Robert “King” Carter was born at Corotoman Plantation in Lancaster County, Virginia, to John Carter (1613–1669) of London, England, and Sarah Ludlow (1635–1668) of Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire, immigrants to the colony of Virginia.
At age 28, Robert Carter entered the General Assembly of Virginia as a Burgess from Lancaster County. In 1726, as President of the Governor’s Council, he served as acting Governor of Virginia after the death of Governor Hugh Drysdale. As an agent of Lord Fairfax – Carter served two terms totaling nearly 20 years, as agent for the Fairfax Proprietary of the Northern Neck of Virginia. He began to acquire large tracts of land for himself in the Rappahannock River region of Virginia. Carter acquired some 20,000 acres (81 km2), including the 6,000-acre (24 km2) Nomini Hall Plantation, also spelled “Nomoni” or “Nominy.”
When Carter became representative of Fairfax’s interests again in 1722, serving from 1722 to 1732, he secured for his children and grandchildren about 110,000 acres in the Northern Neck, as well as additional land in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Carter died on 4 August 1732, in Lancaster County, Virginia. He was buried there at Christ Church. He left his family 300,000 acres of land; 3,000 slaves, counted as personal property; and £10,000 in cash, as stated in the academic genealogical study, A Genealogy of the Known Descendants of Robert Carter of Corotoman (1982), written by Florence Tyler Carlton.
Robert Carter III was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter. Also known as Councilor Carter because of his service on the Governor’s council in Williamsburg, one of the large landholdings Robert Carter III inherited from his father was the 11,000 acre Goose Creek tract in Loudoun County. Councilor never lived on the tract; rather, he leased the land to numerous tenant farmers who paid him an annual rent.
In addition to the Goose Creek tract, Councilor had numerous landholdings throughout Virginia, encompassing tens of thousands of acres, and he enslaved over 500 people. Over the course of his life, he came to view slavery as immoral and in 1791 he filed a Deed of Emancipation in Northumberland County, Virginia, for the gradual manumission of the people he enslaved. The laws at that time permitted enslavers to free the people they held in bondage as long as certain conditions were met. Councilor’s “Deed of Gift”, as it is known, is believed to be the largest private emancipation in American history, and one that is not well-known.
None of Carter’s ten surviving children shared their father’s belief about the institution of slavery. In 1798, his son, George Carter, inherited 3,400 acres of the Goose Creek tract and landholdings in Fairfax and Prince William counties. By the 1800 census, George is recorded as enslaving 17 people on his Loudoun property. It was on this land that he established his farm that he named Oatlands and constructed on Goose Creek a large grist mill, saw mill, nail factory, and the county’s only known oil mill for pressing flaxseed. In 1817 he successfully petitioned his neighbor and newly-elected president, James Monroe, to establish a post office at the mill site. This enclave of businesses became a thriving commercial hub which continued into the mid-20th century.
George Carter’s success as a farmer and businessman was dependent on enslaved labor. Enslaved men, women and children farmed the land, tended the 4 ½ acres of garden near the house, cared for the family, and probably worked at the mills. The number of people held in bondage grew from 17 in 1800 to 133 recorded in the 1860 census, right before the start of the American Civil War.
Carter died in 1846, and his wife Elizabeth O. Carter continued to run the plantation as her husband did – with the help of overseers, farm managers, and enslaved labor. She kept a diary from 1861 to 1872, recording the temperature, wind direction, and everyday activities at Oatlands and Bellefield, her other plantation that was near Upperville. Her entries include numerous references to certain enslaved people, probably those who were domestic slaves with proximity to the family and those who provided domestic or personal tasks outside of the house. From the diary we get a glimpse of life during and after the Civil War.