From Princeton to Williamsburg!

TWOILH at Williamsburg

In 1773, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton from the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich went to Virginia to teach the children of a wealthy plantation owner.

The tutor was Philip Vickers Fithian.  The planter was Robert Carter III.  Carter’s plantation was called Nomini Hall, but he also had a house in Williamsburg.

I wrote about Fithian’s experience in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  The teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America read the book during their week in Princeton.

So perhaps it is fitting that some alums from the Princeton Seminar traveled, like Fithian, to Williamsburg this week.  And look what they found on sale in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore!

Thanks for sharing Jamie, Jen, and Tracy!

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.

Happy (Belated) Robert Carter Day

Yesterday was Robert Carter Day.  (I don’t think anyone celebrates this holiday, but I thought I would give it a ceremonial feel anyway).  On September 5, 1791, Carter, a Virginia planter, freed all of his slaves.  Warren Throckmorton and Fred Clark have written posts to commemorate Carter’s decision to emancipate his enslaved laborers at Nomini Hall, Virginia, but if you want to learn more about Carter, I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Work of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves

Readers of this blog may know that in 1773 Carter hired a New Jersey tutor and recent College of New Jersey (at Princeton) graduate to educate his children at Nomini Hall.  The tutor’s name was Philip Vickers Fithian and he was the subject of my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.   The book contains a chapter on Fithian’s experience on the Carter plantation.

Happy Robert Carter Day–one day late!

Carter Grove is Not As Bad as We Thought

Some of you have followed the story of the Carter’s Grove plantation in Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg sold it in 2007 and several articles, including this one in The Washington Post, have said that the plantation house was in disrepair. 

Recently, Dennis Hockman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Matt Webster of Colonial Williamsburg, and Megan Melinat of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources toured the plantation house.  Here is Hockman’s description of what they saw:

What I found on my visit was not a house in ruin or falling apart as just about everything I read has described, but rather a beautiful Colonial era mansion perched on a hill with a view of the James River. Inside I saw signs of neglect, for sure:

  • water damage to the original plaster walls caused by roof leaks and infiltration from clogged gutters;
  • buckled and cracked paneling resulting from a combination of water damage and an inoperative heating and air conditioning systems;
  • and what is likely sporadic mold, also a consequence of that inoperative HVAC system.

But such damage was limited, and most of the house was in beautiful condition.

More good news is that the underlying problems Melinat and Webster identified were discovered before irreparable damage was done. The HVAC is fixed, now regulating the building’s interior temperature and humidity and eliminating the problem that had allowed “mold” growth and contributed to the paneling damage.

This is good news indeed.

NOTE:  I should add that this is not the “Carter” who I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  That was Robert Carter III, the cousin of Carter Burwell, the builder of Carter’s Grove.  Carter III presided over Nomini Hall where Philip Vickers Fithian served as a tutor from 1773-1774. Carter III and Carter Burwell were grandchildren of Robert “King” Carter.

"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!

Back in the Northern Neck

I am doing a couple of book talks this week on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the location of Robert Carter III’s plantation. This was the place where Philip Vickers Fithian served as a tutor between 1773 and 1774. Tonight I spoke at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock at an event co-sponsored by the library and the Mary Ball Washington Museum. (Mary Ball Washington was George Washington’s mother). I spoke to a group of folks who were very knowledgeable about Fithian. Most of them were quite familiar with his Virginia diary and asked questions that clearly showed that they have read it.

Tomorrow night: The Northumberland County Library.

Random Musings from Williamsburg

We did not find a Fithian re-enactor in Colonial Williamsburg, but we did find the next best thing–a man who portrays Robert Carter III. When Baptist preacher James Ireland (on the left) heard I had written a book about Fithian he helped me track down Carter (the re-enactor was playing someone else on this particular day). Here is our encounter:

I did manage to find Carter III’s reconstructed house next to the Governor’s Palace. Fithian never visited this house, but Carter would occasionally leave the Nomini Hall plantation to go to Williamsburg to conduct business:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home made it to the College of William and Mary (Barnes and Noble) bookstore:


We had a busy day in Colonial Williamsburg. I hope to write about some of the specifics of the trip in future posts (and offer some pictures too!), but for now let me mention a few highlights:

1). We started off the day by attending a Q&A with George Washington. I asked him about his experiences at Manhattan in the days leading up to the Battle of Brooklyn, drawing a lot of my examples from Fithian’s wartime diary.

2). We thoroughly enjoyed the gentleman (a retired music teacher) who led us through the Virginia Capitol. His New York accent gave him away and we swapped stories about life on Long Island.

3). After a presentation on early American religion, I spent some time chatting with the re-enactor who played James Ireland, one of the most persecuted Baptist preachers in colonial America. Ireland was very familiar with Philip Vickers Fithian and after a nice conversation about my book he took me to see the re-enactor who portrays Robert Carter III. The three of us talked for some time about Fithian and Carter and the Fithian diaries. These men confirmed that Fithian only made an appearance at Williamsburg during the Christmas season. (There was great disappointment when we learned this). The Ireland re-enactor invited us to see him deliver (as another character, of course) an Anglican sermon tomorrow at the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary.

4). We wandered about outside Robert Carter III’s reconstructed house near the Governor’s Palace. (The house is not open to the public). Fithian never visited this house, but Carter often traveled back and forth between it and Nomini Hall during Fithian’s tenure with the family. We also took a carriage ride in a replica of Carter’s stagecoach. We were pulled by the same horses that pulled Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit.

5). We got a lesson in pew renting at the Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. We got to see the pews that belonged to the likes of George Washington, James Monroe, Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. We were kicking ourselves for not arriving early enough to worship with this active Anglican community.

6). Finally, it was off to the College of William & Mary. I was pleased to see that the college bookstore (Barnes & Noble) was selling The Way of Improvement Leads Home. We did not have time to visit much today, but we did take a tour of the Wren building. (Perhaps we will return again tomorrow for the aforementioned Anglican sermon. Also, I hope I can at least pop my head into the Omohundro Institute for Early American Studies).

We are off to Jamestown tomorrow. The search for Philip Vickers Fithian came to a disappointing end, but there is still much more to do and see. I am sure one of tomorrow’s highlights will be seeing the newly unearthed Jamestown fort. I have heard chief archaeologist Bill Kelso speak about the story behind finding the fort, but I have yet to see it.

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!