“Letter from Adam Foster to Cynthia Foster Claxton” (January 9, 1847)

Enslaved men and women dancing while dressed in fine clothes, jewelry, and floral headpieces

In this letter, dated January 9, 1847, Adam Foster, a northerner visiting Mathews and Gloucester Counties, describes its plantations including enslaved life and the economy of the enslaved in a letter to his daughter Cynthia Foster Claxton.


Auburn, Mathews Co., Va.,

Jany. 9, 1847.

Dear Cynthia,

Now for something about Ellen’s home and vicinity. In going from Baltimore to Norfolk by the Chesapeake Bay you pass directly by the counties of Mathews and Gloucester. The distance to Mathews is about 150 miles, but you first proceed to Norfolk by a steamboat (195 miles) and then return by Mathews packet (36 miles) to “Poplar Grove” on the East River in Mathews County. Enclosed you have a map of the counties of Mathews and Gloucester which I enlarged from a map of Virginia. It will show you how they are watered by different rivers and how the plantations are approached from the Chesapeake Bay. From the Chesapeake you enter a large sheet of water called Mobjack Bay and then ascend the rivers, or arms of the bay, to the different plantations of the finest oysters in the States. Upon the map I have designated in figures of red ink the locations of the plantations of some of the most respectable families, such as visit each other, and now give you the name of each plantation with its corresponding member.

Name of plantation                                                                                         owned by

No. 1 Poplar Grove                                                                                          Mrs. Tompkins

2 Isleham                                                                                                            Wade Mosby, Esq.

3 Green Plains                                                                                                   Ja. H. Roy

4 Auburn                                                                                                             Dr. H. W. Tabb

5 Oaklands                                                                                                          ”     ”    ”      “

6 North End                                                                                                        Mrs. Van Bibber

7 Middleway                                                                                                      J. Deans, Esq.

8 Waverly                                                                                                            Capt. Philip E. Tabb

9 Toddsbury                                                                                                       Mrs. M. C. Tabb

10 Morven                                                                                                          Geo. W. Tabb, Esq.

11 Exchange                                                                                                       James Dabney,  “

12 Elmington                                                                                                      John H. Tabb,    “

13 Glenroy                                                                                                          Wm. P. Smith,   “

14 Cowslip Green                                                                                            A. Taliaferro,     “

15 Belleville                                                                                                        W. Taliaferro,   “

16 Church Hill                                                                                                     Dr. Wm. Taliaferro

17 Rectory                                                                                                          Rev. Wm. Mann

18 White Hall                                                                                                     Dr. Powell Byrd

19 Mt. Pleasant                                                                                                W. Hubard, Esq.

20 Warner Hall                                                                                                  Colin Clark, “

21 White Marsh                                                                                                   John Tabb, “

22 Summerville                                                                                                 Dr. Prosser Tabb

23 Shelly                                                                                                              Mrs. Page

24 Roseville                                                                                                        Mrs. Booth

25 Bellefarm                                                                                                      Philip Taylor, Esq.

26 Wareham                                                                                                      Charles Curtis, “

The proprietors of more than half of these plantations are related to Dr. Tabb and the most friendly intercourse exists between all of them. Everyone keeps a carriage and horses and visiting is kept  up every day in the year. I have been to a good many parties and seldom have returned to Auburn to sleep. The plantation of Dr. H. W. Tabb is kept in fine order and is more pleasantly located than any in the two counties. Aurburn contains about 1100 acres, 700 of which are under cultivation, and the balance well wooded. The approach to the mansion house is very beautiful, and the view from the house itself is as fine as can be expected from flat scenery. The North River runs first in a southerly direction and then turns to the east and empties its waters into

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Mobjack Bay. The plantation of Dr. Tabb is placed at the angle of the river which gives him a water fence for two sides of the farm. Upon the side facing the South he has enclosed a piece of ground, about as large as two of the Philadelphia squares, with a handsome fence. In this large square stands the mansion house and some of the outbuildings, the whole surrounded by 25 to 30 large forest trees of various kinds, so arranged as not to obstruct the view of the river and surrounding country. At the northwest corner of the square is a neat building which serves for the Doctor’s office. His name is upon the door in gilt letters, and one of the rooms inside contains his medical library and the other his drugs, medicine, surgical instruments, etc. The dwelling house contains contains four large rooms upon the first storey. The N. W. room is the parlor; the N. W. the dining room; separated from the parlor by folding doors; the southeast, Ellen’s chamber; and the southwest serves the purposes of a hall, with a staircase winding to the four rooms upon the second floor. The rooms upon the second floor are not quite so large as those below, owing to a wide entry which they open upon, running through the building from north to south. There is a third floor with rooms of lower ceiling, from which two glass doors open upon the north and south parapets, and the house could stand a siege as well as those at Monteray. Upon the eastern side there is a wing which contains the pantry, etc. The Doctor has it in contemplation to put a corresponding wing upon the west side for a greenhouse. The parlor is handsomely furnished with a sofa, center table, two card tables, piano, chairs (none with cushions), Brussels carpet, costly hearth rug, brass fender, stuffed stools, mantel ornaments, mantel glass, three astral lamps, etc., etc. There are five portraits in the room. Three on the south wall, and two on the north. The central one on the south is the portrait of Dr. Tabb. Upon the left is the portrait of Miss Van Bibber, his first wife, and upon the right, the portrait of Miss Tompkins, his second wife, both very handsome women. His first wife has dark hair and dark eyes, and I have never seen a portrait which has such a dignified and aristocratic expression about the eyes and mouth. It has a pleasing as well as noble expression. The dress is of white with a profusion of lace about the neck and shoulders. The second wife has a sweet expression of face, light hair and light complexion, a light colored silk dress, low in the neck with lace edging, and a green belt. Over the piano on the opposite side in one frame are the portraits of two sons of Dr. Tabb who died when they were quite young. The other portrait is that of W. Hubard, Esq., brother-in-law to Dr. Tabb. I have omitted one portrait which would be an excellent representation of a gentleman of the old school. It hangs over the fire-place and was taken for Mr. Tompkins, the father of the Doctor’s second wife.

The dining room contains a large side-board, bookcases, tables, etc., with three paintings, two of them portraits of Dr. Tabb’s father and mother, and one the portrait of Mrs. Van Bibber, the mother of Dr. Tabb’s first wife; also two large engravings of Episcopal Bishops. Ellen’s room is furnished with every convenience for chamber: mahogany wardrobe, bureaus, a large comfortable bed with white dimity curtains, etc. The carpet appears to be a new one. The southwest room, or hall, walls are suspended two or three landscapes in water colors drawn by Miss Van Bibber, a crayon sketch, a large map of the United States, one of the State of Virginia, riding whips, and a bow with three arrows marked Susan. I like the room very much with its hard pine floor as smooth as mahogany table, and its staircase winding with an easy ascent into the hall above. All the rooms above are well furnished and carpeted and beds enough, one under the other, to accommodate a host. Recently a large hunting party sojourned at Auburn for several days,

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among whom was a Mr. Barkley or Barclay, attached to the British Embassy at Washington. He left a few days before my arrival, as Mr. Packerham expected to receive a good deal of company during the Christmas holidays. The house itself is a very fine one, built of brick and painted of a light olive color, the windows large, with large panes; rooms high, window caps and sills of marble, and two semi-circular windows at the east and west sides. There is a large porch (enclosed) leading to the north door, and an open porch, with four pillars in front, leading to the south door. You ascend six or seven steps made of a stone resembling marble to reach the brick pavement of the porches. This gives a sort of basement storey well lighted, with half windows, and furnishing convenient rooms for the cellars, in one of which facing the south are deposited monthly roses, geraniums, and other greenhouse plants. The house itself cost about $10,000, and it is one of the best in this part of the state. It is filled with an abundance of the comforts which have been accumulated for twenty years. The napkins which are sent to my room everyday are of the finest kind and as good. Standing in the wide entry on the second floor, which runs through the center of the building, upon a pleasant day the view from the windows is very pleasant. Looking towards the North, you see the scattered fields with the white cottages of the laborers scattered about the farm, and in the background a beautiful grove of tall pines. Towards the South, the eye rests upon the laws lending toward the river, the river itself sparkling in the sun, and beyond the white dwelling tall poplars and distant forests belonging to the Belleville estate. East of the dwelling house at Auburn, and within the same enclosure, stands a two-storey brick building, painted like the first, in which is the kitchen and rooms for servants. The only novelty about it is the dishing bell suspended over the south door; near to this house are the nest and poultry buildings and the fattening cribs. At the north-east corner of the enclosure stands the weaving shop, with a tenement on the second floor. The negro clothing is made upon the estate, the spinning and weaving being done by the old men and women servants. Within another enclosure near the water stand the barn, coach house, stable, granary, carpenter shop, tool house, and other buildings. Nearer still to the river, is a building open at the sides but covered by a rood, under which are four or five boats or canoes, and a lighter for carrying heavy loads.

West of the mansion house is the garden, a large one enclosed by a white ornamental fence, in the center of which is an arbor covered to profusion with the Greville and Multiflora roses. Round the borders are planted fruit and ornamental trees, among which are the apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry, fig and pomegranate trees bearing fruit, and the lilac, flowering almond, althea, syringas, Scotch broom, etc.  Among the ornamental kind I should not omit the grape, strawberry, and celery beds, raspberries, currants, etc. At the S. W. corner of the garden stand the bee hives; nearly every day since my arrival the girls have brought me rose buds, violets, and lilies from the garden. Yesterday I saw a mocking bird upon one of the trees and I regret to any that the Dr. shot seven one morning before breakfast during the last summer. As an excuse for doing so, he said: “They destroyed his grapes.” Ellen says they sing most sweetly during the live long night.

The ice house stands about 200 yards from the mansion in a north-easterly direction and is one of the most ornamental buildings upon the estate. It rises from a green; white with a circular pointed roof, surmounted by an ornamental cap. All the estates enumerated on the first page have them; in some cases the dairies are constructed in the same manner.

Since I have seen Virginia, I do not remember that I have heard

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the words negro and slave used at all. The colored population are uniformly called “servants.” Dr. Tabb has about 100 of them valued at about $400 each; I may have put this too low, for two female children were sold at auction when I was at Norfolk at $300 each; $775 was offered for an ordinary field hand in our neighborhood last week. I do not think the Dr. would sell his carpenter, bricklayer, butcher, or coachman for $1500 each. They all live very comfortably. Each one has a half pound of bacon and half a pint of molasses or whiskey a day and about a peck of meal a week. They are also furnished with comfortable houses and clothing and well taken care of when sick. Besides these necessaries of life they have a garden to each dwelling and keep as much poultry as they please and in a few hours after work they provide themselves with fish from the river, and such oysters as would sell in Boston for three cents each. One of the annoyances to the planters in the county of Mathews and Gloucester is the number of boats, small clipper built schooners, which frequent the rivers for the purpose of getting oysters. The law of the state is that no vessel shall be allowed to carry away more than 30 bushels, but the law is evaded every day and the negroes fish for them during the night when they should be asleep and are imposed upon by the masters of these vessels who pay them in trifling articles at an exorbitant price.

The regular work done by the field hands which I have witnessed, such as ploughing or making compost beds for manure, could not be better done by white laborers in the North and the young black-legged children do nothing but eat, asleep, and laugh. The real black African is good natured and active, but those who are slightly tinged with white are more surly than I had expected to find them. The New England committees are appointed by our Agricultural Societies to visit the farms in each county. If such a thing were done here I think that “Auburn” would be considered the pattern or premium farm. So much for Ellen’s home over which she is the mistress, and I am happy to say that she and her husband are devoted to each other, and are most respected by all who know them. In addition to the Auburn estate the Dr. owns a plantation called Oaklands containing about 1100 acres, more than one half of which is heavily timbered with white oak and hard pine. It has two cheap dwelling houses and necessary outbuildings upon it and is in the charge of an overseer. Since my arrival a shipbuilder from Maine has paid him $3400 for the privilege of cutting the white oak from a small part of it. This was originally a part of the great Van Bibber property. He also owns a tract of a few hundred acres in another part of the county and has been offered by another Yankee $600 for a hundred trees.

His three daughters will probably have a portion of the Poplar Grove estate which is now owned by Mrs. Tompkins, the mother of his second wife. He is one of the thirty gentlemen who own that part of the Dismal Swamp (about 30,000 acres) lying in Virginia. It is under the care of an agent and furnishes every year large quantities of cypress and cedar shingles; the annual dividend is about 10 to 12 percent. He is also the part owner of a cotton factory at Richmond which rents for $500 annually.

Still of his surviving brothers he has the least wealth. Capt. Philip E. Tabb, the owner of Waverly, formerly followed the seas, and is much richer than the Doctor, but his brother, John Tabb, formerly a wealthy and distinguished merchant at Norfolk, is richer than all the relatives put together and the great Nabob of the State. Dr. Tabb is the youngest and is called the jovial one of the family; he is beloved by young and old. Capt. Philip N. Tabb has all the frankness and liberality of the sailor; he is very much esteemed. Mr. John Tabb, the owner of White Marsh, is sedate, lordly, and ceremonious. You would think so if you saw him presiding at a dinner table before twenty-five or thirty invited guests. These pages are written in great haste, but I hope will afford you some

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pleasure. Send everything to Mary enclosed in an envelope, and ask her to keep them until my return.

Truly and affectionately,

Adam Foster.

P. S. All the inmates of Auburn send their love.

APA Citation:
Foster, Adam. “Letter from Adam Foster to Cynthia Foster Claxton” (January 9, 1847). (2021, May 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Foster, Adam. "“Letter from Adam Foster to Cynthia Foster Claxton” (January 9, 1847)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (25 May. 2021). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, May 25
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