Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
John Fraser Estate Collection, 1823-1873

Finding aid created by
Philip Heslip, October 2009

Summary Information
Title: John Fraser Estate collection
Creator: Fraser, John, 1769-1813
Inclusive dates: 1823-1873
Extent: 22 items
The John Fraser Estate collection consists of letters and legal documents relating to the drawn-out litigation over John Fraser's property in Eastern Florida, which he left to his African-born children. His sister disputed the validity of the will based on the race of the children, and the dispute was drawn out for decades, as executors and lawyers mismanaged the property.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1991. M-2678f.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

John Fraser Estate Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


This collection is organized chronologically.


John Fraser (1769-1813) was born in Inverness, Scotland, and became a successful merchant and a wealthy slave trader. Fraser was married to an African woman named Phenda, with whom he had five children: James, Margaret, Mary Ann, Eleanor, and Elizabeth. He and his family lived primarily in Bangalan near the Rio Pongas River in West Africa, where Fraser owned a "factory" that held slaves before sending them to the America slave markets on ships he owned. Fraser owned property in Charleston and brought his son James there to learn the family business. With the British and American ban on the slave trade in 1809, Fraser left South Carolina and bought extensive tracts of land in Spanish Eastern Florida, where he could continue importing and auctioning slaves. There he established a large rice and cotton plantation. At the height of its value, his property was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1813, however, his plantations were largely destroyed in an insurrection known as the Patriot Rebellion. Around the same time, Fraser drowned in a ship wreck on his way between Africa and America.

He divided his estate among his five children, and appointed his friends Kingsley and Philip R. Yonge as executors. The estate was disputed for the next several decades, as Fraser's sister, Ann Fraser Robinson, and her husband William Robertson, protested the will on the grounds that the "heirs" were in fact slaves, and therefore not entitled to the property, and that a proper inventory of the Fraser estate had never been made after the Patriot War. The proceedings, involving Fraser’s children Mary Ann and Elizabeth, who actively pursued their father’s claims from their homes in Rio Pongo and Sierra Leone, were exceedingly protracted, with litigation continuing to at least 1873.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The John Fraser Estate collection consists of 22 letters and documents relating to the litigation for the disputed estate of John Fraser, one of the wealthiest men in Eastern Florida at the time of his death in 1813. The collection begins with a 30-page probate document from William Robertson and Ann Fraser Robinson, Fraser's sister who contests the legitimacy of his will on the grounds that his wife and children were slaves. The probate document includes several "Exhibits" including a copy of the letter to his executors, in which he leaves the estate to his "natural children," whom he notes are "persons of colour" living in Africa. Another exhibit is an 1822 letter from one of his executors, describing the settlement of the estate and the sale of slaves and property. Also included is a detailed estate inventory, indicating that he owned " land, Negros, money, bank stocks and other things of value of three hundred thousand dollars, or upward," and listing by name and value many of his slaves and the values of the land and plantations that he owned. The Robertsons also contested the value of the estate, since much of it was destroyed in the Patriot War of 1812.

Subsequent items document Fraser's children's protracted legal fight for their inheritance between the years 1837 and 1857. These contain evidence of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and the convoluted ways the estate was divided and distributed over the course of the many legal disputes. By this time, only Fraser's youngest daughter Elizabeth was still alive. The 1850’s letters are from Elizabeth to her lawyer William W. Campbell as they approach a final settlement that would give her $12,500 for the remaining estate. The legal disputes, however, continued throughout the decade. The final letter, dated 1873, is from Henry Younge, son of Philip R. Younge (one of the original executors), who is still inquiring about the sale of Fraser's land in Florida. Together, these items closely document the latter part of a long and complicated legal battle, borne largely from untrustworthy executors and problems with ambiguities in interracial and transnational estates law in the 19th century.

Subject Terms

    • African Americans--Social conditions.
    • Amelia Island (Fla.)
    • Inheritance and succession--Florida.
    • Plantation owners.
    • Racially mixed people--Legal status, laws, etc.--Southern States--History--19th century.
    • Real estate business--Law and legislation.
    • Slaves--Florida.
    • Slaveholders--Family relationships--Southern States--History--19th century.
    Genre Terms:
    • Estate inventories.
    • Estate records.
    • Legal correspondence.
    • Legal documents.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   38, Small Collections  
    John Fraser Estate collection [series]
    Folder   27  
     July 4, 1823
    Folder   28  
     [October 4, 1837]-September 3, 1851
    Folder   29  
     December 16, 1851-January 17, 1854
    Folder   30  
     July 13, 1854-November 17, 1873
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    Along with several 18th-century maps of East Florida, the Clements holds the following map that contains a plan of Amelia Island in East Florida:

    Fuller, William, Thomas Jefferys. To the right honourable John Earl of Egmont, &c.: This plate is most humbly inscribed by his lordship's most obedient humble servant. [London]: Thomas Jefferys, in the Strand, March 26, 1770.


    Schafer. Daniel L. "Family Ties that Bind: Anglo-African Slave Traders in Africa and Florida, John Fraser and His Descendants," Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 20, Issue .3 (1999), 1-21.