Guide to the Robert Carter letter books and day books, 1771-1804 and undated
Robert Carter III (1728-1804) was a planter, slaveholder, and iron manufacturer of Nomini Hall plantation, Westmoreland County, Virginia. The correspondence, letter books, day books, and other papers in this collection contain detailed documentation on colonial Virginia: the Revolutionary War; plantation and family life; 18th century slavery and emancipation; the iron and textile industries; Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Swedenborgian, and Baptist religious beliefs and practices, and their relevance to slavery and race; tobacco cultivation in Virginia; and life in Baltimore, Maryland after the Revolutionary War. Documents related to Carter's unusual act in 1791 to gradually manumit hundreds of slaves are also in this collection. The letter books house over 3,000 pieces of correspondence written by Carter to well-known individuals of the time, such as Charles Carroll, Benjamin Day, William Ebzer, Thomas Fairfax, William Grayson, Patrick Henry, Ludwell Lee, Richard Lee, Peyton Randolph, George Turberville, John Turberville, and George Wythe, and letters to Carter written by Alexander Campbell, Christopher Collins, Thomas Jones, Richard Lee, George Newman, John Overall, and Simon Triplett. In his letters, Carter refers many times to the education and welfare of his many children and writes to them while they are away from home. Transcripts are available for the majority of the materials.
- Collection Number
- Robert Carter letter books and day books
- 1771-1804 and undated
- Carter, Robert, 1728-1804
- 9.5 Linear Feet, Approx. 125 Items
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
- Material in English
The letter books, day books, wills, loose letters, and other documents in the Robert Carter papers offer rich information on social and economic conditions in Virginia and Maryland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and disclose a great many details on plantation life and the management of enslaved people, overseers, secretaries, ship's captains, and skilled workers employed in Carter's various enterprises. The records document milling, spinning, weaving, iron works, and linen manufacture at the time of the Revolutionary War, and the frequent shipments of goods to and from Europe. Carter comments in great detail on the development of new plantations and the purchase, clothing and feeding, training, and punishment of slaves. The records also document his efforts to free a large number of slaves, which eventually resulted in many hundreds acquiring their freedom after prolonged legal battles following his death in 1804.
Three sets of transcripts represent almost the entire body of correspondence and other records in the collection and facilitates access to the content of the volumes, many of which are fragile. Other loose papers include letters, invoices, notes, financial accounts, and a few clippings.
Information of the Revolutionary War's impact on Virginia and its plantations is found in both the letter books and day books, including militia affairs in Westmoreland County and Captain Lane's Company of that county. Carter also describes British ships off the Virginia coast, and raids on his plantations by the British, who carry off many slaves. Carter also includes descriptions of his oath of allegiance (Daybook XIV) and his membership in the Virginia House of Burgesses. After the Revolutionary War, his comments focus increasingly on life in Baltimore, where he had set up his household.
Carter's day books and letter books also contain frequent commentary on religious beliefs, preachings, and meeting houses. He examines Swedenborgian, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Methodist practices and beliefs, but around the Revolutionary War turns to the Baptist Church and leaders such as Lewis Lunsford, who baptised him, and Ebenezer Brookes. Carter copied a circular from preacher John Leland (1750-1841) into Daybook XVI. The conclusion of the sermon deals with the sin of slavery and the freedom of enslaved people, the burden of slavery to the owners, and the duties of slaves to those masters.
Perhaps influenced by Leland's stand, Carter executed a deed in 1791 setting up a gradual manumission of hundreds of his slaves, an extraordinary act for his time. Volume XI in the collection contains this act of manumission, recorded in the first few pages, then followed by many pages of lists of the names of the enslaved individuals who were to be freed, their names (a few with both first and last names), ages, and gender, their work roles (e.g. cooper, postilion), and the plantations where they worked. Also in the loose papers is a document recording a question posed by Robert Carter relative to the application of the law in Virginia as to the responsibility of a former owner of manumitted slaves for continuing to maintain those he has set free who are physically or mentally handicapped.
The individuals to whom Carter sent letters include many well-known individuals of the time: Charles Carroll, Benjamin Day, William Ebzer, Thomas Fairfax, William Grayson, Patrick Henry, Ludwell Lee, Richard Lee, Peyton Randolph, George Turberville, John Tuberville, and George Wythe. Among those writing to Carter were Alexander Campbell, Christopher Collins, Thomas Jones, Richard Lee, George Newman, John Overall, and Simon Triplett. There are also many references in the letter books and day books to Carter's many children, especially concerning their education.
The volumes in the collection were originally numbered as follows: letter books, I-X; deed of emancipation, Vol. XI; day books, XI-XVIII. The three sets of transcripts are incomplete: there are gaps in volume numbers in each one. The "A" transcripts are excerpts from the letter boooks and day books. The "B" set consists of complete transcriptions of almost all the volumes but is less complete than set "C."
The "C" set seems to contain the most accurate and complete transcripts of all original manuscripts, including full dates marking the entries, and transcriptions of all markings and information found on covers, endpapers, and book plates. There are some gaps of content in the transcripts. Volume 12 - religious commentary and notes - is only found in the "C" transcript set.
Access to the Collection
Because of their fragility, original volumes are generally closed to use; copies in the form of transcripts are available in the collection. Please consult with a reference archivist for permission to access originals.
Collection is open for research.
Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.
All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48-hours to retrieve these materials for research use.
Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.
Use & Permissions
The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
How to Cite
[Identification of item], Robert Carter Letter Books and Day Books, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Additional information folders are available in the repository collection control files.
The "A" set comprises what was judged to be significant excerpts from the collection. Date ranges represent the dates of the excerpts. Volumes 11, 12 and 17 are not present. Complete transcripts for almost all the original manuscripts are found in the "B" and "C" transcript sets.
The "B" and "C" sets comprise full transcripts from all the volumes, with some gaps. The "C" set appears to contain more accurate and complete transcripts, including full dates marking the entries and transcriptions of all markings and information found on covers, endpapers, and book plates. Transcriptions from Volume 12 - religious notes and commentary - are only found in this set.
Vols. 5 and 9 of the carbon copies consist of only a few pages. Volume 6 is not present among the carbon copies.
With one letter at end dating 1788 July 4.
Robert Carter III (1737-1804) was the son of Robert Carter II (1705-1733) and Priscilla (Churchill) Carter of Nomony Hall (alternately spelled Nominy and Nomini in other sources), Westmoreland County, Virginia, and the grandson of Colonel Robert Carter, called "King" Carter. Although he lived in Westmoreland County and England until he moved to Williamsburg in 1761, he returned to "Nomini Hall" and Westmoreland in 1773, when his letter books and day books begin.
At the age of 21 he inherited tens of thousands of acres that he developed into the eighteen plantations he owned across the state of Virginia. It is estimated that by 1791 he owned 3400 slaves. Carter is most known historically for his efforts to emancipate over 500 individuals, the largest manumission known prior to the Civil War. The document setting out this plan is in the collection, and it is chiefly made up of long lists of the names of all the enslaved individuals who were to be freed.
Carter was a member of the vestry of Cople Parish, the Church of England, whose affairs are referred to in the early day books (Daybook XIII) but soon joined the Baptist Church and caused a scandal by becoming a member of a racially mixed congregation. By 1793, with his oldest son, Robert Bladen Carter, dead in a brawl in London, his older daughters married, and his oldest surviving son, John Tasker Carter, installed at Nomony Hall, he purchased a house in Baltimore and brought his youngest daughters to live there. He had placed his youngest son, George Carter, in school at the University of Pennsylvania. In these later years, Carter was involved in legal tangles over his properties; details are noted in the letterbooks. Carter died in 1804.
A pamphlet by the Trustees of the Missionary Society of Connecticut, Summary of Christian Doctrine and Practice: Designed Especially for the Use of the People In the New Settlements or the United States of America (Hartford, Hudson and Goodwin, 1804) was transferred and cataloged separately for the rare book collections in 1965.
- Robert Wormeley Carter papers, 1813-1850 (16 items) [son of Landon Carter and grandson of "King" Carter of Westmoreland County, Virginia] (Rubenstein Library, Duke University)
Click to find related materials at Duke University Libraries.
- Collins, Christopher
- Carter, Robert, 1728-1804
- Campbell, Alexander
- Carroll, Charles, 1723-1783
- Day, Benjamin
- Ebzer, William
- Fairfax, Thomas Fairfax, Lord, 1692-1782
- Grayson, William, 1736-1790
- Henry, Patrick, 1736-1799
- Jones, Thomas
- Lee, Ludwell
- Lee, Richard Henry, 1732-1794
- Newman, George
- Overall, John
- Randolph, Peyton, 1721-1775
- Turberville, John
- Turberville, George
- Triplett, Simon
- Wythe, George, 1726-1806
- Family life -- Virginia -- 18th century
- Freedmen -- Virginia -- History -- 18th century
- Iron industry and trade -- Virginia
- Plantation life -- Virginia
- Slaves -- Emancipation
- Slavery -- Virginia
- Tobacco -- Virginia
- Baltimore (Md.) -- History
- Virginia -- Commerce
- Virginia -- Religious life and customs
- Virginia -- History -- 1775-1865
- Westmoreland County (Va.) -- History
The Robert Carter letter books and day books were acquired by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library from 1933 to 1989.
Processed by Rubenstein Library staff
Encoded by Paula Jeannet and Sara Reams, April 2014
Accession(s) described in this collection guide: 1933, 60-209, 68-302, and 89-117.