|Portrait of Robert Carter III, painted in London, England|
His great-grandfather, John Carter, immigrated to Virginia from England in 1625 aboard the "Prosperous". His grandfather, Robert I, was speaker of the House of Burgesses, held 300,000 acres of land and nearly 1,000 slaves, and was one of the richest men in colonial America. Both of his grandfathers, the land baron Robert “King” Carter and William Churchhill, of Middlesex County, served on the governor’s Council.
Robert Carter III was four years old when his father died suddenly at the age of 28 in
Because Carter’s father died before his grandfather, it was necessary for his guardians to obtain a special act of assembly to enable him to inherit the portion of his grandfather’s estate intended for his father. The law of October 1734 entitled him to receive more than 65,000 acres of land and several hundred slaves when he reached age twenty-one.
Following his mother’s marriage to John Lewis sometime during the winter of 1734–1735, Carter lived at his stepfather’s Warner Hall plantation in Gloucester County until about 1737, when he entered the grammar school of the College of William and Mary.
On April 2, 1754, Carter married Frances Tasker, of Annapolis, daughter of Benjamin Tasker, longtime president of the Council of Maryland. Of their thirteen daughters and four sons, eight daughters and all four sons reached adulthood.
|Frances Ann Tasker Carter|
At first loyal to his King, Carter expressed support for the Crown during the period of popular rejoicing that accompanied the news of George III's repeal of the Stamp Act. However, further Parliamentary acts seen as obnoxious to colonial interests were passed into law. Carter resigned as Councillor in 1772 and left Williamsburg with his family to return to Nomini Hall.
Carter diversified crops and added manufactures such as milling, spinning, and weaving. About 1770 he purchased a one-fifth stake in a large Baltimore ironworks that his father-in-law had helped found.
Robert Carter customarily cultivated as many as a dozen large plantations at once. Though tobacco constituted the crop of first importance on his estate, entire plantations were sometimes devoted to producing grain stuffs and supplies needed at "Nomini Hall" and on the other plantations. From time to time, too, Carter sought to develop other money crops which might supplement the constantly dwindling profits from tobacco. He set up and equipped so many plantations that he resorted at one time to the signs of the zodiac for names for them.
In 1773 and 1774, the familoy's tutor, Philip Vickers Fithian, recorded a picture of the Carter household in the diary he kept at the plantation,. He also copied into his journal a catalog of Carter’s extensive library. The lower floor of the great house contained the master's library, a dining room, used also as a sitting room, a dining hall for the children, a ballroom thirty feet long, and a hallway with a fine stairway of black walnut. The upper rooms were used as sleeping quarters for members of the family and for guests. The older boys and their tutor slept above-stairs in one of the large offices that was also used as a schoolhouse. During the time Fithian was there, Carter arranged to convert one of the lower rooms of this office into a concert or music room. Here he proposed to place the harpsichord, harmonica, forte-piano, guitar, violin, and German flutes which were in the great house.
Seven of the nine surviving Carter children and the Councillor's nephew, Harry Willis, were placed under Fithian's care. Benjamin, the eldest son, was a quiet, studious boy of eighteen. Robert Bladen, two years younger, loved the out-of-doors and cared little for learning. John Tasker, only four, was too young for instruction. Priscilla, the eldest daughter, was an attractive girl of fifteen. Anne Tasker, called Nancy, and Frances, whom Fithian thought the "Flower of the Family," were thirteen and eleven respectively. Betty Landon was ten, and Harriot Lucy, a "bold, fearless, merry girl," was seven. Sarah Fairfax, the baby, was only a few months old at the time Fithian arrived.
Mr Carter is preparing for a Voyage in his Schooner, the Hariot, to the Eastern Shore in Maryland, for Oysters: there are of the party, Mr Carter, Captain Walker, Colonel Richd Lee, & Mr Lancelot Lee. With Sailors to work the vessel—I observe it is a general custom on Sundays here, with Gentlemen to invite one another home to dine, after Church; and to consult about, determine their common business, either before or after Service—It is not the Custom for Gentlemen to go into Church til Service is beginning, when they enter in a Body, in the same manner as they come out; I have known the Clerk to come out and call them in to prayers.—They stay also after the Service is over, usually as long, sometimes longer, than the Parson was preaching —The Revolution concluded the Council, which ceased to exist in July 1776. The following summer, Carter took an oath of loyalty to the new Commonwealth of Virginia. British ships raided his plantations near the Potomac River, and he was plagued in the postwar period by heavy plantation expenses and a shortage of cash in a stymied economy.
Almost every Lady wears a red Cloak; and when they ride out they tye a white handkerchief over their Head and face, so that when I first came into Virginia, I was distress'd whenever I saw a Lady, for I thought She had the Tooth-Ach!—
The People are extremely hospitable, and very polite both of which are most certainly universal Characteristics of the Gentlemen in Virginia—some swear bitterly, but the practise seems to be generally disapproved—I have heard that this Country is notorious for Gaming, however this be, I have not seen a Pack of Cards, nor a Die, since I left home, nor gaming nor Betting of any kind except at the Richmond-Race. Almost every Gentleman of Condition, keeps a Chariot and Four; many drive with six Horses—
One of his cousins, Carter Braxton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
A member of the Church of England from childhood, Carter became a vestryman of Cople Parish in Westmoreland County in November 1752. In June 1777 he announced his conversion to evangelical Christianity and soon allied himself with the Baptists. In 1778 Carter was baptized by immersion and joined Morattico Baptist Church. He regularly attended prayer meetings, provided financial support for numerous evangelical preachers, and became one of the denomination’s most influential adherents in Virginia.
A series of deaths in the family (an infant daughter, the eldest son Ben 1779, and finally, his wife in 1787) left Robert Carter on the brink of an emotional breakdown. In 1788, Carter discovered and quickly embraced the theology of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and switched his allegiance from the Baptists to the Church of the New Jerusalem. Carter caused several of Swedenborg’s writings to be reprinted in America.
He began supporting anti-slavery efforts and by 1790 declared that the "situation of Blacks here [in Virginia] is my greatest difficulty". On August 1, 1791, he executed a deed of emancipation for more than 400 of his enslaved African Americans. It was the largest emancipation by an individual person in the United State. Because of Virginia’s restrictive laws, the emancipation was gradual, and the young slaves received their freedom when they reached adulthood. Carter spent his remaining years working out the details and schedule, an effort that embroiled his agents and executors well into the nineteenth century.
Carter moved with two of his younger daughters to Baltimore in 1793 in order to be closer to a center of Swedenborgian worship, and three years later he divided his Virginia estate among his surviving children and grandchildren, who drew lots for their portions. He spent his last years managing his investments.
Carter died suddenly in Baltimore on March 11, 1804, at the age of 77. He was buried in the garden at Nomony Hall in Westmoreland County.
Robert E. Lee's mother, Ann Hill Lee, was a great-granddaughter of Robert Carter I.