Fairfield Plantation has been the home to slaves for almost as long as the property’s owners (McIlwaine 1925:239). The initial settlement of the property likely included both slaves and indentured servants cutting out a space from the wilderness for Lewis Burwell
I and his family as they moved to Gloucester from nearby York County. The size of the plantation and the slave population grew in tandem at the end of the seventeenth century as Lewis Burwell II inherited land, political connections, and slaves from relatives and business associates. As a tobacco plantation and focal point for trade along Carter’s Creek, Fairfield was exceptionally profitable and perfectly situated in a fast growing county just over a half day’s travel from the new capital of Williamsburg.
Fairfield reached its apex as a prominent Virginia home and plantation during the first half of the eighteenth century. The land was managed by five different people over that time, but all were focused on maintaining the agricultural profitability of the plantation while experimenting with crop diversification and introducing large scale cattle and animal husbandry. By the end of the century, though, the Burwell family was overwhelmed by debt. The plantation’s enslaved population adapted to their new roles in the fields and around the manor house, but many were sold to plantations in the west and south. As surrounding tracts were sold to pay creditors, Fairfield shrank, consolidating the remaining labor force on a much smaller parcel surrounding the manor house. Little is known about the fate of Fairfield’s slaves when the plantation was sold in 1787, although some were purchased by neighbors and may have remained in the area.
Lewis Burwell I
Fairfield was first patented by Lewis Burwell I on June 12th, 1648 (Nugent 1992:1:184) (Table 1). An up and coming planter who married the well-to-do and well-connected Lucy Higginson, Lewis took a chance by settling in a new county near the social and political centers of the colony. He brought his family to Gloucester by 1651 and had likely already begun to convert the land to tobacco production. He died relatively young in 1653, but his wife ensured that their son, Lewis II, had every opportunity to rise to the highest ranks of colonial society. Lucy married the prominent leader William Bernard and the couple resided at Fairfield, along with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Lucy, until Bernard’s death in 1665 (The William and Mary Quarterly 1968:24:40; Kneebone 1998:1). In 1667, she remarried yet another savvy politico, Philip Ludwell, brother of the colony’s secretary, and they had two children together, Philip and Jane (York County Deeds, Orders, and Wills 4:159; Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1(1893):1:178). The family lived there until her death in 1677, after which Lewis II took sole control of the property. Shortly thereafter, Philip Ludwell remarried Lady Frances Berkeley, widow of the governor, and moved to the governor’s expansive Greensprings plantation.
|Name of Owners||Years of Ownership|
|Lewis Burwell I (1621-1653)||1648-1653|
|Lucy Higginson Burwell (d. 1675) and William Bernard (d. 1665)||1653-1665|
|Lucy Higginson Burwell Bernard (d. 1675) and Philip Ludwell||1665-1675|
|Lewis Burwell II (1650-1710) (moved to Kings Creek c.1707)||1675-1710|
|Nathaniel Burwell (1680-1721) (managed beginning c.1707)||1710-1721|
|Robert “King” Carter (d. 1732), administrator of Nathaniel Burwell’s estate||1721-1734|
|Lewis Burwell I/II (1710-1756)||1734-1756|
|Lewis Burwell II/II (1737-1779)||1756-1779|
|Lewis Burwell III/II (b. 1764)||1779-1787|
|Robert Thruston (1759-1816)||1787-1816|
Lewis Burwell II
Lewis Burwell II assumed control of Fairfield upon his mother’s death and, during the subsequent decade, increased productivity on the plantation and established his name among the colony’s planter elite. While being raised by a mother and three fathers may have been difficult, the knowledge and connections of these individuals prepared Lewis II for his future station in life. By 1674, he had married Abigail Smith, the niece and primary heir of Nathaniel Bacon (the elder), a member of the council, one-time acting governor of the colony, and a man of considerable wealth and influence. The couple had nine children together. Upon Bacon’s death in 1692, Lewis II inherited through his wife significant landholdings across the colony along with substantial financial resources. Abigail died less than eight months after her uncle (McIlwaine 1925: 218). Two years later, Lewis II apparently finished the Fairfield manor house, placing a cartouche with his and his wife’s initials and the completion date – LAB 1694 – on the eastern chimney gable (The William and Mary Quarterly 1894:2:4). Lewis II married Martha Lear Cole a few years after Abigail’s death, and by 1707 moved to Nathaniel Bacon’s Kings Creek Plantation on the south side of the York River, closer to the new capital at Williamsburg.
Lewis II left the management of Fairfield to his eldest son, Nathaniel, by 1707. By the time Lewis II passed away in 1710, Nathaniel had already married the eldest daughter of Virginia’s wealthiest man, Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman (Mason 1994:2:43). Nathaniel’s brothers and sisters followed suit, establishing marital links between many of the colony’s wealthiest families and controlling many of the highest positions in Virginia government. In 1713, Governor Spotswood complained that ” the greater part of the present Council are related to the Family of Burwells…there will be no less than seven so near related that they will go off the Bench whenever a Cause of the Burwells come to be tried.” (Spotswood 1973) Nathaniel’s marriage likely precipitated the expansion of the Fairfield manor house and significant alterations to the surrounding landscape, including the first evidence of crop diversification. His ownership was not long, though. He died in 1721, leaving his wife and children under the care of his brothers and father-in-law.
Robert “King” Carter
Robert “King” Carter was already old and somewhat infirm when he inherited the responsibility of looking after Fairfield. His day books and diary attest to the troubles of managing both the plantation and its related lands and resources (Carter, Diary (1721-1727) and Letterbooks (Volumes 1-4)). Historian Lorena Walsh thought it possible that Carter turned Fairfield into a redistribution point for slaves and a provisioning plantation for the other Burwell and Carter Plantations in the Chesapeake (Walsh 1997). Carter’s writings reveal an interested and focused manager, but also a father with a particular love of visiting his daughter Elizabeth and her sister Judith who married Mann Page living at neighboring Rosewell. He was less fond, however, of Elizabeth’s new husband, Dr. George Nicholas. After their move to Williamsburg in 1726, Robert Carter made fewer visits to Fairfield and increasingly left management of the land, crops, and slaves to the capable hands of his overseer, William Camp (Carter, Executive Papers:34). Carter passed away in 1732, leaving control of the estate to Nathaniel’s half brother, Lewis Burwell III. It would remain under his care until Nathaniel’s son returned in 1734.
Lewis Burwell I/II
Nathaniel’s oldest son was sent to school in England shortly after his father’s death (Wright, 1964:252). He took a considerable liking to college and its recreational opportunities, angering his grandfather by spending his allowance lavishly and extending his stay there as long as possible. He returned quickly, though, upon hearing of Carter’s death and assumed the role of plantation owner and nascent politician with his return to Virginia soil. Within five years of his return he had married Mary Willis, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor, and joined their two estates into a massive 7000 acre plantation. Quickly rising amongst his peers, he was named to the governor’s council and even served as acting governor of the colony in 1751 (Hall 1945:345). He died less than five years later.
Lewis Burwell II/II
Lewis II/II was not as well prepared as his father, financially or politically, for the more chaotic times ahead. Lewis II/II was a prominent politician, but by this stage in Virginia’s development it was more difficult to attain a seat on the governor’s council as the competition was fierce and the population expanding rapidly. He did represent Gloucester County as a burgess and when the revolutionary movement emerged in the 1760s and 1770s, he was there to join the committees of safety and volunteer in a company of light dragoons (Purdie May 1st, 1778; Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 51(1942):4:377). But he suffered from rising debts, as did many of his peers, exacerbated by lavish spending, gambling, and horse racing. The few documents that survive regarding his finances and management of Fairfield suggest he struggled mightily with the challenges of raising crops in soils depleted by years of cultivating tobacco. By the 1770s, he appears to have greatly diversified the plantation, raising a mixture of corn, wheat, cattle and other livestock (Abercrombie and Slatten 1992:3). But this would not be enough to balance the debts. After Lewis’ death in 1779, the burden of satisfying creditors compelled his executors to sell most of what he owned, including land, personal property, and slaves (Bodie and Siener 1976:179).
The 500-acre core of Fairfield was sold by Lewis Burwell III/II to a prominent Gloucester resident, Robert Thruston, in 1787 (Mason 1994: 62). Most of the Burwell family had left the county by the close of the eighteenth century and Fairfield passed through a number of different owners during the nineteenth century. An African-American woman and her family were tenant farmers on the plantation when the manor house was destroyed by fire in the fall of 1897. They were the last in a series of African-American tenant families who worked the plantation after the Civil War. The property returned to Burwell family hands in 1930 when descendant Gerard Lambert purchased his family’s ancestral property, and passed it along to his grandson, the current owner, Stacy Lloyd III in 1974 (Gloucester County Land Tax Records 1930, 1974). The sixty-acre core of the plantation remains under cultivation to this day.
David A. Brown