essay on Woman. The House of Commons resolved that seditious libel was not encompassed within its members’ general immunity from prosecution. Late in December, Wilkes fled to France. The House expelled him on January 19, 1764.
On January 20 a writ to elect Wilkes’s successor was moved. The next day Anthony Bacon called on George Grenville. They reached an understanding. Grenville thought Bacon “a merchant of a very fair Character” and knew he was “extremely well dispos’d in all Respects”; that is, he would vote with the ministry. Grenville also knew that Bacon had enough money to satisfy the “notorious Venality” of Aylesbury’s voters. Bacon left with letters of recommendation. Four days later, with the aid of the usual five guineas per voter, Bacon won the election. He took his seat in the House of Commons eight days after Wilkes’s expulsion. Within two weeks the Treasury drafted a contract for Bacon to convert sterling to Spanish and Portuguese silver and gold coins and deliver these to army paymasters for garrisons in the newly occupied West Indian islands of Grenada, Tobago, Dominica, and St. Vincent. He took a commission: 2 percent of the money he handled.
Wilkes spent four years on the Continent before returning to England and more controversy. In France he had financial difficulties arising from the expense of getting elected to Parliament. By his flight he got even with some men in Aylesbury who had demanded money for their vote. Rumor said: “he is so much in debt there, that he is no great favourite.” From Paris he addressed the “worthy electors” of Aylesbury in a pamphlet, thanking them for their “honourable, unanimous, and repeated marks of esteem.” And he began his career as champion of “universal liberty” and martyr to a corrupt majority in Parliament, hirelings of the ministry, ready to fasten fetters on themselves and posterity. Anthony Bacon did not take offense. He collaborated with his friend, Wilkes’s brother, Heaton, and Wilkes’s friend, Humphrey Cotes, in seeking a contract from the Treasury to supply provisions to British soldiers in North America. Wilkes’s pamphlet denounced the ministry for planning “to load their fellow subjects with the most partial taxes”; Bacon warned Grenville not to enact a general tax on American colonists. Grenville did not heed this warning. Bacon was his dependent, not an advisor. Though colonists did not convince the ministry to heed them, the Dismal Swamp Company now had a friend not only in the City but also in Parliament.
• • •
Having missed the first meeting of the Dismal Swamp Company, John Syme in the following months chose not to remain a shareholder. He left his many debts unpaid, giving as his excuse the low price of tobacco and high rate of exchange. When his share of the expenses of starting to drain the swamp fell due, his inability to command cash would become obvious to his partners. By the first meeting or soon afterward, Syme found someone to take his share: Francis Farley.
Antigua suffered hard years in 1762, 1763, and 1764, years to make a planter think of leaving. Months of drought ruined sugar cane, yet the price of sugar remained low. Farley and his family fell ill in the fall of 1762, and one of his daughters died. After some refreshing rains in May 1763, another dry summer set in. Antigua was “miserable.” Empty ponds showed cracked bottoms; the water level in reservoirs and cisterns dropped; rationing parched slaves. A mysterious disease spread among livestock, killing them quickly in large numbers. Smallpox returned to the island. At Christmastime, Farley lay confined in his chamber, weak with fever. Small wonder that planters should mention the falling value of land and regret that they could not sell, except at a low price.
Farley still believed in the Dismal Swamp. He sought a share in the new company, adding to his “valuable property” in Virginia and North Carolina. He had learned that he could not rely on Virginians to take care of his interests while he lived many miles distant. He might worry less, as well as confidently venture into the Dismal Swamp Company, because members of his family were moving to Virginia: his daughter, Eleanor, and her new husband, Captain John Laforey of the Royal Navy.
Captain Laforey was one of the young naval heroes of the war with the French. In 1755, Commodore Augustus Keppel promoted him from first lieutenant to commander and gave him the sloop Ontario. During the next two years he commanded the sloop Hunter in the fleet off Cape Breton Island and the French fort at Louisburg. HMS Namur, Admiral Edward Boscawen’s flagship, dropped anchor off Louisburg on June 2, 1758, and he soon gave Laforey an opportunity for glory.
General Sir Jeffery Amherst’s army besieged Louisburg. His most advanced works were enfiladed by fire from the last two French men-of-war in the harbor, La Prudente and Le Bienfaisant. The harbor wall of the fort could be scaled if those vessels were gone. Boscawen decided to take them. He chose John Laforey and George Balfour to command the parties, giving them six hundred sailors, with boats, pinnaces, and barges from every vessel in the fleet. In the early hours of Wednesday, July 26, Sir Jeffery stood in the trenches with his men, keeping up heavy fire on the fort to distract its defenders’ attention from the harbor. Concealed by night and heavy fog, Laforey, Balfour, and their two divisions of boats closed with La Prudente and Le Bienfaisant, unseen until within hailing distance. The watch challenged them. They gave no reply, and the watch opened fire. Laforey and Balfour ordered their sailors to give way alongside and board. The men began to cheer. Led by their commanders, they boarded the ships, carrying cutlasses, pistols, and muskets with fixed bayonets. French sailors rushed on deck. Fighting began, but everyone soon realized that French artillerymen ashore were firing on their own ships. The crews surrendered.
Attaching lines to Le Bienfaisant, Balfour and his boats began to tow her across the harbor, away from Louisburg. Laforey tried to tow La Prudente but found that she had stranded, with several feet of water in her hold. He and his men set fire to her, abandoned ship, and joined Balfour’s boats in towing Le Bienfaisant. Lit by the burning man-of-war, the British boats pulled away with their prize, fired upon from an island battery at Point Rochefort, from the town, and from the fort of Louisburg. With a loss of 7 men killed and 9 wounded, they had taken one ship, destroyed another, and captured 152 prisoners. Later that day the French surrendered. Admiral Boscawen promoted John Laforey and George Balfour to the rank of post-captain. Laforey was twenty-nine years old.
In command of the Echo in 1759, Captain Laforey accompanied the fleet under Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders as it sailed up the St. Lawrence River with General James Wolfe’s army to take Québec. In the West Indies in 1762 he served under Rear-Admiral George Brydges Rodney, cooperating with the army in the capture of the French island of Martinique in February. Laforey took command of the Levant. She called at St. Johns, Antigua, where he met Eleanor Farley. They were married in St. Johns on February 15, 1763. Late that year they sailed for England in the Levant.
Captain Laforey and Francis Farley apparently reached an agreement. Laforey suddenly possessed “a handsome fortune.” He took a leave of absence from the navy to settle in Virginia. In London, Eleanor Laforey gave birth to a daughter, Julia, in March 1764. Two months later the family sailed for Virginia. In the meantime, on April 27, 1764, John Syme resigned his share in the Dismal Swamp Company to Francis Farley. Farley’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter moved to Maycox, a plantation on the south bank of the James, directly across from Westover. Captain Laforey received payments from Farley. William Byrd befriended him. One could find them in Mrs. Jane Vobe’s tavern in Williamsburg, at a table among other gentlemen, with an active dicebox.
On the same day Syme passed his share to Farley, William Waters resigned half his share to David Meade, son of the late David Meade, merchant of Suffolk. From the age of seven to seventeen David had attended school in England. His father died during that time. Just before his seventeenth birthday, he returned to Nansemond County, and the change did not please him. Instead of pleasure gardens he saw forests and the Dismal Swamp. Instead of his schoolmates and their titled parents, he met almost as many blacks as whites. He had forgotten the faces of his mother and sisters. Four months after his return, heavy rains flooded Nansemond and Norfolk counties, sweeping away bridges, further isolating scattered farms and plantations.
Having grown “accustomed to good company” in England, Meade found living with his mother, looking out the windows at the Nansemond River, “rather monotonous.” He began to visit plantations farther up the James, where he found “more congenial” society. And he could attend balls, plays, and races in Williamsburg during the public gatherings in April and October. David Douglass’s traveling “Company of Comedians from London,” with its repertoire of old favorites—The Provok’d Husband, The Mourning Bride, The Gamester, and The London Merchant—played in the Williamsburg theater in November 1762 and April and May 1763. George Washington saw them three weeks before his ride around the Dismal Swamp. In Williamsburg, David Meade attracted the notice of William Waters. Meade described himself as “a youth brought up to no occupation” and “a great builder of castles in the air.” Waters was nearing the end of such a life, as Meade was beginning. He, too, owned land in Nansemond County but would not live there.
Meade formed ties with “many gentlemen, the most distinguished for wealth, talents and worth.” None showed him so much “partiality” as did William Waters. Waters signed over to him one-half share in the Dismal Swamp Company and paid assessments for the whole share. Others saw, as Meade eventually did, that Waters wanted the young man to ask for his daughter’s hand.
Though the estate of Meade’s father and the firm Meade & Driver owed thousands of pounds to Robert Cary & Company in London and the elder Meade’s will made all his estate liable for payment of these debts, David Meade thought of himself as “inheriting a good patrimony.” He had not yet turned twenty when he began to buy land in Nansemond County. His first purchase came six weeks after he joined the Dismal Swamp Company. He acquired by inheritance and purchase about 5,000 acres and established himself as “one of the leading Men in that Country.”
During the late spring and early summer of 1764, as George Washington prepared to collect slaves from members of the Dismal Swamp Company to begin work, the partners had many matters to think about. Fielding Lewis paid Washington £20 for the “Dismal Adventure.” Thomas Walker’s oldest son, John, was married to Elizabeth, the beautiful daughter of Bernard Moore, at the Moore home, Chelsea, in King William County. Before the wedding Dr. Walker and Bernard Moore exchanged the customary letters, stating what each would give the couple. Walker said he could not be specific about the timing of his payments because “My affairs are in an uncertain state.” Moore was in even more trouble, having invested “much too greatly” in “that terrible sinking Fund Indigo.” His bills of exchange came back from London protested. His letter was vaguer than Walker’s. In the month of John’s wedding, Thomas and Mildred Walker had their tenth child, a son they named Francis.
In Norfolk, Robert Tucker was planning a shipment of wheat and flour to Spain. Joanna Tucker got pregnant.
During a stay in Williamsburg, Secretary Thomas Nelson, suffering from gout, added to his substantial library a translation of Simon Paulli’s A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate. Written by a former smoker, it warned him against the “narcotic Sulphur” of tobacco smoke. It urged rulers of all nations to prohibit the use of tobacco. In Paulli’s list of dangers, use of tea was only slightly more tolerable “than that of Chocolate, and Coffee, which is of all others the worst.”
Secretary Nelson, William Nelson, Robert Burwell, some of their colleagues on the Council, and leading men of the House of Burgesses—Speaker Robinson, Peyton Randolph, George Wythe, and Robert Carter Nicholas—were drafting a letter to the colony’s agent in London. It conveyed their thanks for his help in obtaining a bounty on hemp, their assurance that the colony had resorted to paper currency only out of necessity, and their report on the Council’s refusal to award damages to the Reverend John Camm for salary lost under the Twopenny Act. The letter also called “truly alarming” a proposal that Parliament enact a stamp tax. Such a tax would violate “the most vital Principle of the British Constitution” by subjecting colonists to levies made without the consent of their representatives.
In London, Anthony Bacon, with two other merchants, was petitioning the Board of Trade for a grant of land and a thirty-year lease of coal mines on Cape Breton Island. These happily had come into His Majesty’s possession through heroic efforts by many men, including Captain John Laforey.
In Hanover County, Samuel Gist bought a copy of Thomas Hale’s A Compleat Body of Husbandry. Book III of this work encouragingly described “the Improvements of Land by Inclosing and Draining.” In the sixth chapter, “Of draining boggy Lands,” Gist could find this advice: “he must have Resolution to go through what he has undertaken, for all will be sure Profit in the End.” In May, Gist had placed an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, warning his debtors to pay. Two months later he prepared for their response by purchasing twelve blank bills of exchange and twelve blank penal notes, used to demand forfeit of debtors’ bonds. Gist had in mind a large new store, built with brick.
Speaker Robinson wished to get title to the lead mines he and his friend and father-in-law, John Chiswell, were developing. The land lay within the grant of the Loyal Company. The speaker paid the company’s agent, Dr. Walker, £1,794 17S. 4d. in cash.
Robinson was preparing his report on the colony’s paper currency: a list of past emissions and of taxes levied to retire the currency. His report said that provisions for removing treasury notes from circulation went far beyond the measures needed. He denied that the high rate of exchange, by which £100 sterling bought £160 currency, arose “altogether” from the quantity of notes in circulation. He attributed it to “the great scarcity of good Bills of Exchange owing to the poor distressed condition this Colony is at present in.”
The Dismal Swamp Company’s preparations attracted notice. David Campbell obtained from Governor Fauquier, on August 15, a grant of 111 acres bordering the site of the company’s first work.
From Mills Riddick the company rented a plantation of 402 acres, soon known as “Dismal plantation,” six miles from Suffolk on the margin of the swamp. There slaves would build houses, grow corn, and tend livestock for their own support. The managers made George Washington’s young kinsman John Washington the resident overseer.
George Washington received fifty-four slaves at Dismal Plantation in July: forty-three men, nine women, a boy, and a girl. He set a value on each. By this measure of a slave’s capacity to produce profit, Washington saw that his partners had contributed less than he. The five adults he furnished were valued at £365. The five Samuel Gist sent had a value of £260. For William Nelson’s five, the figure was £275. Speaker Robinson sent not five but three. The ten provided by Fielding Lewis for himself and Anthony Bacon were worth £635. Owners of half-shares each sent only two slaves. Robert Burwell offered a couple in their twenties: Jack and his wife, Venus. Jack was tall and slim, Venus short and stout. They had in common a gift for fast, smooth talk. They did not look like people who would devote themselves to draining a swamp; they looked like people Burwell wished to get rid of at his partners’ expense. A resident of York Town saw the company’s first workforce. He thought these slaves “the worst collection that ever was made—they seemed to be the refuse of every one of the Estates from whence they were sent.” Virginians knew that Nansemond and Norfolk counties, especially the Dismal Swamp, were an unhealthy place to send valuable workers.
George Washington stayed briefly at Dismal Plantation to “set the People to work.” Before them lay a white marsh; beyond it stretched a sector of the swamp in which old cypress and cedar trees were fewer than large gum trees, red and white oaks, maples, and elms. Newer growths of these made the woods denser. Moving into the swamp, one waded in standing water the color of tea. Farther in, bamboo among the trees grew more thickly. Vines climbed trunks and hung from branches above huge, intricate ferns. Clouds of mosquitoes were so large as to make it hard to guess what kept all of them alive.
The slaves were to dig a ditch, beginning in sandy soil near Dismal Plantation and moving into black peat. Three feet deep, ten feet wide, and almost five miles long, running from the plantation to Lake Drummond, it was supposed to drain water from arable land into the lake. To provide some immediate income for the company the slaves felled the oldest white cedar trees and shaved tens of thousands of 18-inch shingles.
Five months after work began, the partners met in Williamsburg. They voted to assess themselves £40 more per share. Each was also to provide five more slaves; four men and one woman. Perhaps the presence of twelve more women would reduce the inclination of men at Dismal Plantation to “run about” in the night, visiting other slaves in Nansemond County. If any founders of the Dismal Swamp Company had gone to Westover to read the elder William Byrd’s original proposal for draining, they had ignored his advice on this subject, and they met with the consequences he had predicted.
Days before the meeting of December 15, George Washington apparently visited Norfolk and Suffolk, perhaps accompanied by Dr. Walker. The three managers of the company—Washington, Walker, and Fielding Lewis—had agreed to buy land in Nansemond County in partnership. From several sellers they bought a little more than 1,000 acres along the road from Suffolk toward Norfolk, along the Nansemond River, and in the swamp. For one tract of 120 acres they paid almost £1 per acre. They envisioned a canal connecting the company’s land to the Nansemond River, easing movement of supplies and shingles. A visit to Dismal Plantation showed anyone that work moved slowly. Faster progress required more slaves. The managers expressed confidence in the undertaking by spending their own money for the company’s future benefit. One of Washington’s English correspondents, who took an interest in news of the Dismal Swamp Company, congratulated him on “that truely great enterprise, not less calculated for public utility than your private Emolument.”
Robert Tucker also anticipated success for “the intended good purposes” of the company. His wife was carrying their eighteenth child. The baby, if healthy, would be the ninth to survive. Tucker foresaw that, upon his death, he would leave behind him several young children. He wrote his will, bequeathing the bulk of his property to his son, Robert. If the baby not yet born turned out to be a boy, he was to inherit one-half of Tucker’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company. “The other half of said Share,” Tucker wrote, “I appropriate the Profits of toward the better Education and support of my unmarried Children who are under Age.” If the company called on Tucker’s share for more money to continue its work, that money must come from the younger children’s portions of Tucker’s estate. Joanna Tucker gave birth to a girl. So the young Tuckers would have all of their father’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company set aside for their benefit.
Throughout 1764 and 1765, Virginia planters complained of low prices for tobacco, high prices for merchandise, scarce cash, protested bills of exchange, and lawsuits to collect debts. British merchants responded to the depression by squeezing their debtors in Virginia. Suits filled the calendars of county courts. Merchants no longer extended generous credit by accepting bills of exchange for sums far greater than tobacco or other commodities shipped to Britain would bring. William Byrd sold four hundred slaves in April 1765, a desperate act for any planter. The price of slaves had fallen almost to half the level of three or four years earlier. Samuel Gist tried to profit from tight credit by letting people know that he could get a more favorable rate of exchange than the prevailing one, meaning that their Virginia currency would buy more in his store than in others, a claim his competitor denied. With goods selling retail at a markup of 200 percent, merchants had to think fast to attract customers.
Beginning in May, drought dried Virginia through the summer. Beautiful, cloudless days became a curse. Turpentine makers in Nansemond County and in North Carolina got no yield from pines. Oaks produced too few acorns for hogs. Newly planted tobacco withered and died. People worried that grain and other crops would fall short of the colony’s need for food.
Virginians learned in April that George Grenville and his supporters in Parliament, rejecting advice from Anthony Bacon and others, had enacted a stamp tax. It required that legal documents, newspapers, and pamphlets be produced on paper bearing a stamp which indicated that a tax, ranging from twopence to £10, had been paid. The law was to take effect on November 1. Grenville sought to bring more order to the government’s finances and to colonists’ behavior. He felt especially distressed by smuggling. Colonists were not supposed to trade directly with other nations; yet they did so, by way of islands in the West Indies and other routes. Half a million pounds sterling per year: Grenville could not get that sum out of his head—the value of North Americans’ clandestine trade with Europe. Of course, they paid no taxes on it. Britain lost twice: merchants lost business; the government lost revenue. Grenville meant to tighten enforcement of Customs regulations and to tax something colonists must use and could not hide. He “fondly persuaded himself he could easily make it go down,” a London printer wrote, “in any way he chose to administer it.”
As enactment of the tax became certain, applicants sought the position of stamp distributor in each colony. Richard Henry Lee, having failed to win a seat on the Council, saw this newly created post as “a beneficial employment” and hastily offered himself. Peter Francklyn asked for the distributorship of Jamaica, giving as references his brother, Gilbert, and Gilbert’s partner, Anthony Bacon. The government relied as usual on advice from merchants and colonial agents. Bacon and other merchants chose distributors for Québec, Barbados, and New York. The Virginia appointment went to George Mercer, who had spent the last two years in London, representing the Ohio Company.
On March 1, some of Virginia’s paper currency expired. People holding notes emitted in 1757 and 1758 were supposed to exchange them for notes of later emissions. After these old notes arrived in Williamsburg during court days in April, Speaker Robinson announced that the treasury did not have enough newer notes to replace them. More recent ones ought to have been preserved as they came in through collection of taxes, but “considerable sums,” he said, had instead been burned. This explanation seemed odd, since the law did not call for burning the latest emissions. Only currency due to be retired by 1765 was to be destroyed. Hardly anyone believed Robinson. In the past, he had been too slow in destroying currency, not so hasty as to burn too much. People were more willing to believe that the speaker had shown unwise leniency toward sheriffs and inspectors of tobacco who did not promptly send the proceeds of taxes and fees to the treasury. The speaker was good-natured and kindly, everyone knew. That same month he sold Henry Fitzhugh “very valuable” land for £1,160, telling Fitzhugh to take as much time as he liked before paying. A committee of burgesses later approved Robinson’s accounts as treasurer, as did the House of Burgesses and the Council. At least £50,000 of expired currency remained in circulation.
Patrick Henry, Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society. The patriot spoke eloquently about liberty, law, and land.
Before the burgesses convened on May 22, Robinson, Peyton Randolph, and their allies devised a way to retire the colony’s currency. Virginia would borrow £240,000 sterling from merchants and financiers in London at an annual interest of 5 percent. With £100,000 of this money, the treasury would redeem circulating currency and destroy it. With £140,000 in specie as a reserve, the colony could lend its own bank notes to borrowers at an interest of 5 percent. A new poll tax and tobacco tax would repay the London lenders. Who would borrow the colony’s new bank notes and pay 5 percent to do so? Planters deeply in debt, pressed by their British creditors. In the eyes of its supporters, this could “extricate our Country out of its present deplorable Circumstances.” To its opponents, it was a scheme to tax those not deeply in debt in order to rescue reckless debtors and “to help the [speaker] out of the mire, in which he has plunged himself.”
During court days in April, more than 5,000 people filled streets and taverns in Williamsburg. Drinking rum punch and madeira, they caroused until dawn. The stamp tax was their favorite subject of conversation. Throughout the American colonies it excited resentment and determination to prevent enforcement. Much against the wishes of Speaker Robinson and his friends, Virginia gained a reputation as a leader of defiance.
Robinson and almost all burgesses thought the tax a breach of the British Constitution and an infringement of colonists’ liberty, as well as a financial blow on top of a depression. They had said as much in their remonstrances to the king, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons the past December. The speaker, Secretary Nelson, and others estimated the annual cost of the tax in Virginia. Their lowest figure was £35,000. The speaker set it at £45,000. Merchants said that the colony held only a fraction of that sum in coin. Nevertheless, Robinson and his friends disapproved of defiance of Parliament and the ministry. They had faith in less overt ways of changing the British government’s conduct.
In the session of late May, most burgesses regarded their work as finished after they had passed bills, including one for the loan office, and approved Robinson’s treasury accounts on May 29. The Council, including such firm opponents of all paper money as Richard Corbin and the Nelson brothers, rejected the loan office. By May 30, as two burgesses who had ridiculed the loan office, George Johnston and Patrick Henry, urged opposition to the stamp tax, only 39 of 116 members remained in the chamber. With narrow majorities they passed four resolutions asserting elected representatives’ exclusive right to tax. Peyton Randolph and the speaker’s friends opposed these as redundant, a repetition of the colony’s earlier remonstrances. Johnston and Henry’s fifth resolution said that colonists were not bound to obey any law taxing them except laws enacted in Virginia. It aroused “very strong” debate, during which Robinson accused Henry of speaking treason. The resolution passed by one vote. The next day, after Henry left Williamsburg, Peyton Randolph moved that the resolutions be stricken from the journal. He could not get a majority to expunge all of them, but he won a vote to expunge one. The printer of the Virginia Gazette did not publish things to which Governor Fauquier objected, but newspapers in other colonies printed not only all five resolutions, but also the draft of a sixth, declaring that anyone who asserted Parliament’s right to tax colonists was an enemy. George Grenville, after reading them, said they “exceed any notions which I could entertain of that extravagance.”
Much more extravagance followed throughout the continent. Colonists promised to press British merchants by refusing to buy goods and by beginning competitive American manufacture. Crowds destroyed property of officials and of friends of government. No stamped paper was safe, and all distributors must be forcibly invited to resign. George Mercer arrived in Williamsburg on October 30, about thirty-six hours before the tax was to take effect. Just outside the capitol almost all the leading planters and merchants in town for court days demanded that he resign. A crowd outside the coffeehouse seemed to menace him, but Speaker Robinson, members of the Council, and Governor Fauquier stood with him. He went home with the governor. In another part of the colony Richard Henry Lee denounced Mercer as a betrayer of Virginians’ liberty by his acceptance of the distributorship, and burned him in effigy. By November 1, Mercer had decided to resign and return to England. The governor and Council unanimously adjourned the General Court because they had no stamped paper and could not lawfully act without it.
Late in 1765 and early in 1766, Virginia’s courts remained closed. Suits for debt stood still. Vessels could not be cleared in or out. Trade partially resumed, risking confiscation of any vessel sailing without stamped documents. Planters in Antigua, who opposed but did not defy the tax, ran short of supplies from the mainland. They feared famine among slaves and a lack of staves for hogsheads. In Virginia, after many people stopped paying their British debts and reduced their purchases of goods, the rate of exchange fell sharply. By the end of 1765, £100 in currency bought £100 sterling.
Somewhere at sea in mid-October 1765 two vessels, probably far out of each other’s sight, crossed the same line of longitude at the same time, sailing opposite courses. One bore George Mercer and stamped paper from London to Virginia. The other bore Samuel Gist from Virginia to London. Gist had visited Williamsburg during the April and May court days. He had seen the usual “vast Concourse of people” hurrying between the taverns and the capitol, thronging the street known as the Exchange just beyond the capitol. He could not avoid hearing about Speaker Robinson’s embarrassing shortage of treasury notes or watching the fiasco of the loan office. Everywhere people had talked about the stamp tax. Gist had bought some blank bills of exchange.
When Gist came back to Williamsburg late in September, he stayed only briefly and never returned. He was bound for London at last. In that city he expected, as his wife wrote him, to “injoy all the health and satisfaction you often promised yr self when you got there.” He placed an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, naming the men who held his power of attorney and announcing his imminent departure. By October 9 he booked passage. His wife asked him to send her a good brass kettle and some magazines, apparently not expecting to follow him. She added that their daughters often had cried over his departure. Six or eight weeks after Gist reached England, George Mercer arrived back in London. He estimated his expenses as stamp distributor for Virginia at £1,113 0s. 8d.