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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 enslaved over 500 people.  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 the people he enslaved.  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 1800, George enslaved 17 people on his Loudoun property.  It was on this land that he established his plantation 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.

Right from the start, slavery was built into Oatlands.  Carter designed his plantation for efficient labor of enslaved workers, with the dairy and other outbuildings close to the mansion and the granary, barns and other agricultural buildings close to each other.  His plantation layout reflected his status as a wealthy and educated man, with leisure time to enjoy the 4 ½ acres of terraced gardens and an interest in modern horticultural practices to have a propagation greenhouse. 

Carter’s success as a farmer and businessman was dependent on an enslaved labor force.  Enslaved men, women and children farmed the land, tended the terraced garden near the mansion, 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.

In 1835, Carter married the wealthy widow, Elizabeth Osborne Grayson Lewis.  Three enslaved communities came together as a result of their marriage. Elizabeth’s first husband, Joseph Lewis Jr., died in 1834, and he freed all but one of the people he enslaved.  He willed Maria to Elizabeth.  That same year, Elizabeth’s father, Benjamin Grayson died, and he willed to his children all of the people he enslaved.  Elizabeth chose Alla (or Allie), age 20, as her ladies maid and ten other enslaved people in the division of her father’s estate.  These 12 people had their lives uprooted when they came to Oatlands with Elizabeth, joining the 60 or more people who were already enslaved here.

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 people.  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 in close proximity to the Carter family and worked in the house, or 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 an enslaved person.  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.