About one third of the 120 letters in the Burwell-Guy collection are business correspondence to John A. Burwell from grocers, dry goods merchants, and the commission merchants who handled the sale of his tobacco, corn, and flour. The latter deducted a percentage of sales income and the costs of transport and storage of produce, then paid Burwell his profits both in the form of goods and money. Letters and invoices from John Jones's Richmond, Va. company and the Petersburg, Va.-based firm of Martin and Dormans generally comment on the tobacco market and its prospects, and advise Burwell on how to cure and pack his tobacco in order to obtain the best prices. A letter dated December 9, 1844, from John Eaton, who was also a planter and probably a relation of Burwell's, offers interesting commentary on North Carolina politics and public improvements.
Thirteen letters from Burwell to his son, Thomas, in Norfolk are full of advice on proper moral and business behavior. In December of 1854, he warns the young man at length about fashionable women with "paint on their cheeks, cotton in their Bosoms, & wading on their hips and they pretend to be smart but none hardly have any more sense than to reverse the order of nature..." His fatherly advice is to "[l]ook aloof, & let alone the women, & you will do well." The following month he expresses agreement with Thomas that it is better to "gallant the Young Ladies to Church on Sunday than to 'sit back' in Hotels, & Coffee & Oyster Houses 'puffing segars.'" He adds, however, that while church attendance instills good morals, "you are not obliged to take all you see & hear at a church as right & good . You have sense enough, if you will, to cull the good from the bad." Burwell's comments reflect his rather casual attitude toward religion -- that it was good for a person, but not in excess, and that it need not occupy a central role in life. Women seemed to place a greater emphasis on attending church, but their letters have little to say about religion. Church-going obviously fulfilled a social function as well as a spiritual one.
Plantation children's education was frequent commented upon in correspondence. Some teachers ran their own small schools, while others were hired to instruct the children of an individual family or related families. Children occasionally went away to nearby boarding schools. Boys appear to have attended school more consistently than girls, although both were instructed in a range of academic subjects. John Burwell went through a succession of teachers; one was dismissed for being too "mean," another for being "an abominable fool" who tried to assume an "arbitrary & dictatorial sort of power" over his sons, who would not stand to be treated in this way. Burwell desired his sons to be respectful but not docile: "... never give an insult & never take one. With this motto you avoid difficulty... as well as the finger of scorn & contempt that every gentleman must have for the coward."
In three letters to his sister-in-law Elizabeth T. Guy, John A. Burwell writes at length on the life of the plantation, as viewed through his proprietary eyes. He describe illnesses, births and deaths, his sons' intelligence and his daughter's beauty, the success of his crop and the luxuries bought with its profits, and the superiority of Virginia land. In July, 1846 he brags of having "left my own neighborhood entirely out of sight" in this year's tobacco production, which, with the addition of other produce sales, has brought in $2,224.00. A letter of April 30, 1847 offers chilling commentary on attitudes toward slaves. Burwell writes with amusement that daughter Lizzie Anna has a black maid, Fanny, of whom she is very fond, but that when Fanny made her angry the little girl asked her father to "cut Fanny's ears off & get her a new maid from Clarksville." A more businesslike expression of the status of slaves as profitable chattel is displayed in a June, 1848 letter which details the expenses and profits due Elizabeth from the hiring out of her five slaves.
John E. Burwell, at home on the plantation, wrote six letters to his brother, Thomas, between 1854 and 1857. These comment largely on hunting, which seems to have been a favorite male pastime. He also notes attending a wedding and enjoying "waiting on" two young ladies. When the railroad went through nearby, he amused himself by building a handcar to ride up and down the tracks. The young man appears to have had little in the way of work expected of him; or perhaps he did not consider chores worthy of comment.
The remainder of the Burwell-Guy letters consists of social correspondence, largely between women. Aunts, nieces, sisters, and cousins wrote of domestic life, social events, fashion, gardening, and illnesses. The collection includes 9 letters that Elizabeth Guy wrote to her sister, Lucy Burwell; letters that Elizabeth Guy received from the women of the Townes and Rawlins families; and letters that Elizabeth Guy and Lucy Burwell received from their aunt, Mary Williamson of Kentucky. These letters frequently include news of slaves. Elizabeth Guy also received letters from her brother-in-law, Edward Rawlins, and from his brother William, who discussed their social lives in New Orleans.
After Anna Guy's marriage to Edward Rawlins, she and her sister Elizabeth had their slaves insured and sent to them in New Orleans; in a letter dated December, 1846, Elizabeth Guy claimed, "they shall be always well treated." In order to bring in income, Guy hired some of her slaves out in New Orleans. Anna Guy Rawlins also continued to update her sister on her social life in New Orleans, which included parties and attendance at the opera.
After her sister's hasty marriage to Cousin Edward during their visit to Aunt Mary in Kentucky, Elizabeth Guy developed a passion for Cousin Perry DuPuy and sought permission to marry him. When Lucy disapproved, her ardor cooled. On June 12, 1844, William Rawlins wrote to his cousin, Elizabeth Guy, describing the previous winter social season in Norfolk, with its "courting scrapes and engagements and discards." In September 1855 Mary L. Burwell, who had a "a fondness for young widowers," asked her cousin Thomas Burwell whether Dr. Robert, an acquaintance of his whose wife had recently died, had "thrown aside the weeds of mourning yet."
The collection winds up with the intriguing story of John and Lucy Burwell's divorce, an ugly tale which depicts the underside of their seemingly stable, convivial plantation life. Letters from John Burwell to son Thomas written in March, 1857 lament that his wife has moved out, and that his sons are taking her side, telling things which "should never go out of the family" in court, after saying previously that they would have no part in their parents' quarrels. Unhappy domestic relations had evidently come to a head when Burwell became violent toward his slaves; he was accused of "runing the negroes about with guns & sticks." Burwell asserts that he was doing it "out of fun," that no one was shot or struck, and that a good marksman like himself "knows too well which way his guns were pointed to have done mischief." The court decided otherwise, and granted Mrs. Burwell, who had just given birth to a new son, a divorce. Her husband entreated her to return, vowing never to give "another cross word," and declaring that the decree was "a pack of foolishness." She evidently did not return. The few later letters in the collection do not touch upon the matter.
The Burwell-Guy collection yields a revealing slice of antebellum plantation life. It portrays a social and domestic setting which emphasized family and hospitality, the tobacco economy that supported such a lifestyle, and the slave system that enabled it to function.