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Slavery at Oatlands

The story of slavery at Oatlands begins before the property was so named and before the establishment of the mansion and other buildings we know today.  Robert Carter III was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia.  Also known as Councilor Carter because of his service on the Governor’s council in Williamsburg, one of the large landholdings Robert Carter III inherited from his father was the 11,000 acre Goose Creek tract in Loudoun County.  Councilor never lived on the tract; rather, he leased the land to numerous tenant farmers who paid him an annual rent.

In addition to the Goose Creek tract, Councilor had numerous landholdings throughout Virginia, encompassing tens of thousands of acres, and he owned over 500 slaves.  Over the course of his life, he came to view slavery as immoral and in 1791 he filed a Deed of Emancipation in Northumberland County, Virginia, for the gradual manumission of his slaves.  The laws at that time permitted owners to free their slaves as long as certain conditions were met.  Councilor’s “Deed of Gift”, as it is known, is believed to be the largest private emancipation in American history, and one that is not well-known.

None of Carter’s ten surviving children shared their father’s belief about the institution of slavery.  In 1798, his son, George Carter, inherited 3,400 acres of the Goose Creek tract and landholdings in Fairfax and Prince William counties.  By the 1800 census, George is recorded as owning 17 slaves on his Loudoun property.  It was on this land that he established his farm that he named Oatlands and constructed on Goose Creek a large grist mill, saw mill, nail factory, and the county’s only known oil mill for pressing flaxseed.  In 1817 he successfully petitioned his neighbor and newly-elected president, James Monroe, to establish a post office at the mill site.  This enclave of businesses became a thriving commercial hub which continued into the mid-20th century.

George Carter’s success as a farmer and businessman was dependent on slave labor.  Enslaved men, women and children farmed the land, tended the 4 ½ acres of garden near the house, cared for the family, and probably worked at the mills.  The number of enslaved people grew from 17 in 1800 to 133 recorded in the 1860 census, right before the start of the American Civil War.

Carter died in 1846, and his wife Elizabeth O. Carter continued to run the plantation as her husband did – with the help of overseers, farm managers, and enslaved labor.  She kept a diary from 1861 to 1872, recording the temperature, wind direction, and everyday activities at Oatlands and Bellefield, her other plantation that was near Upperville.  Her entries include references to certain enslaved people, probably those who were domestic slaves with proximity to the family and those who provided domestic or personal tasks outside of the house.  From the diary we get a glimpse of life during and after the Civil War.

As part of the Telling All of Our Stories project, a database was created to record every reference to a named slave.  The first phase consists of names extracted from Elizabeth’s diary.  Future phases will include names from Carter wills, ledger books, and other primary and secondary source documents. 

Click here to access the database.