Christmas at Nomini Hall, Virginia, 1773

“I was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House.  The morning is stormy, the wind at South East rains hard. Nelson the Boy who makes my Fire, blacks my shoes, does errands & c. was early in my Room, drest only in his shirt and Breeches!  He made me a vast fire, blacked my Shoes, set my Room in order, and wish’d me a joyful Christmas, for which I gave him half a Bit.–Soon after he left the Room, and before I Drest, the Fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk, entered my chamber with three or four profound Bows, & made me the same salutation; I gave him a Bit, and dismissed him as soon as possible.–Soon after my Cloths and Linen were sent in with a message for a Christmas Box, as they call it; I sent the poor Slave a Bit, & my thanks.–I was obliged for want of small change, to put off for some days the Barber who shaves & dresses me.–I gave Tom the Coachman, who Doctors my Horse, for his care two Bits, & am to give more when the Horse is well.–I gave to Dennis the Boy who waits at Table half a Bit.–So that the sum of my Donations to the Servants, for this Christmas appears to be five Bits, a Bit is a pisterene bisected; or an English sixpence, & passes here for seven pence Halfpenny, the whole is 3s and 1 1/2 d.

At Breakfast, when Mr. Carter entered the Room, he gave us the compliments of the Season.  He told me, very civily, that as my Horse was Lame, his own riding Horse is at my Service to ride when & where I Choose.

Mrs Carter was, as always, cheerful, chatty, & agreeable; She told me after Breakfast several droll, merry Occurrences that happened while she was in the City of Williamsburg. This morning came from the Post-Office at Hobbes-Hole, on the Rappahannock, our News-papers. Mr. Carter takes the Pennsylvania Gazette, which seems vastly agreeable to me, for it is like having something from home–But I have yet no answer to my Letter.  We dined at four o-Clock–Mr. Carter kept in his Room, because he breakfasted late, and an on Oysters–There were at Table Mrs. Carter & her five Daughters that are at School with me–Miss Priscilla, Nancy, Fanny, Betsy, and Harriot, five as beautiful delicate, well-instructed Children as I have ever known!–Ben is abroad; Bob & Harry are out; so there was no Man at Table but myself.–I must carve–Drink the Health–and talk if I can!  Our Dinner was not otherwise common, yet elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to…”

 –Philip Vickers Fithian, Saturday, December 25, 1773 from Journal and Letter of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Hunter Dickinson Farish, 39.

Nomini Hall Damaged by Fire

If you have read The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America you know about Nomini Hall and its eighteenth-century owner, Robert Carter III.  Philip Vickers Fithian spent a year working on this plantation on Virginia’s Northern Neck as a tutor for Carter’s children.  

I just learned that a fire damaged Nomini Hall. The house was currently under renovation.  Here is a taste of Clint Schemmer’s article at Fredericksburg.Com:

historic plantation house in Westmoreland County that was being restored after a major fire in November has burned again.

Volunteer firefighters responded to a call around 3:30 a.m. about a structure fire in the Nomini Hall Road area of the county, said Assistant Chief Todd Padgett of the Cople District Volunteer Fire Department.
Nomini Hall, a historic house that was often used for weddings and receptions, was just a week away from being completely renovated following a fire eight months ago that caused a substantial amount of damage, said Fredericksburg property owner and developer Tommy Mitchell, who owns the house and 70 acres around it.
The property was settled in 1729 by Robert “King” Carter. His descendants include presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.
The plantation home’s best-known resident was Robert Carter III, grandson of land baron Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman.
Carter III initiated the emancipation of more than 500 of his enslaved people, the largest manumission of slaves by a single person before the American Civil War. He is the subject of Andrew Levy’s book “The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.”

"Another Year is Gone"

And so Philip Vickers Fithian began his January 1, 1774 diary entry. The young and impressionable New Jersey native and recent Princeton graduate was writing from Virginia’s Northern Neck where he was a tutor at “Nomini Hall,” the plantation of Robert Carter III.

Another Year is gone! Last New years Day I had not the most remote expectation of being now here in Virginia! Perhaps by the next I shall have made a longer and more important Remove, from this to the World of Spirits!

It is well worth the while, for the better improving of our time to come to recollect and reflect upon the Time which we have spent; The Season seems to require it; it will give entertainment at least, perhaps much substantial pleasure too, to be able to make with a considerable degree of certainty a review of the general course of our Actions in the course of a year. This shall be my employment, so far as I am able to recollect, when I shall have suitable time for the fixing & laying my thoughts together–

In the mean time I observe that the Day is most pleasant, the wind is West, not fresh; the air is void of clouds, but near the Earth is smoky; the Ground is clear of Frost and setled, what can be finer? Mr. Carter Miss Prissy and myself were to have rode out for an Exercise at twelve, but we were prevented by the coming of a Gentleman, Dr. Fantleroy, to whom Mr. Carter introduced me–

After Dinner was finished which was about four o-Clock, Miss Prissy & Myself, together with a Servant (for Mr. Carter would not trust us alone he said) rode on Horse-Back to Mr. Turbuvilles, about three quarters of a Mile distance; It is the first time I have been there, the House is near, & in Sight, and the families intimate. I rode my Horse for the first time since his misfortune. When we returned about Candlelight, we found Mrs. Carter in the yard seeing to the Roosting of her Poultry; and the Colonel in the Parlour tuning his Guitar.

Northern Neck: Day Two

I spent the day exploring Virginia’s Northern Neck. This region is very rich in history. Today I either drove by or visited:

Stratford Hall: The home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee (both signers of the Declaration of Independence), Henry “Light Horse Harry Lee” (who attended Princeton with Philip Vickers Fithian), and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Last night at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock I met Paul Reber, the executive director at Stratford Hall.

Sabine Hall: Home Robert “King” Carter, grandfather of Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall.
I spent most of my time at Nomini Hall, the home of Robert Carter III and the place where Philip Vickers Fithian worked as a tutor from 1773-1774. The original plantation house burned down in the mid-nineteenth century and was rebuilt in 1850. It is a private residence today, so I did not get to move freely around the plantation. (When I got too close I got some dirty looks from some construction workers digging in the back yard). I did, however, take some pictures:

This is Nomini Hall from the front driveway. Notice the huge poplar trees lining the lane. This was once a great entryway to a great eighteenth-century tobacco plantation. Philip Vickers Fithian would have looked up this driveway when he first arrived at Nomini although the poplars were smaller and the manor house was a lot larger.

Another shot of the driveway. (Notice my luxury ride: the ’97 Ford Taurus!)

The driveway taken from the house.


The day ended with a talk at the “Books Alive” program at the Northumberland Public Library. Thanks to Jay and Earline Walker, transplanted Long Islanders, for hosting me and treating me to a great Northern Neck dinner!

The Northern Neck, Yorktown, and the Governor’s Palace

We made it safely to Williamsburg and I have begun my search for the Philip Vickers Fithian re-enactor. After some additional research I have learned that there is a possibility that Philip only shows up during the Christmas season. I am not, however, giving up hope.

I spent the morning in Heathsville, VA doing a book talk to a packed house at the annual meeting of the Northumberland County Historical Society. Almost all of them had actually “heard” of Philip Vickers Fithian and about half of them had read his Virginia diary. It was a very knowledgeable crowd. Thanks to Nancy and Wiatt of the Historical Society for inviting me to speak and to all who helped with the book sale and signing.
I spent most of the afternoon with a park ranger at Yorktown. We got an informative introduction to the battle and did some of our own touring of the battlefield. We spent a lot of time wandering around redoubts 9 and 10–the British earthen fortifications that were captured by the Continental Army and French troops, thus turning the tide of the battle in favor of the Americans.



We spent the evening watching eighteenth-century dancers in the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg. I wish I had seen this performance before I wrote chapter five of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. The dancers brought to life for me the scenes at Nomini Hall when Philip the wallflower refused to dance.

We will be back in Williamsburg tomorrow and I will continue my attempts to track Fithian down. Stay tuned.

Williamsburg and Nomini Bound

I will be blogging this weekend (if I find the time) from Williamsburg, VA. On Saturday, after settling in at the colonial capital, I will be heading over to the Northern Neck to do a lecture and book signing at the Northumberland County Historical Society. This is only a few miles from the site of Nomini Hall, the plantation of Robert Carter III. If you remember, Fithian spent a year there (1773-1774) teaching Carter’s children. The original Nomini Hall burned down, but it was replaced with a new house in 1850. At some point the poplar-lined lane leading up to the house was named “Fithians Lane.”


After the lecture, we will be a few days in Williamsburg. Our goal is to find this guy:
According to the Williamsburg website, his name is Kevin Ernst and he plays (or has played) Philip Vickers Fithian. Kevin, if you are out there please get in touch with me through this blog. I hope we can meet!