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‘He had a heart for mankind’: Virginia’s Robert Carter III and his “Deed of Gift” freed more than 500 enslaved people

Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 10:18 PM EST
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WESTMORELAND Co., Va. (WWBT) - Nearly 75 years before slavery was abolished in the United States, Robert Carter III filed a “Deed of Gift” that would gradually free what would become more than 500 enslaved people in his lifetime – and in death.

Troubled by the institution of slavery, Robert Carter III became a seemingly quiet force to be reckoned with in the mid-to-late 1700s.

Born in 1728 to one of the richest and powerful families in the country, Carter would inherit 65,000 acres of land and more than 500 enslaved African Americans after the passing of his father and grandfather, Robert “King” Carter, just months apart. He owned 16 plantations across multiple Virginia counties, including Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County.

Built in 1729, the original Nomini Hall mansion burned down in 1850. A new house was built on...
Built in 1729, the original Nomini Hall mansion burned down in 1850. A new house was built on the foundation but burned in 2014.(Northern Neck of VA historical society)

Kathy Schuder has studied Carter’s work for years. She is executive director of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, which has worked tirelessly to uncover Carter’s legacy, one that looms over the now 76-acre Nomini Hall plantation today. It was more than 1,000 acres when Carter inherited it in the 1700s.

“He kind of flew under the radar,” said Schuder, during an interview in a meticulously decorated carriage house on-site. “He said some things here and there that we know of, but he wasn’t someone who went out and shouted about his views.”

Robert Carter III
Robert Carter III(Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

Carter, affectionately known as “The First Emancipator,” led by his conscience and unwavering faith, would make history on Sept. 5, 1791.

It was that day, 231 years ago, that Carter filed a Deed of Gift in a Northumberland County courtroom. The document would manumit, or free, more than 500 enslaved African Americans. It was the largest manumission by a single person before the Civil War.

“Nobody did what he did in the manner that he did it,” Schuder said. " A lot of slaveowners would manumit their slaves at their death or at their wife’s death.”

“It’s not quite like Carter did,” Schuder said.

In 1782, Virginia passed a law that allowed slaveholders to set enslaved people free without government approval. So, manumissions were happening, but none came close to the hundreds Carter gradually set free over the next few decades.

In 1792, Carter’s manumission began with a group of 29 enslaved African Americans. Only a few people could be freed per year. Not only did Carter provide money and transportation for freed African Americans to get their emancipation certificate from the court, but he provided land and resources for them to survive.

Thomas Lee Arnest, a ninth-generation descendant who now owns the Nomini Hall estate with his wife, said a relic hunter recently found evidence of slave cabins along the sprawling woodline.

Other relics like candlesticks, coins, even a cradle that survived a fire that burned Carter’s original home down on the property.

Other relics like candlesticks, coins, even a cradle that survived a fire that burned Carter’s...
Other relics like candlesticks, coins, even a cradle that survived a fire that burned Carter’s original home down on the property.(NBC12)

Across the street from the Nomini Hall Plantation, where 18th-century poplar trees still bloom in the spring, there is the Old Quarter Cemetery behind a cornfield.

Arnest hopes to get a historical marker installed soon for area visitors to know it is there.

“It’s really unbelievable, all of the history,” said Arnest, as he pointed to multiple snow-filled dips on the land.

“You see where the snow is in the dips? These are all graves,” Arnest pointed out.

A tombstone in the cemetery.
A tombstone in the cemetery.(NBC12)

For decades, Attorney Thomas Duckenfield, who lives in Washington, DC but has roots in Virginia, has sought answers about his own family history. It was not until his mid-to-late 20s that he began to connect the dots. Duckenfield’s research picked up heavily after law school. He said he spent many nights taking the metro into Washington, D.C. from Northern Virginia to the National Archives.

“It gives you a sense of grounding of who you are and where you came from,” said Duckenfield about his enthusiasm for genealogy.

With the help of the late Frank Delano, who was a historian on the Northern Neck, Duckenfield learned he is the descendant of two families linked to Robert Carter III’s Deed of Gift.

“John Thompson is my sixth great-grandfather and John Newman is my fifth great-grandfather on my mother’s side,” Duckenfield explained.

Dukenfield never heard about the Deed of Gift before the stunning discovery.

“It was like a gold mine to discover,’ said Duckenfield, who said he studied history from some of the greatest educators at Princeton University. Putting the impact of Carter’s deed into perspective, he said the lives of countless descendants could be a lot different if Carter didn’t give ancestors a shot at freedom.

“Since they [ancestors] had occupations and were able to generate revenue, they were able to generate wealth and pass it down generation-to-generation,” Duckenfield said. “There were some women amongst my ancestors who had occupations like shoemakers.”

Thomas Duckenfield family photo.
Thomas Duckenfield family photo.(Thomas Duckenfield)

Charles Belfield, a seventh-generation descendent of Robert Carter III, beams with pride feet away from Carter’s grave at the Nomini Hall plantation, where Arnest comes to reflect.

“It makes me proud to know that I have an ancestor back that far that stepped away from the normal and did with his heart what God convicted him to do,” Belfield said.

“Ohhh, he’s smiling. He’s smiling for sure,” said Schuder when asked what Carter may think if he lived to see his manumission complete and the lives of descendants thereafter. ”That’s what he wanted.”

“He had a heart for mankind,” she said.

The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society holds an annual commemoration of Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift around the time he signed it in September. Due to the pandemic, plans are tentative right now and no date has been set.

Similar to the historical society, The Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project has helped people who believe they are descendants of those Carter freed. You can reach out to both organizations for more information.

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