Life and Times of Robert “Councillor” Carter III

Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall, 1753 by Thomas Hudson (1701–1779). Oil on canvas
Gift of Louise Anderson Patten, 1972.17. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The blog oftentimes focuses on items from the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Collection, but the collections in the Reading Room are just as fascinating and often provide interesting insight into the history of Virginia. I stumbled across the book, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall while reshelving several books and something about the simplicity of its cover and paperback binding intrigued me. The book, originally published in 1941, describes the life of Robert Carter III (1727-1804), an heir to a large fortune and extensive landholdings who served for two decades on the Virginia Governor’s Council, hence he nickname, “Councillor.”

While whole books could be written about various aspects of his life, the author, Louis Morton, chose to focus on the economic and social aspects of the plantation system in 18th century Virginia through the numerous records Roberts Carter III left behind.

By the time Robert Carter III was 21-years old, he owned over 70,000 acres. Most of his properties were located in the back country and Northern Neck area of Virginia. Nomini Hall was purchased by his grandfather, “King Carter” in 1710 and comprised 2,500 acres. An imposing Georgia-styled house was built by his father Robert Carter II in 1729 which was 76-feet long, 44-feet wide, and was two-stories high.

Map of Carter’s Landholdings in Virginia

Carter not only planted tobacco, but due to the crop’s vulnerability, Carter searched for less volatile sources of revenue. For a significant portion of time, Carter farmed grains and cereals instead of tobacco. He also cultivated corn for both food and business purposes, since it was corn was an acceptable form of payment for taxes. 

One of the more interesting business initiatives Carter pursued was his investment in an iron ore. Through his marriage into the Tasker family of Maryland, Carter had access to the production and markets served by Baltimore Iron Works. Carter not only produced iron for local markets in Virginia, but he made a significant amount of money selling iron to buyers in England. The iron business was able to tide Carter over when his tobacco crops were not successful.

As an heir, Carter extended his already considerable wealth as a plantation owner, manufacturer, and businessman. Carter’s wealth is reflected not only through his extensive landholdings, but through documentation of the extensive parties, dinners, and guests who stayed at Nomini Hall. Nomini Hall regularly hosted dances, balls, barbecues, card games, and other social events as well. Notably, Nomini Hall consumed “27,000 pounds of pork, twenty beeves, 550 bushels of wheat, an even larger amount of corn, four hogsheads of rum, and 150 gallons of brandy.”

Unfortunately, Carter’s success as a planter rested on the enslavement of human beings. A significant portion of the book discusses the coerced labor at Carter’s farms. During the early 18th century, the book notes that the labor force was made up of a mix of indentured servants from England who were later replaced by enslaved persons.  According to various records in 1772, 350 slaves were forced to work among his various plantations. However, a tutor employed by Carter wrote in his diary that Carter owned over 600 slaves. While the author believes the tutor’s number to be an exaggeration, in 1791, Carter listed all his slaves in a deed of manumission. That deed listed 509 slaves, aged between one day and eight-nine years old. The book, unfortunately, reflects the attitudes of the 1940s, and does not disparage the use of slaves. It is a bit disconcerting how easily the author treats slaves as economic inputs.

The last few chapters of the book depart the topic of business, manufacturing, and plantations and delves into the personal life of Robert Carter III.

“In one respect, Robert Carter, in his later years, broke sharply with his fellows of the Virginia aristocracy.” In 1776, Carter, nearly 50 years old, developed doubts regarding organized religion and turned to deism. He left deism for the then small Baptist Church in 1778. Many years later, Carter, dissatisfied with predestination, began to read the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. So convinced was Carter about the value of the doctrine, he commissioned the first printing Swedenborgian hymnal in America. Subsequently, Carter moved to Baltimore, the unofficial seat of the Swedenborgian movement, and remained there until his death in 1804.

Carter is most remembered for the manumission of his 509 slaves which he began in 1791. In his deed for manumission, Carter stated, “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice, and that therefor it as my Duty to manumit them….” Indeed, Carter settled the freed men and women on land that he gave them.

In addition to this book, the organization, Nomini Hall Slave Legacy, which is looking to trace the descendants of the freed slaves of Nomini Hall, contains a plethora of information about Carter, Nomini Hall, and documents genealogies of the original freed slaves of Nomini Hall.

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  1. Fascinating biography, thank you, Michelle! I didn’t know about Carter’s involvement with the Swedenborg movement, until reading this post. Robert Carter was an independent thinker, very impressive. I wish more Virginia planters had emulated him. Lee

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