North Carolina tobacco farmer John A. Burwell and his wife Lucy Penn Guy Burwell inhabited a world defined by the southern plantation economy and by the social ties of extended family. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, parents and children, and a large crop of cousins corresponded and visited back and forth. Cousins intermarried, further cementing the ties that made up a close and complex kinship web. Favorite first names -- Lucy, Mary, Sally, Elizabeth, Edward, William, John -- were used in related families and in succeeding generations. In this largely rural antebellum setting it seems that family, rather than church, educational institution, or town, provided ones sense of community and identity.
Genealogical details are sketchy. The Burwells lived near the North Carolina-Virginia border (Burwell's farmland was actually in Virginia), and two other branches of Mrs. Burwell's family lived close by. Her aunt and uncle E.T. and Edward Townes and their children lived in the same general area, while aunt Mary A.E. Rawlins, husband and children were based about 75 miles away in Danville, Virginia. Another aunt, Mary T. Guy Williamson, and her family had settled near Louisville, Ky.
The parents of Lucy Penn Guy Burwell and her two younger sisters, Elizabeth T. Guy and Anna Guy, had evidently migrated to Alabama around 1820. Sometime before 1840 both parents died, and the three girls then made their home with or near their mother's aunts, E.T. and Fanny Townes, in North Carolina. By 1840, Lucy Guy was married to John A. Burwell and settled in Lynesville, N.C. Anna Guy married cousin Edward Rawlins of Danville, Va. in 1846 and they relocated to New Orleans. Her unmarried sister joined her there.
John A. Burwell was a prosperous tobacco planter who also produced corn and wheat for market. He did well enough to enjoy moderate luxuries -- a carriage and team of horses, fashionable dresses for wife and daughter, oysters and brandy -- but was clearly not of the richest class of planters. He and his wife owned 15 slaves to work the fields and several to serve in the house. Burwell took great pride in his tobacco, yearly endeavoring to "beat his neighbors" and win the prize awarded by Virginia tobacco merchants for the highest quality crop. Pride seems to have been a primary feature of Burwell's personality, for he set great store not only on his tobacco, but on the quality of the material goods it bought, the beauty of his daughter, the reputation and success of his sons. The work of his plantation, hunting, fishing, and dining seem to have been the preoccupations of his life.
John and Lucy Burwell had at least 7 children: Thomas, Armistead, John E., Charles, Lizzie Anna, and a girl and boy whose names are not known. The children were for the most part educated by a succession of teachers hired by Burwell. Lizzie Anna Burwell attended an "institute," in nearby Warrenton, N.C. for some part of her elementary education. After school Thomas Burwell went to work for a commission merchant in Norfolk, Virginia, while the other children remained at home.
Details on Lucy Burwell's life are not abundant. She managed a complicated household; bearing and caring for children, directing the work of domestic slaves, gardening, nursing the sick, entertaining company. She appears to have suffered ill health frequently. To her fell the tasks of maintaining the social facade required by a prideful husband -- a husband who was evidently hot-tempered as well as arrogant. In 1857, Lucy Burwell left home, accusing her husband of violent behavior. The marriage ended, Lucy and her daughters went to live with her brother, and little is known about the family after this.
There is virtually no biographical information on the slaves -- called "servants" by their owners -- whose work fueled the plantation economy and its elaborate social life. They are mentioned as individuals at birth or death, when ailing, when hired out, when bought or sold. Families were split up when Anna and Elizabeth moved to New Orleans and had their slaves sent to them. Occasionally the women were permitted to visit mothers or daughters. Various members of the Burwell and Guy families wrote of their affection, respect, even love for certain slaves. But although these men and women may have been recognized as individuals, with distinct talents and personalities, they were also possessions, accorded no control over their own lives.