ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, 1796, Alexander Macaulay, merchant of York Town and a manager of the Dismal Swamp Company, signed an agreement with Thomas Shepherd of Nansemond County. Shepherd contracted to make the company’s affairs his sole occupation for five years as agent and business manager.
Macaulay, now forty-one, had grown heavy in ten years in York Town. He looked prosperous, but he was not. For the preceding four years he had drawn large bills of exchange which were returned to his creditors, protested. He “suffered greatly” by the financial panic in London in 1793. In the following year, John Jameson, fellow manager of the Dismal Swamp Company and fellow resident of York Town, consented to Macaulay’s drawing on the company’s funds for “his own use.” By the time Shepherd signed, Macaulay had taken $2,000. In 1796 he drew much more. One entry in his accounts showed that he paid “Self per receipt $8040.34.”
Macaulay wished 1795 to be the year he freed himself from debt. Instead, he lost a suit in the United States Circuit Court. He heard from John Wickham, acting on behalf of people stuck with his bad bills. In August his brig Helen, laden with a valuable cargo, ran aground near York Town during a hurricane. Another brig, homeward bound from Madeira, he lost to a British privateer. He thought it best to send his daughter, Helen, and his son, Alexander, to Scotland for education because the teaching of boys and girls in Virginia was contaminated with “French principles.” But he could not afford a proper education for them. In January 1796 he had not yet paid for 280 barrels of corn purchased two years earlier. He must soon stop pretending that he was going to repay the money he had taken from the Dismal Swamp Company.
Thomas Shepherd was “an intelligent young gentleman,” who owned a broken-down sawmill and a gristmill near the northeastern margin of the swamp, not far from the unfinished Dismal Swamp canal. He was to lead the company in its new direction—profits from lumber. The Dismal Swamp Company bought a half interest in his mills and shared the expense of repairing them. At the joint charge of the company and Shepherd a canal was to be cut in the heart of the swamp to connect the eastern boundary of the company’s land with the Dismal Swamp canal, as well as another feeder to run from the Dismal Swamp canal to Shepherd’s mill pond. After getting approval from the company’s managers, he could cut roads and ditches into its tract to bring out timber and transport it by water to the sawmill. There the logs would be cut into boards or shingles. If he and the company did not renew their agreement in 1801, the company could buy his interest in the mills.
The partners had largely abandoned both of William Byrd’s proposals: draining the swamp and making the enterprise self-supporting by farming. Only a few slaves remained at Dismal Plantation. A member of the Riddick family acted as overseer. Making shingles would require hiring slaves, and the price of shingles was so low that Shepherd did nothing but “hold possession.” By allowing others to take trees in return for half the profits, the company in 1795 and 1796 cleared £219 6s. 7d. Virginia currency. The sum would have been £519 if Alexander Macaulay had not withdrawn £300 in cash. The company’s new plan for a water route to the sawmill met difficulties. The Dismal Swamp Canal Company had cut off water to Shepherd’s pond. The mills needed repair partly because they had been idle since 1795. Shepherd soon learned that holding possession required much effort to ward off timber thieves.
David and Sarah Meade, their seven children, and about forty slaves paused on their way to Kentucky to spend time at Richard Kidder Meade’s plantation in the Shenandoah Valley near the foot of the Blue Ridge. As they prepared to leave, David Meade saw that three slave men had run away. He was not surprised by the “defection” of his postilion Syphax and of Boddow, but the departure of the elder Billy, he said, “vexes my spirit.” Meade assumed that they would return to the vicinity of Maycox. If caught, they were to be sold. Billy was taken at the Shenandoah ferry, trying to cross the river. Once he was back with the Meades, he expressed “much contrition,” and he was not sold. The next day, June 8, 1796, the Meades’ coaches and horses, accompanied by the slaves, followed their three hired wagons full of baggage to Winchester on their way to Pittsburgh.
Nine days later their wagons and coaches rolled over the unmarked grave of General Edward Braddock, whose body had been buried in the road so that Indians and Frenchmen could not find it. From Pittsburgh they went down the Ohio River by boat. The last leg of their journey took them overland from Limestone on the Ohio to Lexington, 60 miles southwest. They reached their destination a month after leaving Richard Kidder Meade’s plantation.
About 1,600 people lived in a growing town of frame houses, log houses, some stone structures, and new two-story brick homes. Charles Willing Byrd welcomed the Meades to Lexington. He had just told Robert Morris that he was fixed there for life. He helped them find lodging. The first person to call on them was a granddaughter of Speaker Robinson’s. She came with her husband, “Mr. West an Irish Man, who proves a very attentive, friendly & agreeable acquaintance.” Otway Byrd visited his half brother in the summer. Returning to Virginia, he could report to Mary Willing Byrd that her son and her friend Sarah Meade were doing well.
David Meade bought about 550 acres at the mouth of Jessamine Creek nine miles southwest of Lexington. He designed a comfortable house and pleasure gardens far more extensive and elaborate than those at Maycox. In the summer and early fall the family remained in Lexington while slaves and a few white workmen began a one-story cluster of rooms Meade called “our Cottage.” Its centerpiece was a square dining room, 20 feet on each side, wainscotted in black walnut, with deep window seats. In the last week of October, after the leaves in his “noble” stands of sugar maple had turned yellow, the family moved from Lexington to the estate, living in a small log house through the winter while work continued, even in snow. They occupied their unfinished five-room house in April. Meade was eager to add new rooms, some frame, others stone and brick. The house spread into a villa.
Meade began his gardens in the spring. His imagination saw a stone fence with red and white roses, hedges covered by honeysuckle, with an outer gate that opened to a winding road through a park, opening onto a broad, sloping expanse of smooth bluegrass in front of his house. He designed vistas leading the eye into the distance, as well as bowers, nooks, and alcoves concealing a comfortable bench or a small Chinese temple. Except for corn, which almost every Kentucky farm seemed to produce in abundance, Meade did not work food crops. Any farming was done by others, who rented some of his land. He did experiment with growing hemp. Above his gate Meade put the name he gave his new home: Chaumière des Prairies—Cottage in the Meadow.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, the Meades’ oldest daughter, Sally, was married to Charles Willing Byrd. Growing up at Maycox and Westover, the bride and bridegroom had known each other all their lives. David Meade said that the match “adds one more to our family.” Before the summer passed, Sally Meade Byrd was pregnant.
In 1796, John Tyndale Warre, executor of the estate of the Bristol firm Farell & Jones, sued David Meade in United States Circuit Court in Richmond for an old unpaid debt of £115 sterling. Warre’s attorney won a verdict, and a writ of execution against Meade’s property was given to the United States marshal. Richard Hanson, Warre’s agent in Virginia, reported this outcome but added that Meade had moved 800 miles away. The distance in a straight line was about half that, but with a large number Hanson conveyed his disappointment. At the end of 1797, Meade wrote to his largest creditor in Britain, Wakelin Welch, accusing Benjamin Waller of “extreamly faithless” conduct in their negotiations for clearing the old debt. If Welch and Waller imitated Warre and Hanson by pursuing Meade in federal court, he warned, “I will avail myself of the vicinity of a foreign government and avoid unjust persecution.” Meade had not yet received any money from James Wilson in payment for land in the Dismal Swamp and two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. He began to think about foreclosing Wilson’s mortgage, reclaiming the shares and the land.
To friends and relatives in Virginia, Meade praised Kentucky. Of the estate of Governor Isaac Shelby, he wrote: “the fabled Golden age seems to be here revived.” He often mentioned the soil’s fertility, predicting that his would yield at least twelve barrels of corn per acre. He told everyone that his change of homes had proven wise: “I regret nothing I have left behind me but a few valuable friends … as to everything else—I would scarce change my present situation for wealth in Virginia.”
After the state capital moved to Richmond, Williamsburg offered fewer rewards to a storekeeper. Joseph Hornsby led the life of a country gentleman, dividing his time between his house in town and his 3,000-acre plantation, Yarmouth, in James City County. He had ten slaves in town and twenty-seven on his plantation. He kept a carriage in Williamsburg and thoroughbreds at Yarmouth.
Hornsby gave up his positions as a manager of the Dismal Swamp Company and treasurer of the Court of Directors of the Lunatic Hospital in 1794. He was preparing to move to Kentucky. He disposed of his blooded horses. During his last year in Virginia, 1796, only four slaves remained at Yarmouth. By agreement in Williamsburg District Court, he and Mary Willing Byrd settled William Byrd’s old debt to Hornsby’s uncle.
In November 1796, Hornsby was ready to say good-bye to his brother, William, and head westward. His slave James, a large man in his late twenties with “some scars about his neck,” took this opportunity to leave Hornsby’s service. James was still at large eighteen months later. Hornsby, with two daughters and three sons, apparently spent the winter in Albemarle County with his married daughter and the Walker brothers. In March his daughter Sarah died at the age of sixteen.
In the spring Joseph Hornsby and his family crossed the mountains to his property near Floyds Fork, 47 miles northwest of Lexington and 17 miles from the Ohio River. He irritated David Meade by not making a 20-mile detour to visit Chaumière des Prairies. Hornsby made a return trip to Virginia almost at once, and stopped at Meade’s home on his way eastward in the last week of July. Meade prided himself on his hospitable entertainment of unexpected guests. That spring he had added two more bedrooms to his house.
Hornsby spent the late summer and early fall of 1797 in Williamsburg, visiting his brother, whose health was uneven. He bought slaves. He collected peach stones and vegetable seeds to reproduce his Williamsburg garden in Kentucky. And he sold his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company to the Reverend John Bracken, rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, who already held two shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. In October, Joseph Hornsby headed westward again. The following month David Meade wrote to a friend: “Mr. Hornsby, we hear is returned to His new settlement in Shelby County—bringing with him it is said a hundred Negroes.”
A visitor to Hornsby’s plantation saw fields of clover, flocks of sheep, a herd of cattle, and a large hogpen. In addition to corn, wheat, and ordinary garden vegetables, Hornsby and his slaves cultivated asparagus, artichokes, and cantaloupes. Hornsby also grew hemp. Suffering from rheumatism in his late fifties, he could not do much work. He kept his house well stocked with whiskey. From cut flint glass bottles bearing his name, he could pour for a guest into a silver rummer or use a silver ladle to draw punch from a large china bowl. When absent from the plantation, he was usually in Louisville to take communion or in Shelbyville to vote Republican.
James Marshall’s stay in London on behalf of the North American Land Company did not go smoothly. He found few buyers; he had no prospects. An American in London explained that British capital for investment was “compleatly employed in commercial & other speculations, connected with Government securities &c.” Though Robert Morris blamed his difficulties on these wartime opportunities for profit, all efforts to sell American property met suspicion. A Pennsylvanian decrying land speculation described it as “that horrid disorder which some call the terra-phobia.” He meant speculators’ ravings about their future profits. But British moneyed men had true terraphobia—fear of buying American land. The result in Philadelphia was “that every land jobber here is out of money.”
Robert Morris pressed on. At his behest, in January 1796 the board of directors declared a dividend on North American Land Company stock for the year 1795: $6 per share. Fewer than five hundred shares had been sold that year. Only two people outside the United States bought any. Morris urged James Marshall to keep trying: “The North American Land Compy Shares are now worth double or treble what they were when you left this place.… The Shares in the North American Land Compy are by far the best Object for an European to vest money in.”
Troubles multiplied. John Nicholson’s creditors won judgments against him in Pennsylvania courts. In 1795 the two partners had fallen behind in payments to the commissioners of the District of Columbia. Their repeated promises went unfulfilled. Their failure to pay threatened to force a halt in construction of the Capitol and the president’s house. At the end of the year, Morris gave up hope of obtaining Dutch loans, on which his large venture into Federal City lots had been based.
George Washington, beginning the last full year of his presidency early in 1796, again offered his western land for sale. He needed money; he insisted on prompt payment and on receiving what he called “the real value of the Land.” These conditions made finding a buyer difficult. He refrained from advertising in Europe, where, he said, “land jobbing is in much disgrace.”
Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris, Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Washington had lived away from Mount Vernon for almost sixteen years during the war and his presidency. His home had fallen into disrepair. Except in its setting above the Potomac, it was not a grand mansion—an outer wall of wood chamfered, painted, and sanded to give the appearance of stone, an inner passageway wall of pine painted to look like mahogany. The rooms were plainly furnished. A visitor might awkwardly discover that “the furniture is dropping to pieces.” Washington put joiners, masons, and painters to work as soon as he returned from Philadelphia. He looked forward to spending his retirement amusing himself with “Agricultural and rural pursuits” and repairing a house “going fast to ruin.” To this end he sought to turn his land into money.
Washington’s sale of his four quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company to Henry Lee did not yield prompt payment. By December 1, 1796, Lee was supposed to pay $6,666, one-third of the total price, with interest on the sum yet to be paid. Lee’s hope to use Justice James Wilson’s bonds or to draw notes on Wilson failed when Washington refused to accept them, knowing that he “could not depend upon converting them into cash.” Then the bills of exchange drawn on William Temple Franklin by Robert Morris to repay Lee’s loan of $40,000 came back from London, protested. Lee re-submitted them; they were returned protested again. Franklin had completed his work for Morris; he had other worries, such as a report that the Directory in Paris ordered his arrest if he returned to France. Two months after Lee’s first payment to Washington fell due, he came up with only $700 in cash.
Morris could not repay Lee. Morris and Nicholson missed a payment to the commissioners of the District of Columbia in April 1796. Nor did they construct more new houses in the Federal City, as their contract stipulated. They blamed their difficulties on James Greenleaf, failed wizard of the lost Dutch loans. If Greenleaf was at fault for their problems in the Federal City, he must also be responsible for the North American Land Company’s troubles. He was supposed to have the power to tap European capital; and the North American Land Company, despite its pretense of development and settlement, had no other purpose. Morris and Nicholson bought Greenleaf’s 10,000 shares. They gave him in May a generous settlement of $1,150,000 in the usual form, Morris promising to redeem Nicholson’s notes and Nicholson promising to redeem Morris’s. Greenleaf’s security, if his former partners did not pay, was a right to sell his shares of the North American Land Company on the open market.
Desperate for cash, Morris ordered Charles Willing Byrd to sell land in Kentucky that Morris had bought for himself, not his company. Byrd thus had instructions to persuade other people to put money into the company’s land while he turned Morris’s into money. In response to Henry Lee’s complaints about protested bills of exchange drawn on William Temple Franklin, Morris drew a new bill on James Marshall in London, suggesting to Marshall that he meet this bill by compounding with London bankers, using shares in the North American Land Company to get credit. As Morris drew his bill for Lee and sent instructions to Marshall in September 1796, Morris’s and Nicholson’s notes changed hands in Philadelphia at a valuation of 17¢ on the dollar. After a year in London, James Marshall had sold forty shares in the North American Land Company. The venture had failed. Morris held a reserve of what he called “Blanks.” The time to use them had come. He wrote to Nicholson: “we must depend on ourselves, put the world at defiance and set ourselves on the Front Seats of the Worlds amphitheatre.”
During the last months of 1796 the collapse of the American land market became clear in Philadelphia. A Richmond merchant wrote: “I am informd that every confidence between man and man is at an end.” At the suits of creditors, the sheriff put broken speculators into debtors’ prison until they were declared legally insolvent. Dr. Benjamin Rush heard that 150 people had failed within six weeks, and 67 went to jail. Dr. Thomas Ruston, still holding 800 acres near the Dismal Swamp, had sold 136,000 acres of Pennsylvania land to Morris and Nicholson two years earlier, but he could not collect. He had debts, rumor said, of $200,000. He entered prison in September. Justice James Wilson, aware of his own impending fate, looked “deeply distressed,” and to distract his mind read novels constantly. The sheriff came for him on Thursday, December 8. A Virginian summoned to Richmond for service on a federal Circuit Court grand jury wrote in his diary: “no Court for want of a Judge who was Speculating.” Morris heard that people expected him to go next. His and Nicholson’s notes, reported to total $10,000,000, were traded for 12¢ on the dollar.
Morris tried to keep up the credit of the North American Land Company by announcing a dividend early in January 1797, but he had no money. He called for Nicholson to pay it, a vain hope. Nicholson’s creditors also pursued Morris, who had endorsed his partner’s notes. Morris wrote: “I consider you as the sole Author of all the perplexities about Laws Titles & you must extricate them.” He admitted on February 1 that the company could not survive: “The money for dividends is run out & I have no more, so that I suppose its credit will be dissolved.” Three weeks later a broker told Nicholson that he could dispose of Morris’s and Nicholson’s notes at 10¢ on the dollar.
Morris and Nicholson still owed Henry Lee $21,500 for property in and around the illusory city of Matildaville. Unable to pay, they tried in March to sell their holdings to James Greenleaf, who declined to buy. Morris then offered to sell the land back to Lee. Lee needed to raise money to pay George Washington; he wished to sell, not buy. The partners forfeited their interest and wrote off their investment as a loss. By April 13, Greenleaf was in the custody of the sheriff at the debtors’ prison. He wrote to a consortium of creditors: “take my Books, my papers, my Property & do with them what you please.… I am distroyed solely by having suffered myself to be led on by too ardent a desire of saving others from destruction.”
To placate George Washington, Henry Lee gave him in the early months of 1797 a document from the firm Reed & Forde obliging them to transfer to Washington seventy shares of stock in the Bank of Columbia. Washington reluctantly accepted, only to find that the shares, nominally worth $40 each, were selling on the open market for $33. Lee’s remittance not only fell short by $500 but came late. Reed & Forde lacked the cash needed to buy bank stock for Washington, partly because Robert Morris had not repaid $5,000 he had borrowed. Morris wrote to them: “My mind is continually on the rack and I am daily employed in Search of ways and means.”
Of course, the bill of exchange Morris drew on James Marshall to repay Lee’s large loan came back protested. Morris said in July that he hoped to be able to pay soon. Two months later he admitted that he could not send Lee anything. Lee kept writing for four years, to no avail.
In Williamsburg, at Christmastime, 1796, and in the first weeks of the new year, St. George Tucker wrote a play about Robert Morris. He called it The Wheel of Fortune: A Comedy. The character resembling Morris is “Buckeye, a Land Jobber.” He cheats foreign investors and sells vast tracts of land, as well as lots in the Federal City. Tucker’s hero, Freeman, explains the play’s title: “Some favorite plan of Speculation presents itself—money is wanted and must be had, at any price. One purchase is made upon a Credit of sixty days, to enable the purchaser to pay another sum of money in thirty; the Wheel is kept continually turning till it either ruins, or makes, the party engaged in the Operation.” Of course, the traditional wheel of fortune would bring low those who once rode high. One character, a defrauded land buyer, reveals Buckeye’s methods: he sold 20,000 acres, “which he described as an earthly paradise, uniting every advantage soil, climate, Waters, Rivers, and intercourse with a populous Country. Here is a map in which it is described. Would not one suppose it was the Garden of Eden! This is the description of that miserable spot.” Amid the drama’s conventional schemes, plot complications, and recognition scenes, Tucker’s denunciation of speculators is the recurrent leitmotif. In the banal and predictable ending, lovers are united and speculators are ruined.
In hopes of getting his play produced in Philadelphia during the spring of 1797, Tucker submitted it to Thomas Wignell, manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre, the best house with the best actors in the United States. The ornate building, modeled on Covent Garden Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Bath, with 1,165 seats, had been constructed with financial aid from Robert Morris. Wignell’s season lasted until May 6. He was running a deficit. He declined to produce The Wheel of Fortune, saying that Morris and Greenleaf were “suffering so severely for their Speculations” that they ought not to be “exhibited to Ridicule on the Stage” in Tucker’s characters Buckeye and O’Blunder. He added that the play was too long and needed revision.
Wignell was actually letting Tucker down gently, sparing him the truth. The play was old-fashioned, differing little from Samuel Foote’s The Bankrupt of twenty-five years past or from satirical plays about the South Sea Bubble seventy years past. The modern public preferred a different kind of drama, not moralizing about political economy and civic virtue. At Drury Lane Theatre in 1797, Matthew Lewis began a successful run of his new play The Castle Spectre: A Dramatic Romance. Robert Merry, husband of Thomas Wignell’s lead actress, Ann Brunton Merry, had written The Abbey of St. Augustine for the 1797 season. He again tried to capture the new fashion in a play he submitted to Wignell a few months after Tucker’s. It was The Tuscan Tournament: A Tragedy in Five Acts. The last act was almost all pantomime. The public enjoyed excitement and sentiment and mystery. In The Tuscan Tournament, the curtain rises to reveal “Scene—The Appenines—A Ruin’d Castle—A Storm—Thunder & Lightning. Enter Ximenes disguised as a Friar.” Wignell moved to New York for the summer and fall to repair his company’s fortunes. In the Greenwich Street Theatre he presented Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage, with the title role played by Elizabeth Whitlock, Sarah Siddons’s sister.
Robert Morris no longer left his house in the autumn of 1797. He avoided the sheriff by remaining indoors, except when he took the air by going out on his roof. But he was only buying time. He said: “property will not command money and the world have shut me out of their confidence.”
After his release from prison in Philadelphia, Justice James Wilson spent some time in jail in Burlington, New Jersey, in September until he raised $300 to pay a judgment. He took refuge in Edenton, North Carolina. There he was jailed in April 1798 at the suit of the holder of a note he had endorsed. Once released, he stayed in Edenton, refusing to declare himself insolvent and give up all his property so that he could return to Philadelphia. From Kentucky, David Meade sent word that unless Wilson soon paid the arrears of his purchase of two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company and of nearby land, Meade would foreclose his mortgage and resume possession. Meade had no sympathy with Pennsylvania speculators. His son-in-law, Charles Willing Byrd, had gone unpaid by Robert Morris throughout 1797. Wilson did not care what Meade did. Dressed in shabby clothes, he sat listlessly in his tavern room, looking out the window at the waves of Albemarle Sound, facing away from the Dismal Swamp.
George Washington had grown exasperated with Henry Lee. None of Lee’s extemporized devices yielded cash. Lee gave Washington what he called “a negotiable note” for $1,000, drawn on Jesse Simms, in the summer of 1797. Washington sent it to his banker, who told him in January 1798 that Simms refused to pay. Washington wrote to Lee: “Let me entreat you to believe, that at the time I entered into the contract with you for the property I held in the Dismal Swamp, I had no conception of such disappointments, and that it is a mode of dealing to which I am not accustomed.” Washington grew angrier upon hearing that Simms spread rumors that Washington was speculating in Simms’s notes. Every step Lee took seemed to make matters worse.
Leaving Washington unpaid, Lee acquired Champe and Maria Carter’s portion and Richard and Rebecca Parke Corbin’s portion of the Saura Town property in the Land of Eden. Champe and Maria Carter had sold their one-eighth interest for $2 per acre; Lee paid more than twice as much. He offered this one-fourth of the Land of Eden to Patrick Henry. Henry still held the note James Wilson had drawn on Lee as Lee lent Wilson $8,000 to buy Henry’s worthless Green Sea tract. Lee had no cash with which to pay Henry and redeem the note. James Wilson, sitting in Edenton, could not repay Lee. So Lee urged Patrick Henry to take, instead of cash, one-fourth of the Land of Eden, assuring him that it was worth $4 to $6 per acre.
Robert Morris knew on Thursday, February 8, 1798, that he must enter debtors’ prison the following week. He wrote: “The Punishment of my imprudence in the use of my Name and loss of credit is perhaps what I deserve, but it is nevertheless severe on my Family and on their account I feel it most tormentingly.” In the past two years he had watched his wife, Mary White Morris, change from “a remarkable well looking woman … blooming as a rose in June” to her present state, “pale, wan, dejected & spiritless.” He entered the Prune Street prison on Friday, February 16. He lived in a furnished room, an “ugly whitewashed vault,” in which he received visitors, and he dressed as usual in neat, old-fashioned suits. Every morning from six until eight he walked in the garden, counting his turns by dropping a pebble at the end of each lap. He knew that he must surrender all his property to gain release. He wrote: “I confess I do not like the idea of dieing here.” The North American Land Company had no offices. If it had managers, no one knew who they were. In the subsequent liquidation of Morris’s assets, the company’s shares sold for 7¢ each.
James Wilson went into his final decline in July and August. He contracted malaria. In the Edenton tavern overlooking Albemarle Sound he lay in bed, talking about returning to his circuit duties as a justice of the Supreme Court. After suffering a stroke in August he spoke deliriously of debts, bankruptcies, and jails. On Tuesday, August 21, he died.
“I shall be able to close my contract,” Henry Lee promised Washington that week; “this is an object I have much at heart, & which if Judge Wilson had not treated me very illy would have long ago been compleated.” Lee’s latest idea for remittances was to ship corn up the Potomac from Stratford to Mount Vernon and to offer Washington houses and lots in the Federal City. Lee added: “the time is fast approaching when property like mine must be in great demand.”
“You know perfectly well what my inducements were to part with the property you purchased of me,” Washington wrote. But Lee refused to understand that he was supposed to furnish cash or property of unquestioned title convertible to cash. Washington already had a supplier of corn. He held no illusions about the value of lots in the Federal City: “it is a question of very equivocal solution.” He grew tired of Lee’s improvisations, assurances, and excuses. He entrusted the matter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, who would give a deed to the Dismal Swamp Company quarter-shares or not give it, as he thought best after dealing with Lee.
The death of James Wilson left Patrick Henry holding Wilson’s note for purchase of the Green Sea land, payable by Lee. Lee had little prospect of recovering from Wilson’s estate the $8,000 Wilson had borrowed. Patrick Henry had little hope of getting money from Lee. Even so, Henry did not wish the Green Sea tract returned to him by default. The two men agreed to an exchange. Patrick Henry deeded his acres of reeds in the Green Sea to Lee, and Henry Lee deeded about 6,300 acres of the Land of Eden to Henry.
Two and a half years after Henry Lee’s first payment to George Washington ought to have been made and six months before his last payment was due, he had made no more headway in finding $20,000 for four quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. He wrote: “all my endeavors are vain. I shall never recede from my exertions till I do accomplish the end, for no event of my life has given me more anguish.” He found that conversations with Washington intensified his feelings of regret. He offered to return the quarter-shares and forfeit payments he had made. “The loss of money I am used to,” he said; “the loss of mental quietude I cannot bear & pained as I am, I wish to regain tranquility.” Lee resolved not to see Washington again until he could pay everything. He said he was sure he could do so in the next few months.
Aiskew Birkett, William Anderson’s partner, did some work for his former employer, Samuel Gist, in 1795. To help John Wickham pursue Gist’s suits in United States Circuit Court in Richmond, Birkett gave depositions and affidavits in London. As Gist’s former clerk, he swore under oath to the validity of accounts showing the debts Wickham sued to collect. Gist meant to miss no opportunity. As sons of the late Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., strove to settle his indebted estate, Gist filed a claim. Nelson owed money to William Anderson & Company, but that did not mean he owed Gist. Robert Andrews, agent for Nelson’s creditors, wrote in his list of claimants: “Gist no Evid of any sort furnished.” By the summer of 1795, William Anderson & Company had disbanded for the second and last time. Aiskew Birkett sent his ship Ceres to the James River in search of a cargo of tobacco. He now belonged to the firm Birkett, Shore & Reeves.
Early that year in Richmond, Nathaniel Anderson complained that his brother William’s letters from London were “Crusty & harsh.” William Anderson’s health was failing. He had reason to feel bitter. Events had not gone his way. At the age of fifty-four, he was sick, while his father-in-law remained vigorous and sharp at seventy. Anderson had lived comfortably in London with his wife and niece and nephew, but he had never obtained an independent fortune from Samuel Gist. Nor had he succeeded as a merchant.
Anderson’s condition worsened during the summer. He and his wife and her sister went to Chesterfield in the hills of northern Derbyshire. There he lay “in a low state of Health” until New Year’s Day, 1796, when he died. With him died the last threat to Samuel Gist’s control of the property he had left behind in Virginia thirty years earlier—plantations, slaves, and three quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. Edward Jacquelin Smith, son of Gist’s late stepson, Joseph Smith, had died in 1794. Except for nagging from Thomas R. Rootes, son by an earlier marriage of Joseph Smith’s widow, Gist faced no challenger.
Three weeks after Anderson’s death, Gist proved his son-in-law’s will in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. He made himself “the chief, if not sole acting” executor of the estate. Its main assets were outstanding debts Virginians owed to the Old and New Concerns known as William Anderson & Company. The executors commissioned a partner in the defunct company, Henry S. Shore, and George Syme in Virginia to collect from debtors and remit to Gist. Within six years they sent almost £1,500 sterling. On Gist’s behalf, John Wickham won more suits in federal court. John Lyons, Gist’s attorney in Hanover County, went to court to seize forty-nine slaves, collateral for an unpaid bond. They were to be sold to satisfy Gist’s demand for more than $3,000.
Despite a financial crisis in 1797, Gist’s investments in government funds and in stocks yielded a large income in his retirement. If he read Adam Smith, he could chuckle over one sentence: “though many people have made a little money by insurance, very few have made a great fortune.” Gist had bought some land in England after the American War. He now stepped up his purchases. Other moneyed men in the City transformed themselves into landed gentry; he could do so as well. His favorite holdings lay in northern Gloucestershire, in the upper division of Tewkesbury Hundred and the lower division of Kiftsgate Hundred, midway between Gloucester and Stratford-upon-Avon. Gist bought the crumbling manor house at Wormington and with it the lordship of the manor and the patronage of the parish church. The parish held about ninety people. The occupants of one farm and of six cottages in the village became his tenants. A little more than a mile from the church Gist began a new house, Wormington Grange, a two-story masonry building with bay windows. In the small fourteenth-century church, against the chancel’s north wall, near a later Tudor arch, Gist added a plain monument:
Sacred to the Memory of
WILLIAM ANDERSON, ESQR.
WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE,
THE 1ST DAY OF JANUARY 1796,
AGED 54 YEARS.
Later, Gist bought the lordship of the manor of Dixton, a few miles southwest of Wormington. His purchases in Gloucestershire amounted to 2,180 acres.
Aiskew Birkett died in September 1798. His sister, Elizabeth Birkett, was his executrix and heir. His estate had a right to one-fourth of the money owed to William Anderson & Company, collected under the direction of Samuel Gist. Remittances kept coming from Virginia, eventually nearing a total of £4,000. Gist once paid Elizabeth Birkett £150. Three other times he gave her small sums totaling £50. Through a broker, formerly Aiskew Birkett’s clerk, she repeatedly pressed Gist to make further payments. He refused, saying that she had not yet settled with her late brother’s creditors. Gist would “retain the Money in his Hands until some Arrangements had been made.”
In the same year that Aiskew Birkett died, William Anderson’s brothers and sisters brought suit against Gist in the High Court of Chancery in Richmond. They accused him of violating Anderson’s will by neither paying the estate for the plantations Anderson had bought at Gist’s instructions nor returning these plantations to the estate. Instead, he still cultivated them for his own profit. John Wickham filed Gist’s answer with the court in 1799. He said that one of the plantations belonged to Mary Anderson, not William Anderson, and that the estate of William Anderson owed money to Gist.
The treaty between Britain and the United States ratified in 1795 provided for establishment of a joint commission on debts owed by Americans to Britons. The commission met only once and resolved nothing. But in 1798 and 1799 it compiled a register of claims. These included a memorial and claim from Samuel Gist, with a list of 545 debts for which he sought recompense.
A young Virginian, Littleton Dennis Teackle, traveled in England in 1799. His father, John Teackle, had done business with William Anderson & Company. The son carried letters of introduction, one from George Syme to Gist. Gist invited Teackle to dine at Number 37, Gower Street on Sunday, May 26. There he met Mary Anderson and young Maria Anderson with two other women. Teackle enjoyed their sprightly conversation around the silver-laden dinner table. He had heard that his host’s yearly income was £10,000. Gist, he noted, liked to let people see that he was rich. Teackle had been told that he was “parsimonious,” but the old man did not stint himself. Soon after dinner the ladies withdrew, and Teackle and Gist chatted for several hours. That night Teackle wrote in his diary: “upon the whole I form’d no very favorable oppinion of him. I thought I perceiv’d more of design in his countenance, than any person I had been in company with in England.”
In subsequent months Gist bought from the Duchess of Dorset the manor of Hardwick in Oxfordshire, as well as several farms in Neithrop Parish. He acquired more than 1,000 acres in the county. As leases on these fields of wheat, barley, turnips, and beans expired, he raised rents.
• • •
Managers of the Dismal Swamp Company summoned their partners to gather in Suffolk for a “full meeting” on October 15, 1796. A meeting took place on Friday, November 18, but only the managers attended: William Nelson, Jr., Alexander Macaulay, and John Jameson. They approved the company’s contract with Thomas Shepherd and purchase of sawmills as an aid to the company’s drive to profit from timber. They authorized Macaulay to hire an overseer for Dismal Plantation and to buy six young male slaves. They resolved to invest $10,000 in United States government bonds bearing 6 percent interest. And they declared that no single partner—meaning, Alexander Macaulay—would be allowed to draw money from the company’s assets. Macaulay signed the minutes. Three weeks later, he made his largest withdrawal, more than $8,000.
John Driver died in the last week of April 1797. To succeed him as the company’s resident agent in Suffolk, the managers chose his son-in-law, Thomas Swepson, a resident of Nansemond County and surveyor of customs for the Port of Suffolk. Thomas Shepherd still supervised hired slaves felling trees and cutting shingles.
The company needed to exclude trespassers who were stealing trees. It must repair its mills and cut canals to float logs to them. In Richmond, Alexander Macaulay met a newly arrived young English architect and engineer, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who knew about “the old dismal Swamp Company,” as he called it. On a visit to Mount Vernon in the past summer, Latrobe had heard George Washington give “a detailed account” of it, saying that he “gave up all further hopes of any thing effectual being done for their interests, and sold out his shares in the Proprietary at a price very inadequate to their real value.” In the first week of June 1797, Latrobe accepted Macaulay’s invitation to work for the company. On Tuesday, June 6, the large Macaulay and the slender, curly-haired Latrobe entered a stagecoach and headed down the James River, toward the Dismal Swamp. Their traveling companions were two Frenchmen who spoke no English, an actress, Margaretta West, and a Virginian who started drinking mint juleps at six-thirty in the morning.
Macaulay commissioned Latrobe to resurvey the company’s tract and to cut a lane around the edge of its 40,000 acres, clearly marking a boundary. He was also to select the courses of canals leading to the sawmills. At dawn on Friday, June 9, Macaulay, Latrobe, and Thomas Swepson left Suffolk. After breakfast at Dismal Plantation, they went into the swamp, accompanied by two black men. The group walked along the narrow canal or ditch leading to Lake Drummond until the water in it became deep enough for canoes. “Millions of Muskitoes surrounded us,” Latrobe said. Trees, both “immensely large” and “younger and smaller” enveloped them—gums, maples, elms, bald cypress, and white cedar—and, as they advanced, stands of bamboo grew taller and thicker. Latrobe was impressed by Lake Drummond, its silent immobility ringed by “the most gigantic trees in the world.” He said of the lake: “It absorbs or expells every other idea, and creates a quiet solemn pleasure, that I never felt from any similar circumstance.” On their way back to Dismal Plantation, the five men were drenched by a thunderstorm.
Over the weekend and in the following week Latrobe and Macaulay visited the mills. Latrobe met Thomas Shepherd and identified repairs the mills needed. He stayed in Suffolk for two weeks, then went to Norfolk to order tools and supplies. Joining him, Macaulay brought a letter from Governor James Wood. Latrobe had submitted designs for a new state penitentiary. Governor Wood wrote that these had been accepted; Latrobe must return to Richmond at once. Macaulay released him from his engagement with the Dismal Swamp Company. Latrobe later returned $200 he had received from the company, and he refunded the cost of his expenses in Norfolk and in traveling to Richmond, another $100. As the summer’s work on the penitentiary advanced, he encountered criticism from the superintendent of construction and received little cash from the state. He lived in a “Doghole,” paying high rent. Looking back on his lost opportunity to work for the Dismal Swamp Company, he said: “I had a choice of difficulties, & I fear I chose wrongly.”
Two months after Latrobe left the swamp for Norfolk, Thomas Shepherd sent Alexander Macaulay an estimate of the cost of rebuilding his sawmill. Macaulay had other things on his mind. He owed a great deal of money, almost $13,400 of it to the Dismal Swamp Company, and his creditors’ suits moved through the courts. Knowing that his assets would not suffice, he tried to protect some of his creditors by executing a deed of trust on November 15, 1797. Those named in the deed were to have first rights to the proceeds of his land, his shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company, his livestock, vessels, household goods, and slaves, all held by trustees. Among the preferred creditors were his brother-in-law, Francis Jerdone, and John Jameson, who understood, without anything in writing, that £5,000 Virginia currency owed to him included Macaulay’s debt to the Dismal Swamp Company.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, passing the winter of early 1798 in his ugly, expensive rooms, worrying about money, tried to cheer himself by writing a play, a comedy. He had drawn designs for a new theater which the impresario Thomas West hoped to build in Richmond. In the old theater, West’s company performed Latrobe’s comedy on January 20, 1798, as a benefit for one of West’s actresses, Mrs. J. J. Green. An Apology was a satire on Alexander Hamilton and his newspaper ally “Peter Porcupine”—that is, William Cobbett, represented by the character Skunk. Latrobe’s title alluded to Hamilton’s recent admission that he had had sexual relations with Maria Reynolds, a married woman whose husband tried to blackmail him while he served as secretary of the treasury. Apologizing for adultery, Hamilton denied that he was guilty of malfeasance or speculation. Latrobe intended his comedy for the friends of “liberty and morality.” His audience showed charity, but the performance was a fiasco. The actors had not learned their lines, and the evening’s biggest laugh came when five actors stood on stage, none knowing what to say next, whereupon all walked off. Latrobe said: “You may guess at my feelings.” Three days later, after a bad performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the theater burned down.
Thomas Shepherd felt the lack of Latrobe’s services in protecting the Dismal Swamp Company’s boundary. Some residents of Nansemond and Norfolk counties grew bolder in stealing timber from the company’s tract in 1798. Among them were men who had claimed land in the swamp, then lost it to the company in the new survey for the grant of 1784. They said the title was not good, offering as proof the company’s failure to stop them from taking trees. They “bid defiance” to the Dismal Swamp Company and to Shepherd, passing “boldly over the line, a running main bridges to & fro as they think proper” and “cutting and a Slaying the Timber in a most horrid manner.” Shepherd knew who they were: William and John Bartee, the Butt brothers, Willis Wilkins, and others. He reported to the company’s managers: “I prepared to drive them off, but my friends advised me to desist, otherwise I would certainly be killd, as they so frequently threaten my life.” There was money in shingles and lumber. Although wartime seizures of vessels on the high seas interrupted trade with the West Indies, construction of new buildings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Federal City kept up demand. Shingles sold for $10 per thousand. Shepherd wrote: “Every persons, Owners of the lower Swamps is Opposed to the Dismal Swamp Company I believe they hate me upon the Earth.”
Writing to an English friend in May 1798, Alexander Macaulay said that he long had been ill. He could neither defend himself against his creditors’ lawsuits nor pay judgments issued against him. In the summer a writ of execution hung over his property, threatening him with a general auction. His trustees hoped to save his plantation and slaves. Before the sheriff came to carry out the court’s order, Macaulay died.
After the estate auction, Elizabeth Jerdone Macaulay felt bitter. She had not received protection and consideration of the kind extended to Joanna Tucker under similar circumstances thirty years earlier. She wished to keep the plantation, livestock, furniture, and tools, as well as slaves “for the crop that is now growing.” To raise money to “get this burthen of Debt Settled,” she hoped to sell some of her late husband’s land, including his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company and his lots in Hanover-Town, the late Mann Page’s city that refused to grow. But that property did not attract bidders, while property she expected to save with a token bid attracted competitors. “Negroe buyers” with rolls of cash “bid on every Negroe.” She bought nineteen and lost four. Neighbors in Gloucester and York counties, “who had profest the greatest friendship for poor Mr. Macaulay,” bid against her for furniture, livestock, and slaves, “expecting I should be discouraged & give over.” At a cost of almost £1,300 she kept the plantation intact. The only concession to her was a low price for the house and lots in York Town, “which was sold rather in a private manner.”
Just before Christmas, William Nelson, Jr., John Jameson, and John Brown held another meeting of the Dismal Swamp Company. They resolved to put its accounts in order and to sort out Macaulay’s land transactions. They believed that the company ought to buy Macaulay’s two quarter-shares if Thomas Swepson said that “the funds in hand will justify it.” Elizabeth Jerdone Macaulay thought she had made a sale. Eight months later, however, she had received no money. Through a friend, she asked to be paid. The company’s managers were still considering the purchase ten years later.
Swepson advised the managers to combine Jericho Mills west of the company’s tract with a purchase of 600 acres adjoining the tract’s western boundary—Lemuel Riddick’s Paradise Plantation, for sale at a price of $3,000. They could take oak and “excellent pine” from Paradise Plantation, then cut a canal through it, connecting Jericho Mills to thick stands of white cedar in the swamp’s interior, drawing water from Lake Drummond to float logs to the mill. Swepson tempted them with images of tree trunks 6 feet in diameter rising as much as 70 feet above the ground before putting out their lowest branches. The managers followed his advice in 1799.
On the eastern edge of the company’s land, trespassers worked faster. Thomas Shepherd guessed that each month they were cutting 100,000 shingles, which they sold to George Capron, contractor for the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, the same man diverting water away from Shepherd’s mill pond. As a further insult, Capron built “a very Elegant Saw Mill” along Deep Creek at the canal’s northern end. Trespassers also were “selling the Timber to people by the thousand which makes prodigious destruction.” The company’s hired slaves, working the western reaches of the swamp, cut shingles, but in the spring much was lost in a fire set by “incendiaries.” Nevertheless, Thomas Swepson invested in the company’s future. After Chancellor Wythe decided in David Meade’s favor in his suit against the estate of Justice James Wilson, Meade’s two quarter-shares were each sold for £1,000 Virginia currency, one to Swepson and one to Richard Willing Byrd, brother of Charles Willing Byrd. They paid the same price George Washington had charged Henry Lee.
In the last year of his presidency, a letter from Liverpool reached George Washington. It came from Edward Rushton, a poet and tavern-keeper. Rushton had served as mate in a slave ship years earlier, an experience that turned him against slavery and cost him his sight in an outbreak of ophthalmia. He had opposed Britain’s war against American independence. In his letter, which was written for publication, he praised Washington both for his services in the Revolution and for his voluntary retirement from power; but he then went on to reproach the president for continuing to own slaves. Having “conquered under the banners of freedom” and having served as “the first magistrate of a free people,” he ought to serve liberty. “Your friend Jefferson” Rushton wrote, “has endeavoured to show that the negroes are an inferior order of being, but surely you will not have recourse to such a subterfuge. Your slaves, it may be urged, are well treated—That I deny—man never can be well treated who is deprived of his rights.”
Rushton could hardly have contrived a series of remarks better suited to irritate Washington. People said that he disliked slavery and wished it to end. “If your feelings be actually repugnant to slavery,” Rushton argued, “then are you more culpable than the callous-hearted planter, who laughs at what he calls the pityful whining of the abolitionists, because he believes slavery to be justifiable; while you persevere in a system which your conscience tells you to be wrong.” Having thus impeached Washington’s integrity, Rushton then attributed this lapse to a base motive. “Now, Sir, are you sure that the unwillingness which you have shewn to liberate your negroes, does not proceed from some lurking pecuniary considerations? If this be the case, and there are those who firmly believe it is, then there is no flesh left in your heart; and present reputation, future fame, and all that is estimable among the virtuous, are, for a few thousand pieces of paltry yellow dirt, irremediably renounced.” Publishing his letter in Liverpool just before Washington left the presidency, Rushton added a note, telling his readers that “a few weeks ago it was returned under cover, without a syllable in reply.”
George and Martha Washington owned 316 slaves in 1799, dispersed among five Mount Vernon farms. This was twice as many as the farms needed, he said. “To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion. What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined.” In the four years since he had advertised his lands for sale, Washington had received from purchasers a total of $50,000. That sum, he said, “has scarcely been able to keep me afloat.” He must consider establishing more plantations on his land elsewhere to make his slaves productive. He said of his retirement: “A mind that has been constantly on the stretch since the year 1753, with but short intervals, and little relaxation, requires rest, and composure.” At Mount Vernon these still eluded him.
Washington wrote a new will in July 1799. It opened with the customary injunction to pay his debts, “of which there are but few, and none of magnitude.” Then came the major bequest to his wife of a life interest in all his estate. After these, his first concern was the future of his slaves. The terms of the dower right by which Martha Washington inherited her first husband’s slaves and their descendants prevented George Washington from freeing them lawfully. He said that he “earnestly wished” to free all slaves he owned. He thought that doing so would “excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences” among the people inherited by his wife, owing to “intermixture by Marriages” among the two groups. His will directed that his slaves, 124 of the 316, be freed upon Martha Washington’s death, with provision for support of the old and infirm and with tenancy or apprenticeship for the others. He added: “I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever.”
The will ordered the sale of his property other than Mount Vernon, dividing proceeds among members of his and his wife’s families. He added to the will a “Schedule of property … with discriptive, and explanatory notes.” Again and again his notes read “valuable,” “extremely valuable,” “no richer or more valuable land in all that Region.” For tracts sold by the estate within three years of his death, his estimates proved reasonable, even conservative. Not all of his property found buyers, however, and his executors heeded the will’s advice “not to be precipitate” in selling at a lower price. Washington defended his longtime confidence in the Dismal Swamp. He said of the land east of Suffolk bought jointly with Fielding Lewis and Dr. Thomas Walker: “comprehends part of the rich Dismal Swamp; is capable of great improvement; and from its situation must become extremely valuable.” He set its worth at $8 per acre. Long afterward, Bushrod Washington noted: “5$ is the best offer the Executors have had for this land.”
After contracting a severe inflammation of the throat and submitting to unhelpful medical treatment, George Washington died on December 14, 1799. Fourteen years later, Walter Jones, a Virginian appointed United States attorney for the District of Columbia by President Thomas Jefferson, wrote an essay on a “perilous” topic: George Washington. Jones saw flaws in both political parties. Federalist polemical writers were worse than Republicans, he thought, in “gross, brutal, and unsparing … calumny & detraction.” He wished to rescue Washington from their embrace. In his essay, sent to Thomas Jefferson for comment, Jones tried “taking Genl Washington on my shoulders, to bear him harmless through the federal Coalition.” Jefferson praised his endeavor and described Washington’s bearing and demeanor, the workings of his mind, his integrity. “He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.” If pressed to name the strongest feature in Washington’s character, Jefferson would choose, he wrote, “prudence, never acting until every consideration was maturely weighed.” And, in promoting development in America, Washington was, Jefferson recalled, “liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility; but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects.”
In the last year of the Revolutionary War, the General Assembly of Virginia made private emancipation of slaves easier. About 15,000 black people eventually were freed under the new law. But emancipation on the scale undertaken by George Washington remained rare. In 1790, Virginia held about 306,000 black people, of whom almost 13,000 were free. Five years later, in connection with his lectures on law and policy at the College of William and Mary, St. George Tucker began to think about general emancipation in Virginia. He said that he would “endeavour to do justice to the rights of human nature, and to banish deep-rooted, nay, almost innate, prejudices.” But he acknowledged that this was “a task, perhaps, beyond the power of human nature to accomplish.” He suspected that continuation of slavery was “now perhaps unavoidable.” Nevertheless, he offered the General Assembly his proposal.
Tucker published it in Philadelphia in the fall of 1796. It opened eloquently: “Whilst America hath been the land of promise to Europeans, and their descendants, it hath been the vale of death to millions of the wretched sons of Africa.” His system was complex, and his approach cautious. Slaves would be freed gradually; blacks would still be held to forced labor in their youth; former slaves would not have the same civil rights enjoyed by whites. Slavery would last another one hundred years. Tucker sought to end it, yet avoid the fate of whites in Saint-Domingue. “The calamities which have lately spread like a contagion through the West India Islands afford a solemn warning to us of the dangerous predicament in which we stand.” Oppression invited war of blacks against whites, but so did the idea that blacks could be equal to whites. Tucker hoped to end one danger without running into the other.
He sent a copy of his proposal to the House of Delegates and a copy to the Senate. From the Senate he received bland congratulations. In the House he met sharp criticism, though he doubted that anyone had read the document before denouncing it. Some delegates wished to send his pamphlet back to him; the House voted to table it. Tucker said he did not have “the smallest hope of advancing a cause so dear to me as the abolition of slavery. Actual suffering will one day, perhaps, open the oppressors’ eyes. Till that happens, they will shut their ears against argument.”
The General Assembly heard from some constituents on the subject of emancipation. A petition from 214 citizens of Mecklenburg County said that a right to own slaves was part of the liberty won in the Revolution and secured by the new American government. An attack on that right was an attack on America: “a very subtle & daring Attempt is on Foot to dispossess us of a very important Part of our Property. An Attempt made by the Enemies of our Country, Tools of the British Administration, and supported by certain Men among us of considerable Weight, to effect our Destruction by Subtlety & Craft.” The text cited scriptural authority in defense of slavery and argued that emancipation would bring poverty and ruin to whites, famine and death to infants and the aged among blacks. It would lead to “the Horrors of all the Rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which a vast Multitude of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive, and remorseless Banditti are capable of perpetrating.” The petitioners also disapproved of the new law facilitating private emancipation and asked that it be repealed. They said: “many of the Slaves liberated by the said Act, have been guilty of Thefts, & Outrages, Insolence & Violences.”
Thomas Swepson’s father Richard Swepson signed the petition. Familiar names appeared among the signers—the same men who had irritated Robert Munford twenty years earlier by demanding harsher punishment of Scottish storekeepers—names such as Reuben Vaughan, Philip Poindexter, Sr., Philip Poindexter, Jr., and Joseph Royster. The petition originally held 215 signatures, but the name of John McCann was scratched out. Next to it, Samuel Dedman wrote: “McCann is condemned a Tory and his name ought to be Erased.” A friend of Britain could not be allowed to join this exposure of a British plot to destroy American liberty by freeing Virginians’ slaves.
Whites learned at the end of the summer of 1800 that hundreds of slaves, especially in and near Richmond and Petersburg, had plotted an uprising. Thomas Prosser’s slave Gabriel, with help from others, recruited followers for months. He envisioned a military campaign, beginning with seizure of arms in Richmond. His brother afterward described Gabriel’s intent: “we might conquer the white people and possess ourselves of their property.” On the night chosen for rendezvous and an attack on Richmond by 1,100 men—Saturday, August 30, 1800—a severe thunderstorm dispersed or disoriented the insurrectionists. Whites discovered the plan; militiamen mobilized. Trials, thirty-five executions, and other punishments followed through September, October, and November. A letter from Richmond late in September said: “The conspiracy of the Negroes occupies all our thoughts.” Two years later, another alarm led to more executions in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, though evidence of an intent to burn Norfolk was thin. Writing from Williamsburg early in 1802, Chapman Johnson asked: “Is it not miserable, is it not shameful, is it not unworthy the character of Virginians, or of men, thus to live the unsafe trembling tyrants of an unhappy people?”
Republicans held a majority of seats in the House of Delegates in November 1799. They elected one of their own as speaker and removed the previous clerk from office “for his federal politics.” On the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson, they replaced him with young William Wirt. He later wrote of those days: “You know how high parties then were—& how they hated each other.” The contests were bitter during the administration of President John Adams. Federalists’ hostility to France, leading to augmentation of America’s army and navy, convinced many Republicans that the administration, as a tool of Britain, wished to go to war with France. Federalists’ laws and arrests directed against agents of sedition, as they called it, showed Republicans that the administration threatened to destroy liberty and self-government. After Bushrod Washington demonstrated his “zeal against the subverters of all Government,” President Adams appointed him to the Supreme Court. John Page called Federalists “the Anglo-monarchico-aristocratic Faction,” supported by “british Merchants, old Tories, Speculators, & place-hunters.” William Wirt knew that, by winning the clerkship, he had made enemies of the Federalists and their leader, John Marshall. This did not prevent his election to the Buchanan Spring Barbecue Club, whose members, Richmond’s leading men, gathered on summer Saturdays to eat and drink well. The rules forbade talk of politics.
John Page, After Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library. Page while he was governor of Virginia and his friend, Thomas Jefferson, was president of the United States.
William Nelson, Jr., did not agitate himself about the course of politics, as his friend John Page did. He rode circuit in eastern Virginia, then spent time with his daughters at Westover. Under the guidance of their grandmother, Mary Willing Byrd, and their unmarried aunt, Anne Byrd, Nelson’s four youngest daughters, as well as their half sister, were growing into “a groupe of sweet interesting girls.” Nelson’s preference for the company of women and books at Westover—his love of pondering and joking, rather than “boldness and promptitude”—confirmed in some minds his reputation for “slowness, or want of power.” William Wirt said that if Nelson’s mind had been “less comprehensive & fertile” and his “heart less delicate and scrupulous,” he “would have made a much more distinguished figure in the public estimation than he did.” After a stay in Virginia a French officer wrote: “The Americans are phlegmatic, extremely serious, always engaged in their business, and that of the state. They are with their wives only to take tea or some other drink.”
John Wickham, A. Rosenthal, after Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library
In December 1802 the General Assembly elected John Page governor. He dedicated himself to “the Republican Cause, & the constitutional Independence of the State-Governments.” Grateful to receive a salary, he paid his outstanding bills at stores and cleared up some of his old debts. The Pages lived more comfortably in the governor’s house in Richmond than in the mansion at Rosewell.
As Page took office, William Wirt left the clerkship of the House of Delegates to become a judge of the High Court of Chancery for eastern Virginia, sitting in Williamsburg. Contrary to his expectations when he accepted the post, Wirt moved to Williamsburg a married man. A widower, he had earlier declared his love to Elizabeth Washington Gamble, eighteen-year-old daughter of Catharine Gamble and Robert Gamble, a leading merchant in Richmond. Elizabeth returned his love, but, William said, “for certain reasons of state, I was discarded.” In his early days in Virginia, Wirt had acquired a reputation as “a hearty good fellow” around town; but he had reformed, and in the summer of 1802 his courtship prevailed. Elizabeth and William were married on Tuesday evening, September 7.
Arriving in Williamsburg, the Wirts entered a hospitable society. Residents fond of parties held frequent balls, striking visitors as “gay and extravagant.” The town nevertheless slowly decayed. The value of property did not rise. St. George Tucker, wishing to speak well of the place, said: “Williamsburg has seen its worst days.” Bishop James Madison rescued the statue of Lord Botetourt from its indignities. He and the professors in the college bought it from the state for $100. Removing it from the ruins of the old capitol, they set it in front of the college building. An iron plug reattached Botetourt’s head, and his lost marble nose was “scientifically renewed.” The encomiums carved into the faces of the pedestal were reunited with their subject. The suave form of the dead courtier looked down Duke of Gloucester Street, cutting “a very handsome figure indeed.” This was Williamsburg’s idea of exciting news. The town’s presiding deity seemed to be the “Goddess of Dullness.” Even so, a Virginian who reluctantly followed her husband to the Mississippi Valley wrote home: “Williams[bur]g is Paris compared with Baton Rouge.”
St. George Tucker, A. Rosenthal, after Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint Mémin. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library. Professor of law, judge, and counsellor.
William Wirt decided to resign his judgeship and return to practicing law. He thought first of moving to Kentucky. His pregnant wife wept at “the idea of such a distant, and most probably final, separation from her parents and family.” He soon learned that money did not flow in Kentucky, as he had supposed. A shortage of coin led to clients’ paying their legal fees with livestock. An able young attorney, Littleton Waller Tazewell, having learned law under John Wickham, invited Wirt to share his new practice and attain wealth “through the progressive prosperity of Norfolk.” Wirt wrote to Governor Page, resigning from the Court of Chancery in the last week of April 1803. The Wirts left Williamsburg that summer.
Edmund Pendleton died in October 1803, at the age of eighty-two. His seat on Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals went to St. George Tucker in January 1804. Though Tucker continued to teach law, he resigned his professorship at the College of William and Mary. His successor was William Nelson, Jr. Working at Westover in the late summer heat, Nelson put together 115 pages of lectures “on Law and right of Nature, of Nations and in government in general.” Acting as agent of the Dismal Swamp Company, he at last reached an agreement with trespassers taking timber from the swamp. The Butts and the Bartees conceded “that many trespasses and encroachments may unintentionally heretofore have been committed.” They promised to respect a newly surveyed boundary. The company released them “from all suits, actions and damages” connected with their past conduct. Nelson began lecturing on Tuesday, November 20, 1804. Seventeen days later, John Page was re-elected governor for a third and final year.
William Wirt’s ten breezy essays, thinly disguised as letters from a British spy, began to appear in The Argus just after his wife gave birth to their daughter, Laura Henrietta, namesake of Petrarch’s ideal and William Wirt’s mother. The Norfolk Herald started reprinting them a few weeks after the Wirts arrived in the city. The pieces attracted more attention than their author had expected. The spy commented on a range of subjects: William Byrd and rich Virginians’ “aristocratic” pretensions, geology, oratory, unjust treatment of Indians, and the virtues of The Spectator. The passage provoking most reaction sketched well-known Virginians, unnamed but easily recognizable: James Monroe, John Marshall, John Wickham, and Edmund Randolph. Though free from malice, these portraits did not flatter. Wirt heard that Mary Ambler Marshall “was exceedingly angry” about his description of her husband. Once one knew, as readers soon did, that the letters came from the pen of an ambitious young attorney, it was easy to guess why he chose these four. Wirt had studied most closely men who had risen to wealth (Wickham), to the nation’s highest judicial office (Marshall), or to high political office (Monroe and Randolph), beginning as attorneys. Wirt sought to detect their gifts and frailties. Exposing these with an air of condescension, he seemed to be making light of his subjects’ eminence, which he privately envied. As his work in book form went into a third edition within two years, he contemplated writing a series of “lives of our Virginian revolutionary characters of eminence.” If this succeeded, he said, “it will pay a just tribute of honor to the dead, will perpetuate their memory, stimulate the rising generation and present them with the best models by which to form their own characters, besides offering to myself a decent harvest of reputation and—cash!”
John Wickham did not hold a grudge against Wirt. The Letters of the British Spy was a slight irritant to one enjoying Wickham’s success. His practice embraced “every variety of cases”; for his legal opinion he charged a fee of $100. His offices held “a most extensive and judiciously selected library.” His house became the most hospitable in Richmond: “All the world was at Mr. Wickham’s last night—and we had a profusion of rarities & dainties.” Upriver from Richmond, in Goochland County, he bought part of the plantation Tuckahoe, 2,100 acres overlooking the James River. There his slaves grew wheat, corn, and oats, while he kept the best thoroughbred horses in the county. A British visitor said that Wickham’s “manners and mode of life would do honour to the most cultivated societies.”
Wickham wrote periodically to Samuel Gist, reporting on his progress in extracting payment of old debts. In May 1803, Wickham filed a bill against the attorney general of Virginia and the state auditor in the High Court of Chancery. He demanded that the state repay to Gist profits sequestered from his Virginia plantations during the Revolutionary War and paid into the state treasury by William Anderson. Wickham’s careful search of public records yielded evidence convincing Chancellor George Wythe to rule in Gist’s favor. Wickham collected more than $7,500 in principal and interest. This money, less Wickham’s $750 commission, soon lay in Gist’s hands.
For eight years, beginning in May 1803, Samuel Gist enjoyed a new hobby: pursuing another claim for compensation. In the first year of Jefferson’s administration, the British and American governments concluded an agreement to settle the question of prewar debts. The United States paid Great Britain £600,000—$3,000,000—in installments to discharge all remaining private debts owed by Americans before 1776. To disburse this money among creditors, the British government appointed three commissioners: Thomas Macdonald, Henry Pye Rich, and John Guillemard. At their offices in Great Marlborough Street they accumulated rooms full of documents—claims, with reams of evidence, seeking, in all, eight times as much money as the American government paid. Gist filed a memorial asking for £45,896 8s. This, he wrote, was the total of his debts lost as a consequence of the American War, with accrued interest.
The commissioners worked with “assiduity and intelligence.” If they were not cynical when they began, they soon became so. They rejected almost 80 percent of the claims. Among the papers lying before them were reports from special agents in America, men hired to investigate claims submitted by American loyalists seeking compensation for losses. In Virginia, William Waller Hening tried to verify debts in Samuel Gist’s schedule of losses. Hening found many “Suspicious Circumstances.” Some debts had been paid before the war; some debtors had died before the war. For other debts, Gist had won court judgments before leaving Virginia, but debtors had absconded or turned up insolvent. These were ordinary bad debts in business in peacetime, not losses inflicted upon Gist by reason of his loyalty to the Crown. Hening reported on Gist’s claims: “some of his lists appear to be the mere sweepings of his compting room.”
Gist turned eighty at the start of 1805. He enjoyed “very good health,” his faculties “perfectly sound & as good as ever they were.” To handle his business in the City he employed Leighton Wood, Jr., who had come to London from Virginia after working for William Anderson & Company. Gist set up Wood in offices at Number 12, Copthall Court, off Throgmorton Street, formerly the home and offices of Anthony Bacon. With safe, productive investments in land, Bank of England stock, East India Company stock, and government funds, Gist had ample leisure to pester Thomas Macdonald, Henry Pye Rich, and John Guillemard. He sent them a deposition by Leighton Wood, Jr., attesting to the solvency of his debtors in Virginia. He reminded the commissioners: “time with me is precious.” But they refused to be rushed. Their deliberations went on for years. Gist wrote to them in the last week of April 1808: “I hope my time is come.”
On Monday, May 9, Gist was called to Great Marlborough Street to testify under oath about his claim. The commissioners told him that ledgers he had submitted as evidence did not support his list of losses. The disparity was so obvious that they asked: “Have you examined the books which have been produced by you at this office—so as at least to know the general nature of each of them?” Gist replied: “I have—and I do not know that there is any error in them.” Instead of submitting records of daily business, he had given the commissioners some journals and two ledgers, “one of which,” they told him, “appears to have been in many instances recently made up.” Entries in the ledgers did not match those in the journals. Where were the original records? Gist said that he might still have them somewhere, or they might have been destroyed. If he found any, he would submit them.
Then the three commissioners addressed specific entries. Gist’s representatives in Virginia had collected old debts in recent years and had sent money to Gist. Yet his books given to the commission did not deduct these payments from the losses for which he claimed compensation.
Q: How do you account for this?
A: By money paid to Thos Shore as Collector not entered in my books.
Q: Have large sums been recovered and remitted to you by Thos Shore, John Wickham & others in payment partly of the debts claimed on & partly of others?
Q: The Board observe that there is no account in your Le[d]gers produced, for Thos Shore later than June 1782. Have those remittances been subsequent to that period?
Q: How does it happen that no account is to be found in your Le[d]gers of those remittances?
A: The Books have lain by & no entries of such credits or remittances have been made, but accounts have been rendered of the payments made to them.
To close their questioning, the commissioners asked why fifty folios had been inserted into Ledger Number 1. Gist said that the volume had been filled with entries and needed more folios. The commissioners noted that entries in the fifty new folios did not correspond to the ledger’s original index.
Q: How do you account for this?
A: By supposing it a mistake in the Index.
The commissioners had no more questions.
Samuel Gist went home to Gower Street unhappy. He was not accustomed to this sort of treatment. He protested to the commissioners several times in the weeks after his testimony. He said that he felt “Hurt at your repeated observations at the defective state of the Accounts.” He assured them: “I would not for all the Money in England lay a single Accot. before you that I knew there was an error in.” He reminded them that he was no ordinary memorialist trying to wheedle the commission into doing him a kindness. “I trust my reputation stands as high as any Merchant’s in London exceptg. none.” He sent them some letters from Thomas Shore, just found, he said, among his papers. He promised to render a full account of any further remittances from Virginia. In July, Gist wrote: “I should hate myself if I did not act by the nicest principles of Justice, Honesty & Honor in all my transactions.” Two days later he returned to the offices in Great Marlborough Street. He waited for ninety minutes but did not see the commissioners. They had found another remittance of more than £300 which he had received without deducting it from his claim. He attributed his lapse to “the almost total decay of my memory.”
In the following year, after receiving a report from their agent in Richmond confirming many of their doubts, the commissioners stopped answering Gist’s letters. He demanded an explanation of their delay. He knew that they must soon close their accounts. He hinted, with menace: “it would give me pain to proceed by any ot[her] than friendly measures against you.” In the end the commission awarded Gist £2,415 0s. 10d.
The youngest of Francis Farley’s and William Byrd’s four granddaughters, Mary Byrd Farley, was married in Williamsburg on Thursday evening, April 20, 1797. Her husband, George Tucker, was a twenty-one-year-old kinsman of St. George Tucker’s. He had imitated St. George Tucker by emigrating from Bermuda to study law in Williamsburg. When Mary Farley accepted George Tucker, her health was poor. She suffered from several complaints, the most serious apparently being tuberculosis, the same disease steadily weakening her sister’s husband, Thomas Lee Shippen.
The Shippens visited Williamsburg for ten days at the time of the wedding, after a stay in North Carolina. In that state they had begun a suit in Salisbury District Superior Court: Thomas Shippen et ux v. Devisees of Francis Farley, Deceased. This friendly suit asked the court to order and supervise a division of Francis Farley’s half of the Land of Eden among the four sisters. On November 4, the court ordered a division and appointed surveyors to mark lots. George and Mary Tucker sailed for Bermuda, hoping that a voyage would restore her health. Spending the winter in South Carolina gave Thomas Lee Shippen some comfort but did not arrest his disease. He died on Sunday, February 4, 1798.
Rebecca Parke Corbin was the first sister to get out of the Dismal Swamp Company. She and Richard Corbin, to clear a debt of about £324 currency, transferred their quarter-share to Dr. Corbin Griffin of York Town in June 1798. Richard Corbin sold for more than £1,900 their portion of the Land of Eden, acquired by Henry Lee the next year and transferred to Patrick Henry.
George and Mary Tucker stayed in Bermuda until May 1798, but, back in Virginia, her health declined. As spring arrived in 1799, she knew that she did not have long to live. She and her husband worried that upon her death he would lose all claim to share in Francis Farley’s estate. Hoping to secure her one-fourth for him, they signed a deed of trust conveying it to St. George Tucker. They retained use of the property, and the survivor could revoke the trust and own the property outright. They signed on Wednesday, March 27. Two months later, Mary died at the age of twenty-two.
Early in the new year the mother of the four Farley sisters was married for the third time at the age of forty-five. For twenty-seven years Henry Skipwith had been married to Anne Wayles Skipwith, sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Soon after his wife’s death, Henry Skipwith approached Elizabeth Farley Dunbar; she accepted him, and he joined her in Williamsburg.
From Antigua, Henry Benskin Lightfoot reported a successful crop at Mercers Creek in 1799. He wrote to the heirs, offering to buy the plantation for £20,000 sterling, the equivalent of seven years’ average profits from it. In case the owners thought this a low figure, he reminded them that abolitionists were trying to end the African slave trade, as well as slavery in the British empire.
George Tucker visited Antigua in the summer and fall of 1799. Though he enjoyed planters’ hospitality, he received bad news from an attorney: his Virginia deed of trust did not conform to Antigua law. He had little prospect of prevailing in a court of equity. He could not establish his claim to one-fourth of the Mercers Creek plantation. He wrote: “I have therefore relinquished my pretensions for ever.”
Champe Carter sailed to Antigua in June 1800. On behalf of the three surviving sisters, he sold the Mercers Creek estate to Lightfoot for £20,000, with payments spread over four years. Three months after his return to Virginia, Champe and Maria Carter went to Richmond to prove the deed of conveyance. George Tucker spent much time with them and their sixteen-year-old “fair niece Maria,” suspending his recently begun regimen of “study and sobriety.” Much as he enjoyed the Carters’ company, he kept thinking about the $100,000 from Antigua, to be divided three ways, not four. With encouragement from St. George Tucker, he pursued a claim for one-fourth of the sum. Champe and Maria Carter sold their quarter-share in the Dismal Swamp Company to the company.
George Tucker and Champe Carter’s niece, Maria, soon were married. In Richmond he put up an office building which looked like a Greek temple. He speculated in bank stock and real estate; he contracted gambling debts. In need of money, he sold his quarter-share in the Dismal Swamp Company for £500 currency. Richard Willing Byrd, with help from Thomas Swepson, bought it on behalf of his mother. As the scheme to drain the Dismal Swamp faded, Mary Willing Byrd became a partner.
In Philadelphia, Elizabeth Farley Banister Shippen entered her third marriage. After Thomas Lee Shippen’s death, she had “a numerous band of suitors” following her “through places of fashionable resort.” Other women said that she led the men on, using “flirtations.” She chose a South Carolinian, Captain George Izard, until recently an officer in the United States Army. He was a “fine-looking, portly man, of rather haughty demeanour, but polished manners.” A year had passed since Izard attracted unwanted attention by crossing the Delaware River to Gloucester Point, New Jersey, for a duel with a Frenchman whose family had fled Saint-Domingue. His opponent was the brother of a woman of “considerable attraction,” with whom Izard had reached “a perfect understanding” in Charleston two years before. The couple inadvertently had revealed their “mutual attachment” by committing what Izard called “an act of unpardonable imprudence.” Though neither wished to be married to the other, Izard let her family rescue her honor by announcing an engagement. Now her brother had come to Philadelphia to save the family honor by forcing Izard to choose between marriage and a duel. Not wishing to kill his opponent, Izard put a light charge of powder in his pistols. In the exchange of fire the Frenchman suffered only a contusion on his leg, while Izard took a ball in the chest. He barely recovered, but he at last escaped “an embarrassing yoke.”
Later that year he visited Elizabeth Shippen at her country estate. She gave him permission to call again after his winter stay at West Point. He asked for her hand, “which she unaffectedly and kindly promised me for the month of June.” After becoming Elizabeth Izard, she said she had fulfilled the prophecy of a black woman who had told her fortune, predicting “that in the course of her life she should have eighteen feet of husband.” The combined heights of John Banister, Jr., Thomas Lee Shippen, and George Izard totaled 18 feet 2 inches. Izard adjusted easily to the “elegance, neatness and abundance” of the country house at Farley.
Division of the Land of Eden was complete in 1803. In fall term the Salisbury District Superior Court, at her attorney’s request, dismissed the suit begun by Elizabeth Izard four years earlier. The survey completed under the court’s order also brought nearer to an end a suit begun in March 1802 on behalf of Patrick Henry’s sons, Alexander Spotswood Henry and Nathaniel West Henry. At his death in June 1799, Henry in his will allotted to each boy one of the two portions of the Land of Eden he had received from Henry Lee. Lee made a claim against the estate; Patrick Henry’s widow wrote: “I think it unjust and I do not intend to pay one shilling unless he can recover it by law.” Through her attorney, she asked the court to assign to the Farley and Henry claimants an appropriate share. The court’s decree on April 10, 1804, divided the land among John Simon Farley, Elizabeth Morson, Elizabeth Izard, George Tucker, and the Henry boys, one-fourth each to Farley and Morson, one-eighth each to the others.
Dorothea Henry, second wife of Patrick Henry, outlived him by more than thirty years. Against his dying wish, she afterward took another husband: Patrick Henry’s cousin, Judge Edmund Winston. In later years Henry’s son-in-law, Spencer Roane, called on Dorothea Henry Winston to talk about the dead patriot. Roane said that Henry had hurt himself in the eyes of Republicans by his collaboration with Federalists in his last years. Roane blamed this apostasy on the wiles of Henry Lee. Dorothea Henry Winston did not disagree, but, remembering the Land of Eden, she “concluded, with a laugh, that Henry Lee had been a great friend to their family, for that Mr. Henry had got two fine tracts of land from him!” She did not mention that, in the process, her late husband had left Lee holding a broad stretch of reeds in the Green Sea in the Dismal Swamp.
Shortly before she took her third husband, Elizabeth Izard received helpful advice from some North Carolinians. They told her that North Carolina law, like Antigua law, recognized a deed of trust such as George and Mary Tucker’s only if the governor had witnessed its signing. She wrote to Judge Edmund Winston, who acted for the Henry boys. If Winston and the Izards cooperated to invalidate George Tucker’s claim, they could, under the terms of Francis Farley’s will, divide Farley’s half of the Land of Eden three ways, rather than four. Judge Winston approved. The Izards and Tucker began litigation in North Carolina and Virginia, some of which lasted the rest of the Izards’ lives.
The greatest burden on all three sisters and their husbands, on their mother and Henry Skipwith, and on George Tucker was a suit in United States Circuit Court in Richmond, begun in 1802 by Dinwiddie, Crawford & Company to recover James Parke Farley’s unpaid debts contracted in the 1770s. In May 1805, John Marshall and his colleagues of the Circuit Court issued a decree in the case Dinwiddie, Crawford & Co. v. Henry Skipwith, Elizabeth Hill Skipwith et al. Working from a commissioner’s report, the court allotted to each husband of James Parke Farley’s daughters a share of the debt owed by Farley’s estate. Since George and Mary Tucker had received less income from Francis Farley’s bequest, Tucker owed half as much as the others—slightly less than $2,000. Izard, Carter, and Corbin were each assessed about $4,000. The commissioner had calculated Elizabeth Skipwith’s income from Francis Farley’s estate and her expenditures on her daughters’ behalf while they lived with her. He found that the daughters and their husbands were entitled to recover almost $1,000 from the Skipwiths.
Elizabeth and George Izard were the last of the Farley heirs to leave the Dismal Swamp Company. They sold out soon after the court issued a slightly revised decree in the fall of 1805. They thought the commissioner’s apportionment of James Parke Farley’s debts inequitable because it overstated the amount Elizabeth Izard had received from Francis Farley’s estate. As an example, George Izard showed that the commissioner had assigned a value of £500 currency to one quarter-share in the Dismal Swamp Company and had computed the value of this asset as if Elizabeth Izard had received a yearly dividend of 6 percent on £500 since February 1788. By this calculation, one quarter-share appeared in a list of her income from her grandfather’s estate as £1,070. But in selling the quarter-share to Richard Willing Byrd, Izard received £450. Of course, there had been no dividends. Thus the Izards lost £620 by being ordered to make a proportionately larger payment to Dinwiddie, Crawford & Company. They did not intend to take these losses quietly. George Izard, Champe Carter, and Richard Corbin turned to John Wickham. Izard wrote: “The Question will now be, to whom must I apply for Reimbursement?”
Francis Walker attended his last meeting of the Dismal Swamp Company in Richmond on Friday, January 9, 1801. He was then in the capital to represent Albemarle County in the House of Delegates. The year before, he had voted for a restatement of the Virginia Resolution, expressing the state’s repudiation of federal laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. His subsequent re-election pleased James Madison, who assured Thomas Jefferson that such victories showed that “the patrons of usurpation and aristocracy will have little encouragement in this quarter.” Walker needed money. In the fall of 1800 he thought that John Brown, acting for the Dismal Swamp Company, had agreed to buy his two quarter-shares for £900. Brown called this “A mistake in mr Walker.” So Francis Walker participated in the January meeting and in the election of a new board of managers: William Nelson, Jr., John Jameson, the Reverend John Bracken, Dr. Corbin Griffin, and George Tucker. The only original partner of the company still active was Samuel Gist.
Francis Walker waited until he turned thirty-four to get married. His wife, Jane Byrd Nelson, was more than ten years younger. One of her uncles was William Nelson, Jr.; her paternal grandfather was President William Nelson; and one of her maternal great-grandfathers was the elder William Byrd. She and Francis Walker had two daughters and a son. A woman of “extensive reading and reflection,” she drew up a plan of education for her daughters.
Francis Walker disposed of his quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company separately. He sold one to the Reverend John Bracken, owner of the two quarter-shares Dr. Thomas Walker had given to Joseph Hornsby. The other went to the Reverend James Henderson, a new convert to the Dismal Swamp Company. He also bought the one-third portion of Anthony Bacon’s share owned by Bacon’s former partner, Gilbert Francklyn. Earlier problems in developing the swamp arose from a simple cause, Henderson said: “the affairs of the Company had been managed very loosely.”
More than a mile of swamp still lay between the converging ends of the trenches of the Dismal Swamp canal in November 1804. The canal company completed a road through the swamp passable by foot and horseback, soon to be wide enough for carriages. The Virginia sector of the canal attracted some commerce, but the company made more money from its sawmill, gristmill, and shingles than from tolls. Its largest private shareholder, the Dismal Swamp Company, awaited growing revenue impatiently. Francis Walker could not wait.
Marriage, fatherhood, outward marks of comfort at Castle Hill notwithstanding, Francis Walker remained “a victim to the bottle.” In March 1806 he escorted his wife and children to York Town, leaving them for a visit among their Nelson kin. He headed back to Castle Hill in his carriage with a driver and a household servant. Sometime during their passage through Hanover and Louisa counties, Walker died, apparently of a stroke, so quietly that neither man with him knew until they started to help him leave the carriage at the end of the day. He was not quite forty-two years old. The news brought Jane Nelson Walker to “the point of distraction.”
During Francis Walker’s last journey from York Town, the Dismal Swamp was burning. Summer in 1805 and winter and spring in 1806 brought severe drought to Virginia, leaving the swamp drier than usual. Though fires often had spread through parts of it, “the great fire of 1806” swelled so large and lasted so long that people still talked about it thirty years later. No one knew how it began, but some suspected unsafe methods of clearing the land used by men in a hurry. For weeks shingle-getters and canal diggers saw smoke rising from the interior of the swamp. Flames moved rapidly through thick, dry undergrowth, encircling the tall trees. Winds spread fire first in one direction, then another. In the distance, workers heard huge old trees crashing down in quick succession. Thick clouds of smoke enveloped Norfolk and a rain of black cinders fell on the city. As the fire neared their camps, lumbermen saw bears and other animals fleeing through the woods, some with burns from passing through flames. The fire overtook buildings and bridges, dropped large, half-burned obstructions across the canal, and destroyed more than 2,000,000 shingles ready for market. In the first week of May, after the fire had burned for two months, the printer of the Norfolk Gazette and Publick Ledger wrote: “Without rain, there is no hope of its stopping, short of the entire destruction of all the timber in this great tract of country.” A week later, rain began to fall, continuing for several days. At the start of winter in mid-December a blizzard swept over the tidewater, leaving the swamp’s blackened trees, charred fallen trunks, tangled branches, and ashen remains of undergrowth covered in white. Beyond Lake Drummond and the bounds of the spring fire, for miles in all directions, the Dismal Swamp lay under snow and frost.
After John Page’s third term as governor ended, he and Margaret Lowther Page and their children left Richmond in the first week of January 1806. They traveled to Rosewell by way of Westover and Williamsburg, where they stayed with St. George Tucker and his family. Mary Willing Byrd and Lelia Tucker enjoyed Margaret Page’s company, but behind her back they pitied her. Mary Willing Byrd said: “I wish her more happiness, than I fear awaits her at Rosewell.” Noticing that Margaret Page was pregnant again, Lelia Tucker thought: “Poor Lady! she is in the way to increase her family, already too large for their means of support.”
John Page let go of more land in Gloucester County during his last year as governor. His estate shrank to 800 acres, most of it uncultivated. With fifteen slaves over the age of twelve, Rosewell could do little more than produce food to support its inhabitants and some surplus commodities. These seldom commanded cash; the plantation cleared, at most, $500 in a year. In his first summer back at Rosewell, Page mused about Virginians and wealth. He told himself that he could have left his family rich if he had refused to pay his debts, perhaps borrowed still more, and died in debtors’ prison after conveying his property to his wife and children. His default would not have harmed them, as he had learned from sixty-three years of living in Virginia: “they would always be respected in proportion to their riches, and … both I and they would have been despised had I left them poor.” He refrained from following this course, he believed, only because he had a strong Christian faith, expressed through the Church of England, later the American Episcopal Church. If he had taken no thought for his soul, he could have told his family “that they ought to enjoy their hearts desire in all things and say ‘let us eat & drink for tomorrow we die.’ ” If he were not a Christian, Page concluded, he would not be a republican. He would prefer “a despotic Prince to preserve a greater degree of Order, & security of life & Property.” Appeals to morality would be merely “a good Countenance to restrain others from injuring me, and mine, & from interfering too much with me when in pursuit of favorite Gratifications.” Only Christian faith had rescued him from such egotistical materialism.
Page recently had heard of a terrible example of the consequences of irreligion. Chancellor George Wythe, still active in court at the age of eighty, was murdered by his sister’s grandson, who lived in Wythe’s home in Richmond. Wishing to hasten the day of coming into his inheritance, George Wythe Sweeney put arsenic in the old man’s coffee. Wythe long had been a deist, Page said; this meant that he had raised young Sweeney without Christian morality. The young man wanted money. Nothing restrained him. He forged checks. He killed his guardian. An irreligious Virginia, Page suggested, risked becoming either a despotism or a commonwealth of Sweeneys.
John Page spent the last two years of his life holding a federal patronage appointment under the Treasury Department as commissioner of loans in Richmond. His duties were light, consisting chiefly of signing his name. He borrowed more money to support his family. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who gave him the position: “Rosewell is all I have left, of Land, & by Sales & Deaths of Negroes, I have not enough to Work it!” He and his wife worried about the future education of their children, requiring money they did not have. Margaret Lowther Page confided to St. George Tucker: “I am very unhappy.” John Page knew. He wrote to Jefferson of “my dear unhappy Wife.”
In the last summer of John Page’s life, Skelton Jones of Richmond, collecting material on the history of Virginia, submitted biographical questions to him. Writing answers took him back to happier times. He recalled the learning and the virtue of his ancestors. His “dear, pure minded and American patriotic” grandfather, Mann Page, creator of the mansion at Rosewell, had “checked the British Merchants from claiming even freight on their goods from England.” His father, Mann Page, had received encouragement to pay court to Sir Gregory Page, a baronet in England, in expectation of becoming his heir. “But he despised titles sixty years ago, as much as you and I do now; and would have nothing to say to the rich silly Knight, who died, leaving his estate and title to a sillier man than himself, his sister’s son, a Mr. Turner, on condition that he would take the name and title of Sir Gregory Page.” Family tradition had garbled the story: Sir Gregory Turner was already a baronet in his own right when he inherited Sir Gregory Page’s landed estates in 1775, becoming Sir Gregory Page-Turner. But John Page had learned from his father’s independent spirit that the Virginia Pages did not sacrifice self-respect for titles and riches.
John Page fondly described his grandmother, Judith Carter Page, who introduced him to the world of books. He remembered “our highly enlightened Governor Fauquier.” From the age of fifteen through the completion of his studies at the college, Page had lived in Williamsburg while Fauquier made the governor’s palace a center of learning, science, and music. Page proudly recalled standing by his “Whiggish principles” in openly challenging the Tory governor, Lord Dunmore, while serving on the college’s board of visitors and on the king’s Council. Page listed public offices he had filled. He said that, if he lived, he would write his memoirs. On Tuesday, October 11, 1808, John Page died. Two months later, Margaret Lowther Page and her children again visited the Tuckers in Williamsburg on their journey from Richmond back to Rosewell.
Within days of her return to the neglected mansion she wrote to St. George Tucker: “To clear the Estate from Debt is my first Object.” She lived for another thirty years, apparently spending most of her time in Williamsburg and Richmond. Following the example of Mary Willing Byrd, she brought order to her late husband’s tangled affairs. After eight and a half years of effort she wrote to Tucker: “I know it will give you pleasure to learn that I am entirely free from Debt, and have no Extravagance to regret in the Past—nor dread anticipation of the privations of the Future.” By that time the big brick mansion at Rosewell was “in bad repair.” Margaret Lowther Page, a New Yorker, and her children were the last Pages to walk as owners across the black-and-white marble floor of the great hall and climb the mahogany staircase to move among more than a dozen rooms paneled in different woods. At her death, the Page heirs sold the Rosewell estate and the decaying mansion—with its leaking roof, broken windows, and rats—for $12,000.
Henry Lee received a letter from Robert Morris late in the summer of 1801, a reply to “two distressing letters” he had written. Lee was still trying to get repayment of at least part of his $40,000 loan. Morris informed him that his letters had arrived while commissioners of bankruptcy and creditors were going through Morris’s papers to make sure they had seized all his assets before releasing him from the Prune Street prison. His “good wishes,” Morris told Lee, “is all that is left in my power. those you have & ever will have.” From that day, if not before, Lee’s own insolvency or imprisonment became certain.
Lawsuits, foreclosures, insistent creditors attacked him on all sides. Though Lee had been too young to contract debts with British merchants before the Revolutionary War, John Wickham took him to court on behalf of the House of Hanbury, seeking payment of the debts of Matilda Lee’s father, Philip Ludwell Lee. In his customary manner Wickham wrote: “You will naturally suppose that no further Indulgence can be granted.” But by 1804, Wickham had to report on Lee to his client: “he & all his sureties had become insolvent.” Lee sold more and more land in Westmoreland County. The Stratford estate was not his to sell, since he had only a widower’s life interest in it. Elsewhere in the county his holdings fell from 2,049 acres to 236. Lee’s western purchases, like Morris’s, had been indiscriminate. Too much property fit the description of his tracts in the mountains above the Shenandoah Valley: “the situation is very unfavorable, in most places too steep for cultivation; whenever you meet with a level spot, there the soil is very fine, but very few of these spots have I met with that are called General Lee’s land.”
Lee had acquired a reputation for deeding the same property to two different people, for conveying to others land he did not own, for promising to convey title yet not sending deeds. An agent for one of his creditors warned in April 1805: “as all titles of land held under Genl. Lee may be supposed as precarious, these that he cannot shew any evidence of title for, must be doubly so.” Sometimes Lee took offense at complaints. After receiving seven letters from William Hodgson pressing him to pay, he replied that he did not like to be addressed as if he were a professed cheat. To which Hodgson rejoined that his letters only stated facts without imputing motives; an unpaid creditor remained unpaid whether or not his debtor intended to cheat him. In July 1805, Nathaniel Pendleton wrote: “I would give $250 to have General Lee arrested in Fairfax.”
Lee evaded sheriffs for several more years, but by early 1809 he could no longer raise enough cash to fend off his creditors. Yet he did not wish to imitate Robert Morris and give up all his property by declaring himself insolvent. He wrote on March 4: “I am miserable [in]deed, as I must prepare for jail.” Just before he surrendered to the sheriff of Westmoreland County, he wrote to Bushrod Washington. He said that he was willing to return George Washington’s four quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company to Washington’s estate without demanding a refund of payments he had made. He had many reasons for regret, but he had it in his power to clear himself of his most embarrassing failure to pay.
Henry Lee entered the Westmoreland County jail on April 24, 1809. During his brief stay there, he and his wife signed a deed conveying all their “right, title and interest” in the Dismal Swamp Company to the estate of George Washington. Lee was transferred to the Spotsylvania County jail on May 13. Jailer Thomas Hicks signed a receipt for “the Body of Henry Lee,” confined at the suit of Nathaniel Pendleton and others. Virginia law did not require that Lee stay locked in a cell. He moved within Spotsylvania County’s equivalent of “prison bounds.” After one year, however, he must pay his debt or give up his property and take an oath of insolvency or go into close confinement. Lee waited eleven months before making his choice.
He devoted his time not to sorting out his confused transactions but to writing his memoirs. He filled long sheets of paper with his sprawling, sometimes barely legible handwriting. He was telling his story of the last years of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas. His main character was twenty-five years old: Light-Horse Harry Lee, commander of Lee’s Legion—a special unit of 100 cavalrymen and 180 infantrymen—repeatedly outwitting the forces of Lord Cornwallis. For good measure he added an account of the last invasions of Virginia, with their climax in the surrender of Cornwallis’s army to George Washington at York Town. George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson, later said of Lee’s behavior in the days of his financial ruin: “The fame and memory of his chief was the fondly-cherished passion to which he clung amid the wreck of his fortunes—the hope, which gave warmth to his heart when all around him seemed cold and desolate.”
As the first anniversary of Lee’s confinement neared, he reluctantly surrendered his property, drawing up a list of his holdings and specifying to which debts they should be applied. His life interest in Stratford Hall he conveyed to his oldest son, Matilda Lee’s heir, the last Lee to own the mansion. Henry Lee took the oath of insolvency; Sheriff Edward Henderson and Jailer Hicks released him on Wednesday, March 20, 1810.
Shareholders in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company received from the management repeated calls for money. Each year its sometime president, Thomas Newton, Jr., said that the northern and southern trenches were about to meet at a proper width. But hiring and feeding slave laborers was expensive. Work often stopped as the company ran out of money. The canal made little headway in the summer of 1802. Yet Newton wrote to Governor James Monroe: “I think the boats may pass through by next summer.” Two years later Newton wrote to Governor Page: “I think the boats may pass through by next summer.”
The Dismal Swamp Company also relied on the labor of hired slaves for its lumber business. White men and black men came to an understanding: the blacks turned out enough shingles; the whites left them to do it in their own way. Workers spent most of each week in the swamp, felling white cedar trees and cutting shingles. The men were spread out, a few in each camp, sleeping on cedar chips in low, flimsy shanties built on mounds of leftover wood. If they produced their shingles in five days, they took two days for themselves outside the swamp. Some weeks they took three. Their owners and other whites in and near Suffolk complained that the shingle-getters had “too much leisure time,” which they spent “improperly.” The black men’s labor in the swamp furnished the company with hundreds of thousands of shingles each year through a system which lasted for decades.
At a meeting in May 1804 the managers of the Dismal Swamp Company resolved: “The Negroes & etc to be sold.” This decision ended all vestiges of the original scheme devised by the elder William Byrd and afterward persuasively presented to the accommodating Governor Francis Fauquier. The partners at last admitted that for years they had not envisioned a self-supporting, growing population of company slaves who would turn the Dismal Swamp into farmland to make shareholders rich. Their true source of profit always had stood fully grown in the swamp. In 1807 the company’s hired slaves made 928,700 three-foot cedar shingles; in 1808 they made 1,285,900. Anticipating larger dividends, the partners bought for the company as many quarter-shares as they could. The two-thirds of Anthony Bacon’s share which had come to James Bacon were sold to the company. The namesake cousin of William Nelson, Jr.—William Nelson of Caroline and King William counties—had inherited one-third of the share owned by his father, Secretary Thomas Nelson. Writing his will on Christmas Day, 1806, he said that “it is now likely” this share “will be very valuable.” He bequeathed it to his four sons. Of these four-twelfths of a share, the company managed to buy one. A subsequent owner of another twelfth replied to an inquiry: “should I be disposed to sell hereafter I shall most certainly give the Company the refusal.”
William Nelson, Jr., almost missed the company’s meeting in Suffolk on May 10, 1810. He had fallen ill in March, and St. George Tucker had feared that Nelson would die. “The loss of such a friend is to me irreparable. He was my other self.” But Nelson’s health slowly returned during a stay in York Town in April. He walked along the riverbank, picking up shells. Back at Westover, he did not yet look well. This was not a good way to turn fifty.
The new managers were eager to make money. Writing to Samuel Gist in 1811, the Reverend John Bracken found Gist ready to help him. The Reverend James Henderson pushed his colleagues to make the company more efficient. It ought to stop allowing partners to serve as managers for life, as William Nelson, Jr., had done. Instead, the company ought to choose a president, who would, with managers’ advice, “direct all the Operations of the Company.” Henderson felt frustrated by partners’ “stinginess & indecision.” He urged onward the new Jericho Canal through the swamp, establishing a narrow water course for cargoes of shingles, connecting Lake Drummond with the Nansemond River. He looked forward to charging tolls for floating other people’s shingles on the company’s canal.
Beginning in 1810, the Dismal Swamp Company paid steady dividends to shareholders. That year a quarter-share drew $333. In 1811 a quarter-share drew $500—in 1812, $400; in 1813, $300; in 1814, $600. The estate of George Washington, with four quarter-shares, received a dividend of $2,000 in 1811. Before the partners’ meeting, Justice Bushrod Washington wrote to James Henderson: “The handsome dividend which you anticipate in May furnishes a strong evidence of the prosperous state of the Company’s affairs & of the good management of those to whom they have been & are committed.” He approved of Henderson’s proposal to seek a charter of incorporation from the General Assembly. Henderson wished that the partners were less delighted with their dividends. They did not heed his advice to reinvest some of their profits. “Among the Proprietors,” he complained, “there are some who would not expend one Dollar to receive 20 per Cent Interest.” Their notion of a good report was news of fifty black men working in the swamp, bringing out 20,000 of the 80,000 shingles coming from the swamp each week to meet a high demand at a price of $16 per 1,000. Years later, warned about “a waste of Timber,” their minds had not changed. A new shareholder wrote to Bushrod Washington: “Our partners seem to prefer present profit to any advantage in the future.… Our Attention is now exclusively applied to the shingle-getting.”
William Nelson, Jr., again fell ill in the autumn of 1812. He did not recover. Weakened by intestinal disease, he stayed at Westover, asking St. George Tucker to lecture to the law students. Nelson seemed in good spirits, joking as usual. He did not let his daughters, their aunt Anne, or Mary Willing Byrd know that he was near death. As his condition worsened early in the new year, he moved to Williamsburg, staying in the house he had shared with his friend William Short almost forty years earlier. In the first week of March he could not get out of bed. He died on the morning of Monday, March 8. His body was placed, as Lord Botetourt’s had been, in the chapel of the college. An obituary in the Richmond Enquirer said of Nelson: “He passed through life, it is believed, without an enemy; but, at every turn met with those who loved, respected, and esteemed him.”
Eight months later, Mary Willing Byrd suffered another loss. Her daughter, Anne, died at the age of fifty. Anne Byrd lived at Westover all her life. Judge Nelson’s five daughters called her “Mother,” later remembering her as “a truly pious well educated dear creature.” After her death, the family went into “the deepest dejection.” Within a few weeks Mary Willing Byrd was very sick. She wrote her will in December 1813, dividing the contents of her mansion among her children, stepchildren, and grandchildren. William Wirt, gathering material on Patrick Henry, wrote of “poor Mrs. Byrd”: “when she dies, adieu to the glories of Westover.… Look at the apparently inexhaustible mines of opulence to which Colo. Byrd was born—and see his family already in decay and ruin: a magnificent prince himself—his children & grand children beggars!” To his surprise, Wirt received from Mary Willing Byrd and the other executors of William Byrd’s estate an offer of employment. He had represented them in their litigation with the administrators of Speaker Robinson’s estate. Byrd’s executors now said that if Wirt could establish in court the estate’s claim to two hundred or three hundred city lots in Richmond and to 630,000 acres along the Roanoke River, they would pay him 10 percent of all he recovered. He calculated: “if 100 lots are recovered, I get, at an average, property worth, at least, $50,000. You see this is a pretty splendid bubble.” Mary Willing Byrd died in March 1814. She had been a widow for thirty-seven years.
The spring of 1814 was a time of celebration for shareholders in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. A 20-ton boat made a voyage from Scotland Neck, North Carolina, down the Roanoke River into Albemarle Sound, up the Pasquotank River, through the length of the canal, then down the Elizabeth River to Norfolk. She was the first vessel other than shingle flats and the like to use the canal. Even after the canal’s two ditches had met, much work remained to be done. With the labor of twenty or thirty slaves in summer and half as many in winter, the last segments did not reach a width of 20 feet until 1809. The canal still needed locks. The first were temporary, made of wood. The company borrowed money to continue work, mortgaging future revenue from tolls.
As the canal company began a three-and-one-quarter-mile feeder ditch to Lake Drummond in 1812, the Dismal Swamp Company extended and brought into use its Jericho Canal. Twelve feet wide, four feet deep, and ten miles long, it began near Suffolk, ran southeastward across the company’s tract, then turned almost due south to Lake Drummond. James Henderson insisted upon faster progress than the hapless canal company had achieved. Suffering, disease, and deaths among slaves working on the Jericho Canal appeared in stories told by people in Nansemond County for generations—stories of “chain-gangs of slaves”: “They say the poor creatures died here in heaps from swamp fever. But that didn’t make any difference to their owners. They was made to dig right into the heart of the swamp to get at the juniper trees.” Early in the twentieth century, a tourist entering the Dismal Swamp by the Jericho Canal asked her guide, a young white Virginian, why a swamp so filled with color, sunshine, and bird calls was named “dismal.” “ ‘There’s more to it than shows just at first, ma’am,’ he answered. ‘There are more sad stories about this swamp than all the sunshine can make bright.’ ” Among many accounts of the origin of Lake Drummond, one was a tradition begun in Nansemond County: “The black folks around here say that the lake belongs to the devil.”
Shingle-getters for the Dismal Swamp Company cut their way into the interior of the swamp. In addition to felling stands of white cedar, they found many large trunks of trees lying on top of one another, covered by water and layers of peat. The great fire of 1806 and other fires left many blackened trees but also “brought to view and into use, more good timber than they injured, by burning the soil down to where numerous trees had lain perhaps for a century concealed, and their existence unsuspected.” After twenty-five years of cutting millions of shingles, the company’s workers were felling cedar trees with a diameter of 12 inches. Dismal Plantation lay unused, its fences broken. In October 1813 the managers leased it at a rent of $60 per year to Thomas Bains and Benjamin Lassiter, who signed with their marks.
The old Dismal Swamp Company came to an end two days before Christmas 1814. The General Assembly passed an act of incorporation for the Dismal Swamp Land Company. James Henderson became its president. In the years 1817 to 1825 a quarter-share drew an average annual dividend of $285.
The Dismal Swamp Canal, newly enlarged, reopened on the last day of 1828. Stage coaches used the parallel road. Early in 1830, Isaiah Rogerson announced the opening of his Lake Drummond Hotel adjacent to the canal. A building 128 feet long, it had eight chambers, four in Virginia and four in North Carolina. The bar was “furnished with the choicest wines and liquors of every description.” North Carolina law made getting married easier than did Virginia law. For this and other reasons, the Lake Drummond Hotel boasted about the convenience of guests’ being able to cross the state line without leaving the building. It was an establishment in the heart of the Dismal Swamp “fully applicable for all the purposes of life, as eating, drinking, sleeping, marrying, duelling, etc., etc., in all its varieties.”
Nearing his ninetieth birthday, Samuel Gist bought more farms in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Warwickshire in 1810 and 1811. In subsequent years his annual income from leaseholds was almost £6,000. His stock, consolidated annuities, and other personal property yielded at least another £6,000 each year, apart from investments set aside for his daughters and their husbands. His daughter, Mary, was now the wife of Martin Pearkes, a tobacconist in London. Between July 1810 and February 1812, John Wickham sent Gist more than £2,000 sterling in debtors’ remittances from Virginia. The dividend in 1810 on Gist’s three quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company was $1,000. He collected it by authorizing the Reverend John Bracken to receive it in return for Gist’s securing a bill of exchange Bracken had sent to London for another purpose.
Gist began to prepare for his death. He wrote his will. He ordered a vault to be readied for his remains in Wormington’s small church. He bought a white marble coffin, which he kept in a case in the stables behind his house in Gower Street. In his eighties Gist thought much about carrying on his family name. Beginning life in a charity school, a kinsman of weavers, he had made the name of Gist feared and respected in the City. He owned more than 4,000 acres in England. He had aspired not just to amass wealth but also to found a line of Gists, a great family, yet he had no son, no grandchildren, no brother or sister, no nephews or nieces. He did not keep his concern secret. He “sought with great anxiety for any family of his own singular name, in the hope of fixing upon a male inheritor the bulk of his vast property.”
The closest male relative of whom he knew was his cousin, James Gist. In 1764, as Samuel prepared to move from Virginia to London, James, at the age of thirty-six, gave up his trade as a weaver and enlisted as a private in the army of the East India Company. He was shipped to Bengal. Perhaps he had married “an European woman” and fathered sons. If so, Samuel Gist wished to make the oldest son heir to the Gist fortune.
But James had died a bachelor in the fall of 1774. His remains were buried in Calcutta. The year after James’s death, as Samuel rushed to get the last peacetime shipments of tobacco from Virginia, his uncle, Thomas Gist, James’s father, was living in another part of London with Henry Rogers, a kinsman. Thomas Gist, long a weaver, was eighty-seven years old, dependent upon the Rogers family. While working in the City, Rogers learned of James’s death in India. At home that evening, he asked Thomas Gist whether he wished to hear what had become of his son. The old man replied: “Oh Harry I shall never hear of him any more.” Rogers worked the conversation around to breaking the news of James’s death. Long afterward Rogers’s children remembered that “Thomas Gist wept much upon receiving the intelligence.” Of these events Samuel Gist knew nothing in 1775, or forty years later.
Samuel Gist thought that if James had died leaving no sons, his closest male relative was a second cousin living in Bristol. Josiah Sellick was an accountant, forty-five years old in 1810. He was married; he had a daughter and, more important for Gist’s purposes, a son. In the absence of male descendants of James Gist, Samuel Gist bequeathed all his land in England and the bulk of his stock, annuities, and cash to Sellick in trust, and after Sellick’s death to his oldest son, and so on in each generation. To this inheritance he attached a condition. Anyone receiving it must adopt “the Surname of ‘Gist’ and in and by the Surname of Gist only and no other thenceforth for ever continue.” Any person eligible to receive the inheritance who refused or neglected to abide by this requirement, Gist wrote, “shall thereupon be considered as dead.”
In The Times and the Morning Chronicle on January 20, 1815, lists of deaths included: “On Monday last, at his home in Gower-street, Bedford-square. Samuel Gist, Esq. in the 91st year of his age.” A list of January deaths in the Monthly Magazine read: “In Gower-street, Bedford square, 90, Samuel Gist, esq. leaving immense wealth.” The Gentleman’s Magazine gave a fuller obituary, adding that Gist “is said to have amassed more than half a million of money.” He had “entered Lloyd’s Coffee-house, and was one of its most fortunate adventurers.” Josiah Sellick of Bristol looked “likely eventually to possess the bulk of his fortune, which is most unexpected, he having only occasionally had any communication with the deceased.”
The bequest to Josiah Sellick was not the only surprise in Gist’s will. He named as executors his sons-in-law, Martin Pearkes and William Fowke; his attorney, Francis Gregg; and his banker, George Clarke, of Walpole, Clarke & Bourne in Lombard Street. He bequeathed annuities, £50 or £100, to several relatives, and he established a fund for any relatives of his mother or father who might come forward. He ordered payments to the estates of three former associates in business—John Hiscox, John Wilkinson, and John Tabb—each of whom had accused him of unjust dealings. To his servants, Gist gave £20 or £30 each, depending upon length of service. To eight charities—the Bristol Infirmary, Christ’s Hospital in London, London Hospital, the London Lying-in Hospital, the Welsh Charity School, the Hospital for the Reception of the Blind, the Vaccine Institution, and the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children—he bequeathed £100 each. His largest charitable bequest was £10,000 in 3 percent consolidated annuities, the proceeds of which were to be used by the Corporation of the City of Bristol to support six poor men, six poor women, six poor girls, and six or more poor boys attending charity school at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, as he had done.
Gist’s trust was to give each of his daughters £2,000 per year. To receive hers, Mary Pearkes must renounce all claim to the three quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company and to all land and slaves in Virginia vested in her by act of the General Assembly. Gist wrote in his will: “Now I do declare that the same act was obtained only for the purpose of vesting such my Estates in Virginia in the same Mary Anderson (now Mary Pearkes) as being a native of and resident of that State In trust for me and my use and to be disposed of at any future period in the manner I should direct.” If his daughter refused to surrender the Virginia property to his executors, “all and every sum and sums of money which she the said Mary Pearkes would have been entitled to and which I may give her by this my will shall not be paid and in lieu thereof I give to her the sum of one shilling only.” A similar condition and threat applied to Elizabeth Fowke if she asserted any claim to the Virginia property. As a further incentive to cooperate with his will, Gist bequeathed to each daughter £1,000 in East India Company stock and £1,000 in Bank of England stock, “recommending it to them to be the last Stock they part with believing it to be the best.”
All these bequests left Josiah Sellick—who became Josiah Gist within five weeks of his benefactor’s death—with a fortune in trust totaling £153,686 4s. 6d. in personal property and 4,000 acres of farmland bringing in annual rents equal to about 4½ percent of their value.
Perhaps those most surprised by Gist’s will were more than three hundred black people in Hanover, Goochland, and Amherst counties in Virginia. Having declared that these slaves belonged to him, Gist directed that they be freed. John Wickham had not heard from Gist since 1812, when the United States declared war on Britain. Not long after the war ended in 1815, Wickham learned that Gist was dead and that the will appointed himself and Matthew Toler, son of the late Benjamin Toler, Gist’s longtime estate manager in Virginia, to the task of emancipating all Gist’s slaves. A codicil to the will said that, if the General Assembly of Virginia deemed it “impolitic and perhaps improper” to fulfill his wish, the slaves were to work his plantations as before, with profits remitted to Mary Pearkes and Elizabeth Fowke until their deaths, thereafter to Josiah Sellick and his heirs.
Mary Pearkes and Elizabeth Fowke, with their husbands, sent a petition to the General Assembly in 1815. They said they thought their father’s bequests to them were “very inadequate to their reasonable expectations, considering his very great estate.” They were unhappy that the bulk of his wealth “has passed into the hands of strangers.” Mary and Martin Pearkes denied that the property in Virginia belonged to Gist. Nevertheless, the sisters assented to Gist’s will and asked the General Assembly to decide whether it would free the slaves. Gist had arranged his bequests so that if the slaves were freed each sister received £500 per year in lieu of profits from the plantations and the Dismal Swamp Company.
Gist apparently did not know that after 1806 Virginia law required any black person freed from slavery to leave the state within a year. Those who did not leave could be sold back into slavery, though this provision sometimes went unenforced. Gist knew that slaves would not be freed unless he provided for their support. To this end he left all his property in Virginia, “including my proportion of the Great Dismal Swamp,” in trust to John Wickham and Matthew Toler, with instructions that its proceeds be devoted to support of these newly freed people, to schools for them, and to instruction in Christianity as taught by the Church of England. Manumission of his slaves, Gist wrote, was to occur within a year of his death.
John Wickham agreed to support the petition of Gist’s daughters and to help win manumission for the slaves. The task of fulfilling the rest of Gist’s instructions he entrusted to his son, William F. Wickham. John Wickham’s friends in the General Assembly told him that the slaves would not be freed unless delegates and senators believed that these black people would leave the state. Sponsors of enabling legislation hinted that Gist’s slaves might join the colony for free blacks established by British abolitionists in Sierra Leone. A law freeing Gist’s slaves on condition of their departure from the state passed the General Assembly on February 26, 1816.
In a series of removals from 1818 until 1831, most of the freed blacks settled in southern Ohio, on tracts purchased with money from sales of Gist’s land in Virginia. In May 1818 one of his quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company was bought by the new Dismal Swamp Land Company, another by the younger Fielding Lewis, and the third by the College of William and Mary. These three quarter-shares sold at auction for a total of $10,849.87½. The buyers paid cash.
Gist’s slaves gained their freedom more slowly than he had directed partly because the General Assembly’s act left his Virginia estate subject to suits. The chief litigants were relatives of William Anderson and relatives of the widow of Gist’s stepson, Joseph Smith. The Andersons believed that Gist had cheated his daughter’s first husband. The Rooteses believed that Gist had stolen the patrimony of his wife’s sons by her first marriage. He had grown rich through his unscrupulousness, then devised a will by which they would receive no land, no cash, and no slaves. His only bequest to any kinsman of his wife’s was a gold watch. What did he mean that gift to suggest? In John Marshall’s Circuit Court, William Anderson’s legatees, represented by William Wirt and others, eventually won a judgment of more than $17,000 against Gist’s Virginia estate at the expense of Gist’s legatees, the free blacks.
In later years the black people who moved to Ohio underwent hardships and complained of injustices at the hands of William F. Wickham’s agents. Stories gathered around Gist’s bequest. At best, they said, his trustees had not disbursed proceeds of his Virginia estate as he had directed. At worst, Gist’s freed former slaves and their descendants, rightful heirs to all his vast fortune in England and America, had been denied their rich legacy by the Wickhams, John Marshall, and other Virginians.
In London, Samuel Gist’s heirs sued one another in the Court of Chancery. Suits by Josiah Gist, formerly Josiah Sellick, against Gist’s daughters overlapped suits by Mary Pearkes, joined by her sister and brother-in-law, against Martin Pearkes and Gist’s attorney Francis Gregg. In the end, Gist’s wishes prevailed. The Bristol accountant Josiah Gist became a landed gentleman, moving to his seat at Wormington. He was succeeded by his son, renamed Samuel Gist Gist. Nine years after Samuel Gist’s death, his namesake was married to Marianne Westenra, daughter of Baron Rossmore of Monaghan. The baron’s son and heir was married to Anne Douglas-Hamilton, illegitimate daughter of the eighth Duke of Hamilton. The son of Samuel Gist Gist and Marianne Westenra Gist—Samuel Gist—inherited the Gist estate.
Long afterward, tourists with an interest in Gothic architecture visited the church dedicated to St. Catherine in Wormington. It was a mixture of elements, mostly fourteenth-century Perpendicular but with eighteenth-century additions, a Tudor arch, fragments of medieval stained glass, and an Anglo-Saxon or Norman crucifix. Beyond its narrow nave, in the chancel, stone tablets on the wall commemorated Gists. One blue stone read: “Sacred to the Memory of Samuel Gist, Esqr. Patron of Church and Lord of Manor, who died Jany 15, 1815, Aged 92 Years.” This inscription was not quite accurate, but hardly any visitors would know. Nor would connoisseurs of architecture care that they stood not far from Gist’s marble coffin. They saw heraldic devices on hatchments in the church. Among these were the three blue fleurs-de-lis and three silver swans in the arms of the House of Gist, with its motto: Benigno numine—Beneficent by divine will.
Four weeks after Samuel Gist’s death, Sally Meade Byrd died. Since 1800 she and her husband had lived in Ohio. Early in their life together, David Meade worried about his daughter and her husband, “whose prospects have not been very promising since the bankruptcy of Mr. Morris.” But in 1800, “thro’ the interest of his friends in Philadelphia,” Charles Willing Byrd was appointed secretary of the Northwestern Territory. In the fall of 1802 he reported to President Jefferson that Governor Arthur St. Clair, a Federalist, was obstructing his work and preventing him from appointing Republicans to territorial offices. Jefferson removed St. Clair. The following year Ohio became a state, and Jefferson rewarded Byrd with an appointment as judge of the United States District Court. In 1814, by Mary Willing Byrd’s will, Charles and Sally Byrd’s three sons, as well as the boys’ male first cousins, became joint owners of their grandmother’s quarter-share in the Dismal Swamp Company. Three years after Sally Byrd’s death, Charles Willing Byrd was married to Hannah Miles.
David and Sarah Meade lived contentedly at Chaumière des Prairies. With “refined courtesy” David Meade received guests in an octagonal wainscotted drawing room. He still wore a square-cut coat with big cuffs, long vest, knee breeches, and black or white stockings in the fashion of the days when he had published an acrostic love poem to Miss Waters. Sarah Meade wore stays, a long-waisted dress with ruffles, and a white apron and cap. She greeted guests in “a very mild and pleasant” way. She entertained them by expertly playing her pianoforte “with the cheerfulness of a girl of 16.”
Among the Meades’ forty slaves were cooks, dining room servants, footmen, a coachman, a butler, valets, housemaids, and the people whose labor carried out David Meade’s fanciful designs for his gardens and grounds. With shaded avenues, bridges over streams, a lake with an artificial island reached by an arched white bridge, a Grecian temple along the lakeshore called the Temple of the Naiads, Chaumière des Prairies occupied Meade for thirty years. He wrote: “I may with confidence assume that my gardens containing forty acres including ten acres of native wood are more extensive than any other in the United States.”
In 1826, David Meade at the age of eighty-two, and Sarah Meade at the age of about seventy-seven, took in their granddaughter, Mary Willing Byrd Randolph, and her daughters. Her husband, Patrick H. Randolph, had proven irresponsible, and her father, Judge Byrd, rejected her, saying that if the Meades sent her to him, he would send her back. David Meade could hardly believe the transformation in “the son of the splendid dignified & highly polished Colo. Byrd of Westover.” Charles Willing Byrd had not “cohabited” with his wife for some time. He spoke of resigning his judgeship. And, “most extraordinary,” Meade said, “He and His youngest Son William have joined the Shaker community in Marion County.” Upon reaching the society at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, William S. Byrd, twenty years old, obeyed Shaker teachings about property. He arranged for his sister, Evelyn, to receive dividends from “my dismal swamp interest, which is likely to become much more valuable than it has been.”
• • •
William Wirt completed his study of Patrick Henry in September 1817, and the book was published in November. He began gathering material in 1805, asking for written recollections by those who remembered Henry during the Revolution. Wirt had thought about writing a series of biographical volumes, but the first one gave him so much trouble that he did not try another.
In his years of intermittent work on Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, Wirt made his name, as Henry had done, in the practice of law. In 1807 he served as a prosecutor in the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr on charges of treason. John Wickham and others won the case for the defense, but Wirt won new fame. William and Elizabeth Wirt moved to Richmond in 1810, a sign that he had reached the top rank of the Virginia bar.
Looking at letters from old men describing Henry and at documents from Henry’s day, Wirt complained about the difficulties of his task. The old men’s memories disagreed with one another and sometimes with official records and newspaper accounts. Thomas Jefferson at first thought that Speaker Robinson and his allies had tried to enact a loan office “in 1762, or a year sooner or later,” rather than in 1765. Wirt wished to write expansively, letting his imagination and his rhetoric flow freely, but he felt constrained by the requirements of a chronological narrative and by the limits of evidence. He called it the “business of stating facts with rigid precision, not one jot more or less than the truth.” “[W]hat the deuce,” he protested, “has a lawyer to do with truth.” He fretted that political partisans would find fault with him for either excessive praise or excessive censure of Henry. He feared that literary men would think his book trivial.
When Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry was published, it fell short of a biography. Wirt called it “these crude sketches,” which he intended to be didactic—“a discourse on rhetoric, patriotism and morals.” He dedicated the book to the young men of Virginia. With his political story, containing his attempts to reconstruct Henry’s speeches and to describe their effect on listeners, Wirt celebrated Virginia’s leaders of the American Revolution, holding them up for emulation. He wrote to a friend about the General Assembly in 1808: “you will see how wofully the legislative council has fallen since the days of Pendleton, Wythe, Henry, Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, etc.” His book invited young men to take such great men as their exemplars. In an essay published in 1814 he wrote: “Were not these men, giants in mind and heroism? Compared with them, what is the present generation, but a puny race of dwarfs and pigmies?” In his portraits of society Wirt drew on his imagination to dramatize the difference between colonial Virginia and democratic Virginia.
The foils for both of Wirt’s contrasts—of great revolutionaries with modern politicians and of the old colonial order with modern life—were the “aristocrats” of the days before the Stamp Act. Wirt embodied the rule of “aristocrats” in his version of the colonial capital. In Williamsburg, “fashion and high life” prevailed: Governor Fauquier lived in “royal state”; the burgesses followed “stately modes of life” in houses of “costly profusion.” Amid this “general elegance” there abruptly appears Patrick Henry, an awkward man in threadbare clothes. On his first page Wirt portrayed Henry’s parents living “in easy circumstances … among the most respectable inhabitants of the colony.” Yet, for dramatic and didactic purposes, Henry must be a man of the people. Describing his book, Wirt wrote: “It was from the body of the yeomanry, whom my correspondent represents as looking askance at those above them, that Mr. Henry proceeded.” Wirt’s correspondent was Thomas Jefferson. Alert to the possibility of criticism, Wirt suspected that “the descendants of our landed aristocracy” might resent strictures on their ancestors which he had borrowed from Jefferson. Wirt meant nothing personal. He only used those dead “aristocrats” to edify young men entering public life. His closest friends in Virginia were descendants of colonial “aristocrats.”
Thomas Jefferson knew the difference between aristocrats in Britain or France and the men who ran the Council and the House of Burgesses in his youth. He acknowledged to Wirt that in politics during the contest with the British ministry after the Stamp Act was repealed, “the old leaders of the house being substantially firm, we had not after this any differences of opn in the H. of B. on matters of principles.” Jefferson’s chief concern was “the spirit of favoritism” pervading John Robinson’s speakership and alliances. The proposed loan office in 1765 epitomized for Jefferson the evils of the old system. He remembered and described for Wirt a withering speech Patrick Henry had made against the proposal, with the result that “it was crushed in its birth.” In fact, the loan office passed the House of Burgesses but was rejected by the “aristocrats” on the Council. As a convenient word for the method by which Virginia was governed in Speaker Robinson’s day and for the men who governed it, Jefferson chose “aristocracy,” and William Wirt followed his example. Francis Lightfoot Lee, praising John Adams as a “genuine” republican, turned the tables by writing: “Jefferson in my opinion, is a very good Aristocrat.”
Patrick Henry’s son-in-law, Spencer Roane, who had been three years old when Henry spoke against the loan office and the Stamp Act, described for Wirt his father’s admiration of Henry: “That a plain man, of ordinary though respected family, should beard the aristocracy by whom we were then cursed and ruled, and overthrow them in the cause of independence, was grateful to a man of my father’s Whig principles.” Roane treated the election of Henry rather than Secretary Nelson to the governorship in 1776 as a triumph over “the aristocracy.” Roane explained to Wirt that Patrick Henry had not really become a Federalist in his last years but had remained “a true and genuine Republican.” Only his “debility” and the “seductions” of a Federalist aristocrat, Henry Lee, with his offer of tracts in the Land of Eden, had made Henry temporarily weak.
Wirt believed that the purposes of his book justified his passing lightly over Henry’s “aberrations,” such as collaborating with Federalists and amassing land and money. Wirt asked Jefferson: “Will not his biographer then be excused in drawing the veil over them and holding up the brighter side of his character, only, to imitation?” Jefferson’s answer, given to others, not to Wirt, was no. He said: “it is a poor book, written in bad taste, & gives so imperfect an idea of Patrick Henry, that it seems intended to show off the writer, more than the subject of the work.” John Randolph of Roanoke, no democrat, wrote: “I have seen, too, a romance, called the Life of Patrick Henry—a wretched piece of fustian.” Spencer Roane, on the other hand, praised Wirt’s book. The public attention it received was generally favorable, and it went through many editions. St. George Tucker encouraged his friend during the years that Wirt did research in hours taken from the practice of law. Tucker tried to re-create Henry’s oratory for Wirt. Nevertheless, Tucker doubted that anyone could capture in prose the dead leaders of Virginia. And he thought that few would care to read an attempt. “Who knows any thing of Peyton Randolph once the most popular man in Virginia, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, & President of Congress, from its first assembling to the day of his Death?” Unlike Wirt, Tucker did not have to rely on documents and other people’s reminiscences for his knowledge of men such as John Blair, General Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Beverley Randolph. “I knew them all well, nay intimately. Yet for the soul of me, I could not write ten pages of either, that would be read by one in fifty.” Tucker admired the great men of his youth in Williamsburg. He agreed that their virtues deserved emulation. He wrote to Wirt: “I think it much to be regretted that such men as I have mentioned above should descend to the Grave, and be forgotten, as soon as the Earth is thrown upon their Coffins. But so it is, my friend.”
• • •
In the autumn of 1803, after the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth Wirt read Gothic novels—fiction in the vein of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance and The Mysteries of Udolpho—tales of dark castles with abandoned chambers and underground passageways, eerily lit rooms hiding ancient manuscripts revealing guilty family secrets, halls in which perturbed spirits of the dead walk by night as ghosts.
William Wirt was traveling between Richmond and Norfolk in the first week of November. He stopped for the night at Westover on Wednesday, November 8, not long before sunset. He turned his horse and gig out of the road, passing through the first gate. For more than a mile his gig rolled through an oak grove. Around the trees the ground was a smooth, clean turf. Beyond a second gate, he entered a broad lane lined with rail fences. Emerging from the oak grove, he saw the last sunlight glinting in the windows of the Byrd mansion. On his left lay the vast expanse of Westover’s famous meadows. To his right he had a view of the James River, a sloop moored near the house, and, in the distance on the south bank, the gardens and house of Maycox.
Two rows of uniform, whitewashed log cabins facing each other across a street were the quarters of Mary Willing Byrd’s slaves. Close to the house lay the garden, with its statuary and ponds. A circular road passing stables and other buildings took Wirt’s gig to the ornate north door of the mansion. Mary Willing Byrd, her daughter and granddaughters, and Judge Nelson were away on a pleasure trip. Wirt was met by a dignified old black man wearing a wig. He was Jack White, who had been body servant to Mary Willing Byrd’s husband during the war against the French and the Indians. Her husband, in the last years before he killed himself, used to say that Jack White “on different occasions saved me from the grave.” Now, family legend said, her husband’s spirit returned nightly to the room in which he had died, “there to sit by the fire and meditate.” Jack White took care of Wirt’s needs. At night, Wirt had the house to himself.
Trying to do some work before going to bed, Wirt needed a few of Judge Nelson’s law books. The bookcase was upstairs, where not all rooms were in use. Since sunset the wind had picked up. Wirt heard shutters rattle.
Almost every occupied room in the mansion had portraits hanging along the walls. In his movements Wirt could see likenesses of Mary Willing Byrd, of her late husband, of her mother Ann Shippen Willing, of Judge Nelson, of Elizabeth Byrd, who had married, in turn, James Parke Farley, John Dunbar, and Henry Skipwith. There were several portraits of old Colonel William Byrd, whose expression suggested that he was enjoying a joke not understood by the onlooker. His body lay buried in the garden just outside the west end of the house. One of the portraits from Queen Anne’s time showed that fierce rake, old Colonel Byrd’s first father-in-law, Colonel Daniel Parke, who had been murdered by the queen’s subjects in Antigua.
Judge Nelson was not a systematic man, but Wirt found the law books and made his way back downstairs. As he worked, the wind roared and sighed around the house. The last thing he did that night was to write a letter to his wife. He never could resist making a little fun. Had he not just won celebrity by writing a volume of fun, The Letters of the British Spy? He wrote to Elizabeth Wirt: “I have been about a mile and a half up the stairs to look for a couple of law books. It reminds me of the old castles you are reading about. I dare say it is as full of ghosts as any of them—& as the family is all gone, & left the house to them, I suppose we shall have a carousal tonight—Maybe old Colo. Byrd will come & give me a little more information about the dismal swamp against the next edition of the British Spy.”