The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she’s spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux’s home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet’s lands on the Black River. 

Two days after Susan Johnson’s husband left for the Black River, a pair of sisters called on her at her first cousin Frances Pollock Devereux’s home in New Bern.  That was Saturday, the 29th of November 1800.

“The Miss Nashe’s called to see me. The eldest an unfortunate woman. She is a dwarf. I do not think her hight [sic] exceeds four feet & a half. The other a genteel person & pretty face, not deficient in understanding.”

 The “Miss Nashe’s” were Eliza and Maria Nash, two of the daughters of the state’s second governor, Abner Nash (who served in 1780-81), and his second wife, Mary Whiting Jones, of Newport, Rhode Island.

Eliza Nash, in whom Susan so uncharitably found so much wanting, was 22 years old at the time.  Her sister, Maria, was only fourteen.

They had grown up at Pembroke, a plantation on the Trent River, 3 miles outside of New Bern, N.C.  Roughly 110 enslaved men, women and children worked in Pembroke’s fields, mainly raising cotton and corn.

Detail from an engraving in Payne's Geography, a 4-volume work published in New York in 1799 and 1800. The detail shows New Bern and the Nash family's plantation Pembroke, as well as the Trent and Neuse Rivers. It also shows Clermont, the plantation of Richard Dobbs Spaight, another of the state's governors.Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Detail from an engraving in Payne’s Geography, a 4-volume work published in New York in 1799 and 1800. The detail shows New Bern and the Nash family’s plantation Pembroke, as well as the Trent and Neuse Rivers. It also shows Clermont, the plantation of Richard Dobbs Spaight, another of the state’s governors. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

After their father’s death in 1786, Eliza and Maria remained at Pembroke with their mother and their other siblings, as well as eventually their mother’s second husband.

His name was David Witherspoon. He was from Princeton, New Jersey, where his father had been one of Princeton University’s presidents.

Susan’s grandfather, the great philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards, had also been a president of Princeton.

Frederick Nash (1781-1858). From Archive.org

Frederick Nash (1781-1858). From Archive.org

Eliza and Maria Nash had a brother in New Bern, too. While not mentioned in Susan’s diary, he was certainly a part of her social circle while she was staying with the Devereuxs.

His name was Frederick Nash (1781-1858). He had just graduated from Princeton in 1799 and had come home to study law and manage Pembroke, which he had inherited after his mother’s death.

He would eventually become the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Ogden Nash’s Great-Grandfather

I can’t resist mentioning here that Frederick Nash was also the namesake for his great-grandson, the poet Ogden Nash. The poet’s full name was Frederic Ogden Nash.

Ogden Nash was a gloriously silly poet who wrote one of my most beloved childhood poems, “Custard the Dragon” (1936), as well as a host of unforgettable rhymes such as—

If called by a panther, don’t anther.

            And—

Candy

Is dandy,

But liquor

Is quicker.

In a wonderfully endearing way, Frederick Nash’s great-grandson and namesake insisted that poetry could be a much-needed source of whimsy in our hard and storm-tossed world.

In chaos sublunary

What remains constant but buffoonery?

My mother’s volume of The Golden Treasury of Poetry contains Ogden Nash’s poem, “Custard the Dragon.”

Illustration of Ogden Nash's poem, "Custard the Dragon," in Louis Undermeyer's anthology, The Golden Treasure of Poetry (1959). Drawing by Joan Walsh Anglund

Illustration of Ogden Nash’s poem, “Custard the Dragon,” in Louis Undermeyer’s anthology, The Golden Treasury of Poetry (1959). Drawing by Joan Walsh Anglund

The poem is the saga of a little girl named Belinda and her pet dragon that is so afraid of the world that he cries for “a nice safe cage”— until something happens, and Belinda needs him.

Tattered, torn and marked up with crayon, the book still rests on my shelf, and I’ve never loved a book more.

An Empire Born– the Nashes, Pollocks & Burgwins

Both of the Nash sisters later married into Susan’s family—or at least, her extended family. Two years after calling on Susan in New Bern, Eliza Nash married Robert Ogden IV, who was Susan’s uncle Timothy Edwards’ nephew on his wife’s side of the family.

Robert Ogden IV had grown up in Elizabethtown, N.J. and, like seemingly all the young men in this story, studied at Princeton. After marrying Eliza, he moved to New Bern to practice law.

You’ll remember from Part III of this series that Timothy Edwards’ wife, Rhoda Ogden, was from Elizabethtown and she and Timothy lived in the town from 1757 to 1770.

Susan’s Aunt Eunice also resided in the Edwards’ home in Elizabethtown for much of that time, as did Aaron Burr.

In 1807, Maria Nash also came into the orbit of Susan Johnson’s family. In that year, she married George William Bush Burgwin (1787-1854), who was the younger brother of Susan’s Aunt Eunice’s son-in-law.

Aunt Eunice’s son-in-law was John Fanning Burgwin (1783-1864). He had married Aunt Eunice’s daughter, Sarah Hunt, in 1806. Sarah was the daughter of Eunice and her second husband, Robert Hunt.

The Burgwin-Wright House in Wilmington, N.C. is the only one of John Burgwin's residences still standing. He only lived in the house briefly in the early 1770s. Courtesy, Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens

The Burgwin-Wright House in Wilmington, N.C. is the only one of John Burgwin’s residences still standing. He only lived in the house briefly in the early 1770s. Courtesy, Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens

The Burgwin brothers were the sons of John Burgwin, a Welsh immigrant who owned several enormous plantations and hundreds of enslaved people in the Cape Fear region.

His properties included the family’s main residence, a plantation called the Hermitage, and its next-door neighbor, Castle Haynes. They were located in the northern part of New Hanover County.

In addition, he had another plantation at Lake Waccamaw, in what was then Bladen County.  (Now the lake is part of Columbus County.) He also owned a rather stately townhouse in Wilmington, which is now the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens.

By itself, the Burgwin’s homestead, the Hermitage, covered more than 4,000 acres and was the site of bondage for hundreds of enslaved African Americans.

The two marriages— Sarah Hunt to John Fanning Burgwin and Maria Nash to George W. B. Burgwin—would prove fateful.

In the decades after 1800, those marriages united three families—the Pollocks, Burgwins and Nashes—and created a sprawling plantation empire.

A great place to learn more about New Bern's black majority during this period-- including some of the enslaved artisans that the Nash family claimed as their slaves-- is Catherine W. Bishir's Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900.

A great place to learn more about New Bern’s black majority during this period– including some of the enslaved artisans that the Nash family claimed as their slaves– is Catherine W. Bishir’s Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900.

That empire included more than a dozen plantations and stretched across at least eight counties— Bertie, Bladen, Chowan, Craven, Halifax, Jones, New Hanover and Northampton.

When Sarah Hunt’s half-brother George Pollock died in a fall from his horse in 1840, her heirs inherited seven plantations just in Northampton County—Alveston, Hillside, Thornbury, Bull Hill, Cypress, Ochoneechee and the Levels.

Of course, this family empire was built on the enslavement and forced labor of thousands of African and African American men, women and children, including the ancestors of many of my friends, neighbors and cousins here in eastern N.C.

Princeton and Slavery

A final note:  a recent examination of Princeton University’s historical ties to slavery has intersected with some of this history.

As I mentioned above, the Nash sisters’ mother, Mary Jones Nash, married David Witherspoon in 1788, after the death of her first husband, Abner Nash, the owner of Pembroke plantation near New Bern.

Witherspoon was the son of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), a long-time president of Princeton University.

In a study called “Princeton and Slavery,” Lesa Redmond points out that the father, John Witherspoon, had “a complex relationship to slavery.”

Though he advocated revolutionary ideas of liberty and personally tutored several free Africans and African Americans in Princeton, he himself owned slaves and both lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey.

Bust of John Chavis, by Richard Weaver

Bust of John Chavis, by Richard Weaver

 Among the African Americans that received tutoring from Witherspoon was John Chavis (1763-1838), an important free black minister, teacher and schoolmaster from here in North Carolina.

In “Princeton and Slavery,” Lesa Redmond goes on to note that John Witherspoon’s son, David Witherspoon, inherited Pembroke and 113 enslaved people near New Bern when he and Mary Jones Nash wed in 1788.

Like his father, David Witherspoon did not manumit any of his slaves when he died. . . . [He] grew up watching his father tutor free black students in Princeton while holding others in bondage. David Witherspoon, in turn, ensured the enslavement of his own human property to secure a Princeton education for his own son.

 * * *

Next time—I’ll follow Susan Johnson’s diary to Fayetteville and Wilmington

 

2 thoughts on “The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

    • yes, once upon a time! Until 1808– Columbus County was created then out of parts of Bladen and New Brunswick! Weird NC history trivia! I think the way I wrote it was confusing though– I think I’ll go back and make all that clearer! And I’ll be coming your way sometime for sure! I’d love the tour! thank you!

      Like

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