William Allen (1768–1831)


William Allen was a planter, member of the House of Delegates (1802–1810), and businessman who, at the time of his death, owned more than 700 slaves, one of the largest numbers in the state. Born in 1768, Allen did not attend college and instead relied on what one obituary writer termed “a very shrewd mind” and “strong common sense.” As a young man he inherited much of his family’s wealth in Surry County and invested wisely in various businesses. He lived in luxury for the rest of his life. He died in 1831.

Allen was the elder of two sons and second of eight children of William Allen and his second wife, Mary Lightfoot Allen. He was born on March 7, 1768, at his father’s plantation on Upper Chippokes Creek in Surry County. Although his father had been educated at the College of William and Mary and his only half brother, John Allen, may have studied there too, William Allen undoubtedly studied under private tutors but probably did not attend college. He achieved his later success in life through good fortune and good business judgment. The author of an obituary wrote that Allen was “gifted with a very shrewd mind and possessed a vast deal of strong common sense, though he was little indebted to books.”

Claremont Manor

The deaths of his mother in January 1789 and his father and half brother in 1793 made Allen the head of the family and heir to Claremont plantation and the bulk of the vast wealth of the Surry County Allens when he was twenty-five years old. Allen acquitted himself extremely well in the management of his inheritance. He lived luxuriously and added to his estate in 1808 the large and valuable Wakefield plantation adjacent to Claremont. He also joined the other wealthy local landowners in breeding and racing prime horses and in keeping a fine table and liquor cabinet. He was a justice of the peace for most of his adult life and served in a number of other local capacities. In addition, he served in the House of Delegates from 1802 to 1810. Allen was a lieutenant colonel in the militia by 1809 and commanded the county regiment when it took the field during the British invasions of 1813 and 1814.

Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Allen devoted his talents to the acquisition of wealth. Adding to what he had inherited, he purchased other plantations and by 1831 owned more than 26,000 acres and more than 700 slaves. He invested wisely in saw- and gristmills and in a number of other business ventures, among them a spinning and weaving factory in Southampton County, a freight-hauling schooner, the Claremont, that plied the James River, and a drawbridge company in Norfolk. He also owned valuable shares in the Farmers’ Bank of Virginia in Richmond and in the Petersburg Railroad Company. Allen became, next to James Bruce, of Charlotte County, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia during the first third of the nineteenth century.

Union Hotel in Richmond

Allen never married and left the largest portion of his estate, which was valued at more than $360,000, to William Griffin Orgain, the young grandson of his sister Ann Armistead Allen Edloe, with the stipulation that he take the surname of Allen. Allen died at the Union Hotel in Richmond on November 29, 1831, several days after suffering what was probably a heart attack. He was buried in a vault at the family cemetery at Claremont.

March 7, 1768
William Allen is born in Surry County.
January 1789
Mary Lightfoot Allen, the second wife of William Allen, dies.
William Allen serves in the House of Delegates.
By this year William Allen is a lieutenant colonel in the militia.
November 29, 1831
William Allen dies at the Union Hotel in Richmond. He is buried in a vault at the family cemetery at Claremont, in Surry County.
  • Gregory, Eve S.. “Allen, William.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 100. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
APA Citation:
Gregory, Eve & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Allen (1768–1831). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/allen-william-1768-1831.
MLA Citation:
Gregory, Eve, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Allen (1768–1831)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.