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The Emancipation of 500 enslaved African Americans by Robert Carter III.


Robert Carter III (1728-1804), Emancipator of the Burke Family.

By Henry Robert Burke


Robert Carter III (1728-1804) was a very rich plantation owner in Colonial Virginia and in the early state of Virginia. His paternal great-grandfather John Carter (1613-1669) had come from England to Jamestown in 1635. By 1650 John Carter had some African slaves and was on his way to developing a large tobacco plantation in Lancaster County, Virginia called Corotomon.

When John Carter died he left Corotomon Plantation to his oldest son John Carter II (1640-1690). When John II, who had no [1]“white” sons, died he left Corotoman Plantation to his younger brother Robert "King” Carter (1663-1732).

Robert “King” Carter had an illustrious life, holding the post of appointed Governor of Virginia in 1726 and also by acquiring over 300,000 acres of land in Virginia, making him the richest man in all of North America.

While Robert Carter III was indeed rich and privileged, he was not immune to tragedy. Both his father, Robert Carter II (1704-1732) and his grandfather, Robert “King” Carter (1663-1732), died when Robert Carter III was only four years old.

Robert Carter III’s uncles, Landon and Charles Carter managed his inherited 6000 acre Nomini Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia until Robert had grown up and completed his education. By the time of the American Revolution Robert Carter III owned 17 separate tobacco plantations located in several Virginia Counties that totaled 78,000 acres. Nomini Hall was the main plantation; Old Ordinary, Mitchells Spread, Forest Quarter and Coles Point were twelve other plantations named after the signs of the Zodiac.

In 1791 Robert Carter III began a process to emancipate his 500 slaves. This is the largest number of slaves emancipated by an individual slave owner in the history of the United States!

Carter’s emancipation included my ancestors: Mary (1703-1792), Mary’s son Baptist Billy, aka Will Carter (1725-94) Baptist Billy’s wife Hannah (1732-1800) and their daughter Winney Burke (1760-1836) who resided at the Goose Creek Quarter of the 6800 acre [2]Leo Plantation, with property running into Loudoun County and Prince William County, Virginia. (In 1861 this property became the site of the Civil War Bull Run Battlefield.)

The decision by Robert Carter III to emancipate his slaves baffles some historians. I think they miss the human element that Robert Carter III owned his half brother Baptist Billy, and he always knew it. Over the course of Carter‘s life thinking about this must have contributed to his decision to free all his slaves. After all, slave owners and slaves alike were human beings.

 Robert Carter III had no male full siblings. His (“black brother Will”) Baptist Billy must have been his constant companion while they were growing up. They seemed to have had an unusual relationship for a slave and slave owner during their adult life, with Carter often delegating important tasks to his brother.  

From reading the notes and diaries left by Robert Carter III, it is apparent that he had feeling for his slaves beyond the ordinary concerns of keeping them healthy so they could work. It is also apparent that his feelings for Baptist Billy went beyond that of a slave owner for his loyal slave. Robert Carter III affectionately referred to Baptist Billy as his “black brother” and in many ways treated him as such!

In documents that Robert Carter prepared for the Virginia County Courts pending emancipating his slaves, he pointedly enumerated the children and grandchildren of Baptist Billy. It was not common for slave owners recognize paternal lineages of slave children. Even Carter only did this in a few times in his emancipation documents. Was Carter telling us something about him and Baptist Billy? I think so.

After a lifelong association with Baptist Billy, perhaps Robert Carter III came to realize that keeping his “black brother Billy” enslaved was inhumane and since his “black brother Billy” was human, then so were the other slaves he owned. At least this must be considered if one asks the question: “Why did Robert Carter III free 500 slaves seventy years before the rest of the South was forced to do so at the end of the Civil War?


[1] John Carter II had a black son by his slave woman named Richard Nickens and sometimes called Black Dick.

[2] In 1798 George Carter, a son of Robert Carter III inherited 3,400 acres of the former Leo Plantation and named the new plantation Oatlands. Today the mansion at Oatlands is a Historical Center.



The Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society

Researching and Preserving Afro-American Family History

Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

5201 Woodward Avenue - Detroit , Michigan 48202

Volume 12, Number 1, SEPTEMBER 1993.





It has been 209 years (2000) since Virginia plantation owner Robert Carter III did something so dramatic and so radical, that it still can take one's breath away! 70 years before the Civil War broke out, he "Emancipated" his 485 slaves. According to researcher Ira Berlin (in 1991), of the University of Maryland, so far nobody has come forward to say: "One of my ancestors was freed by Robert Carter. " Well I, Henry Robert Burke, am a descendant of Winny Burke, emancipated by Robert Carter III , and I have come forward!”

In the summer of 1991, after the hoopla marking the bicentennial of Carter's Emancipation of his slaves, historian John Barden thought the publicity would turn up at least a few living, breathing, descendant of a person who had been Carter's "absolute property. Maybe someone related to "Prince, son of Mary, who was 5 years old in 1791 and lived in Westmoreland County; or kinfolk of "black Judith", "great Judith", or "little Judith", "Baptist Billy", or "Bricklayer James".

All the names are listed, page after page of them, in a document at the Northumberland County Courthouse in Heathville, Virginia. Eight years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Carter announced in the document that he had - "for some time past been convinced that to hold people in slavery is contrary to the true principles of Religion and Justice."

Following the name is the person's age, and a code for his/her "place of abode." Carter owned 64,000 acres and there are 18 such places, designated by Roman numerals. He had land across northern Virginia from the Shenandoah River to Prince William and Fairfax counties, and down the Northern Neck.

His "Freedom Document" set up a gradual manumission, or emancipation process, based on the slaves' ages, and Carter notes that he had, with great care and attention, tried to arrive at a schedule which would be consent to law and with the least possible disadvantage to his fellow Citizens.

Never-the-less, Barden says, "There was one very interesting response from Frederick county, where an anonymous letter-writer, probably a planter who had a plantation adjacent to Carter's, wrote, and I'm paraphrasing; - that it is essential as if a man set fire to his own house realizing that his neighbor's house would also burn down as well. In other words,- "you are planting the spirit of liberty among the African-American population and it's just not going to stop with slaves."

Barden, a historian at Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, NC, has spent years studying Carter, who is the subject of Barden's doctoral dissertation. "Of all the things about this man, what is the most significant thing he ever did? I really believe that the emancipation was his most significant action. And perhaps it's one of the most significant actions in the history of Anglo-American and African-American relations!"

Carter had abandoned the Church of England to become a Baptist after having a vision of God, which commanded him to "free his slaves". He immediately set out to obey this directive, Barden says. He had enjoyed popular music and dancing, and had a fine collection of musical instruments that was the best in all of Virginia.

While Barden thinks Carter's manumission document was mostly a religious decision, given the recent revolt of the British colonies, "I think he realized that there was definitely a discrepancy between rhetoric of liberty and the reality of slavery in Virginia."

Carter's property of hundreds of slaves was acquired by inheritance and expanded by procreation. He was the grandson of Robert "King" Carter, probably the richest man in America before his death in 1736. "King" Carter outlived his son Robert Carter Jr., who died in 1728 when Robert III was 4 years old. Grandfather Robert "King" Carter raised Robert III, so the grandson became a principle heir to a large portion of "King's" property, including many of his slaves. "There is no evidence that Robert Carter III was a major purchaser of slaves," Barden says.

Barden says about the slaves, "I think nearly all of them did see freedom." Historical papers may give the impression that Carter's children were trying to subvert their father's schedule, but Barden thinks they simply were pressuring a trustee of the Carter estate to give a proper accounting. The emancipation process was still active years after Carter's death in 1804. When the slaves came before the court for review before emancipation, generally they were asked to state their names, Barden says, "and that's when we start to see family names and patterns emerging."

John Carter I
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Childern of John Carter 1 (1663-1669
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Corotoman Plantation - Lancaster County, Virginia
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Robert "King" Carter (1663-1732) of Corotoman
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Famous descendents of Robert "King" Carter.
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Robert 'King' Carter (sitting). Slaves packing tob
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 (Red letters indicate ancestors of Henry Robert Burke.)

"Baptist Billy" born 1725 sometimes called Black Brother "Billy" [or] Black Brother "Will", by Robert Carter III. 

Baptist Billy, son of Mary, age 88 when residing at Leo in 1791. (Inserted by Henry Robert Burke).

Baptist Billy, residing at Leo in 1791, huband of Hannah , father of Mary Anne, Betty Robinson, Winny Burke; grandfather of Micaijah Wyatt, and Nancy.

Resided at Bull Run 1774. Tithable in Loudoun County in 1760-85. Resided at Leo in from 1760 to 1791. Exempt from taxes and levies after April 13, 1784. Frequent messenger between Bull Run (Leo Plantation in Loudoun County, Virginia and  Nomini Hall Plantation in Westmorelant County, Virginia. Over 45 years old in 1791. Possibly emancipated by deed approved in Westmoreland County Court on June 24th, 1794 (text not recorded--as in Barden original).

Hannah Gaskins (from above) wife of Baptist Billy, born 1733, one source suggests 1728, parents unknown but Gaskins was sur-name of some slaves freed by Robert Carter III. Hannah was mother of Baptist Billy's children. Residing at Bull Run in 1774. Tithable in Loudoun County, 1760-80. Residing at Leo in 1788 and 1791. Exempt from taxes and levies by 1788. Over 45 years old in 1791. Possibilty emancipated by deed proved in Westmoreland County Court on June 24, 1794.

Frances born 1728, parents unknown, grandmother of Micaijah Wyatt, and Lett. Resided at Bull Run 1774. Tithable in Loudoun County 1760-85. Resided at Leo in 1788 and 1791. Exempt from taxes and levies by 1788. Over 45 years old 1791. Possibly emancipated by deed proved in Westmoreland County Court on June 24, 1794.

Enoch Burke, b 1778. Son of Winney Burke. Resided at Leo 1788, 1791, 1796. Named in 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancipation in 1800. Emancipated by deed dated Jan 6, 1800.

Harriet Burke, born ca. 1792-94, mulatto, ex Nomony Hall, certified as free by Benjamin Dawson, recorded in Fairfax County, 1826

James Burke born 1790 dark mulatto, son of Winney Burke, ex-slave at Nomony Hall. Certified as free in Fairfax County 1832.

 Jesse Burke, born 1788 or 1789, dark mulatto, son of Winey Burke, ex-slave at Nomony Hall. Certified as free in Fairfax County, 1826; certificate reissued in Fairfax County, 1831, and again in Fairfax County in 1839.

James Burke, listed as Jesse Burke 1796 and later. Born 1789 or 1790, possibly earlier (1787 suggested, twin Henry, living at Leo 1788). Sons of Winny Burke, dark mulatto, at Leo 1791 and 1796. Named in 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancipation 1812. Certified as free in Fairfax, 1816, 1831, 1839. Henry (Burke?--question mark in original).

 "Harry" born 1789 or 1790, possibly 1787, Leo, 1788; Son Winny Burke, at Leo 1791 and 1796, named 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancipation 1812

Nanny (Burke?--as original), also referred to as Nancy. Born 1785 or 1786, daughter of Winny Burke, resided at Leo 1788, 1791, 1796. Named 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancipation in 1805, but name does not appear among those presented for freedom that year. (Possibly Winny Burke died in 1804.)

Nelly Burke, b. 1781, daughter of Winny Burke. Leo 1788, 1791, 1796. In 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancipation 1800. Emancipated by deed dated Jan 6, 1800.

Micaijah Wyatt (Cajah, Cagey), born 1778. Son Frances, grandson of Baptist Billy, also of Frances. Residing at Leo, 1788, 1791, 1796. Named 1791 deed of emancipation. Scheduled for emancip. 1800. Emancipated by deed dated Jan 6, 1800.

[Joseph Burke, born 1800, dark mulatto, son of Winny Burke, ex-slave at Nomony Hall. Certified as free in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1826 and Prince William County, Virginia in 1854. Joseph Burke brought his family to Washington County, Ohio in November of 1854. Joseph Burke died in Newport Township, Washington County in January 1855. Joseph & Hannah Burke are ancestors of the Burke family in and from Washington County, Ohio. - This paragraph by Henry Robert Burke]





Burke Family Genealogy

 Most of the Burke family ancestors were owned by the successive heirs of John Carter 1 (1613-1669)know as the Immigrant, of Corotoman Plantation located in Lancaster County, Virginia;  his son Robert "King" Carter (1663-1732) also of Corotoman; his son Robert Carter II (1704-1732) of Nomony [sic Nomini] Hall Plantation located in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and his son Robert Carter III 1728-1804) who also lived at Nomini Hall Plantation in Westmorland County, Virginia and who freed all 500 of his enslaved African Americans.   

The African American Burke family of Washington County, Ohio, are descended from Mary (1705-?), her son Baptist Billy (1725-1794?) and his wife Hannah 1728-?),   their daughter Winny Burke 1760-1828?), her son Joseph Burke (1799-1855) and his wife Hannah (Gaskins) Burke(1805-1889), all freed by Robert Carter III between 1791 and 1800.

Joseph and Hannah (Gaskins) Burke brought most of their family from Prince William County, Virginia to Washington County, Ohio in November 1854.

Joseph and Hannah had been “born free” in Virginia at a time when the majority of African Americans in Virginia were still enslaved. The parents of both Joseph Burke and Hannah (Gaskins) were  enslaved and freed by Robert Carter III who lived at Nomini Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, but owned 18 seperate plantations in several Virginia counties comprising a total of 78,000 acres.

Twelve of Carter’s plantations were named for the Zodiac: Aquarius, Aries, Cancer, Capricorn, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus and Virgo; plus Nomini Hall, Billinsgsgate, Coles Point, Old Ordinary and Mitchell’s Spread. The 500 slaves owned by Robert Carter III were assigned to groups on each of these plantations.

At the time they were emancipated, Baptist Billy's family, including his grown daughter Winny Burke, were living at the Bull Run Quarter of the Leo Plantation which was located in Prince William County, Virginia across the county line from Leo plantation headquarters at Leesburg in Loudoun County, Virginia. (Now the National Park Service Bull Run Civil War Battlefield.)


Another document from Robert Carter's Emancipation that gives names and details of some slaves who were freed. 






The Oatlands Mansion

Carter Web Site:
The original size of the Robert Carter III Leo Plantation near Leesburg in Loudoun County, Virginia was around 6,700 acres.
 George Carter, a son of Robert Carter III, was give around 3,700 acres of Leo and George named of his portion of the former Leo plantation "Oatlands".
It is not know for sure by this author, if George Carter managed to keep enslaved any the African Americans that his father had intended to free. Oatlands continued to operate with slave labor until slavery was abolished in 1865.
Mailing Address
Oatlands Plantation
20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane
Leesburg, VA 20175
Phone: 703-777-3174
Fax: 703-777-4427
Web Site:
Driving Directions:
Oatlands is located six miles south from Leesburg on Route 15, approximately 40 minutes from Washington, DC. [From DC / Arlington] : I-66 West to Exit 67 (Dulles Airport) to 267 West (toll road) to Leesburg. Exit 1A then second right (15 South Warrenton). Oatlands front gates are five miles on the left. [From Fairfax] : Route 50 to Route 15 North at Gilbert's Corner. Turn right (north). Oatlands front gates are six miles on the right. [From Baltimore / Frederick] : I-70 West to Frederick. Route 15 South to Leesburg Route 15 bypass to 15 South Warrenton. Oatlands front gates are five miles on the left.