Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Burwell-Guy Family Papers, 1820-1873

Finding aid created by
Susan Swasta, November 1995, and Meg Hixon, August 2013

Summary Information
Title: Burwell-Guy family papers
Creator: Burwell family and Guy family
Inclusive dates: 1820-1873
Bulk dates: 1840-1859
Extent: 120 items
Abstract:
The Burwell-Guy collection yields a revealing slice of antebellum plantation life on a North Carolina tobacco plantation. 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.
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: www.clements.umich.edu


Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1991, 1992. M-2654a, M-2832.3.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.

Copyright:

Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging partially funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). This collection has been processed according to minimal processing procedures and may be revised, expanded, or updated in the future.

Preferred Citation:

Burwell-Guy Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Biographical/Historical Note

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.


Collection Scope and Content Note

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.

Subject Terms

    Subjects:
    • Education--North Carolina.
    • North Carolina--Social life and customs.
    • Slaveholders--North Carolina.
    • Slaves--North Carolina.
    • Tobacco.
    • Women--Social life and customs.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Burwell-Guy family papers,  1820-1873 [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Accounts current
    • 1845 March 28
    • 1848 May 27
    • 1848 June 8
    • 1849 November 6
    • 1850 June 17
    Agricultural machinery
    • 1850 October 17
    Agriculture--Kentucky
    • 1846 July 1
    Agriculture--Virginia
    • 1843 July 26
    • 1844 December 9
    • 1846 July 1
    • 1855 April 12
    • 1856 April 18
    Alabama--Description and travel
    • 1820 July 4
    Balls (Parties)
    • 1848 February 27
    Beauty, Personal
    • 1844 June 12
    • 1846 July 1
    • 1849 December 19
    • 1854 December 15
    Boys--Recreation
    • 1856 March 8
    Brothers
    • 1854 October 15
    • 1855 February 19
    • 1856 April 18
    • 1856 November 29
    Business
    • 1854 March 15
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1855 January 16
    • 1855 January 23
    • 1855 March 24
    Carpets
    • 1855 August 24
    Cemeteries--Louisiana--New Orleans
    • 1847 February 14
    Children--Recreation
    • 1849 January 16
    Cholera--Louisiana--New Orleans
    • 1849 January 8, 16
    Cholera--Virginia
    • 1856 July 31
    Christmas
    • 1854 November 28
    Church attendance
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1849 January 8
    • 1849 January 16
    • 1855 January 23
    • 1855 March 24
    Clay, Henry, 1777-1852
    • 1847 November 28
    Clothing and dress
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1847 May 10
    • 1847 October 13
    • 1847 November 1, 28
    • 1848 February 27
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1849 January 8
    • 1849 December 19
    • 1854 November 28
    Colic--Treatment
    • 1847 November 1
    Commission merchants--Virginia
    • See collection description
    Corn--Prices
    • 1847 March 17
    Courtship
    • 1840 January 6
    • 1841 March 22
    • 1841 September 12
    • 1844 June 12
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1846 December 17
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1847 May 10
    • 1855 September 5
    • 1857 January 12
    Cousins
    • 1841 September 12
    • 1844 June 12
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1846 December 17
    • ca. 1854 August 5
    • 1854 November 28
    • 1855 September 5
    Democratic Party--North Carolina
    • 1844 December 9
    Depositions
    • 1857 March 27
    Depression, Mental
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1849 January 8
    Diet in disease
    • 1856 July 31
    Divorce
    • 1857 March 29
    • 1857 April 2
    Domestic relations
    • 1857 March 27, 29
    • 1857 April 2
    Dressmaking
    • 1849 January 8
    Education--Kentucky
    • 1847 February 10
    Education--North Carolina
    • 1846 February 10
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1847 February 23
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1847 May 10
    • 1848 April 9
    • 1849 January 16
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1856 July 31
    Employees--Rating of
    • 1855 January 16
    Family violence
    • 1857 March 27
    Farms--Alabama
    • 1820 July 4
    Fathers and sons
    • 1854 March 15
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1854 December 15
    • 1855 January 30
    • 1855 March 24
    • 1855 April 12
    • 1856 April 18
    • 1856 July 31
    Fishing
    • 1850 May 30
    • 1855 March 24
    Flour--Prices
    • 1847 April 7
    • 1849 March 6
    • 1854 January 17
    Food
    • See collection description
    Gardening
    • 1848 April 9
    • 1856 March 6
    Groceries
    • 1851 February 15
    • 1853 December 12
    • 1855 April 12
    Handcars
    • 1856 March 8
    Hawks, Francis Lister, 1798-1866
    • 1848 April 2
    Hunting--North Carolina
    • 1854 October 15
    • 1855 February 19
    • 1855 March 24
    • 1856 November 29
    Husband and wife
    • 1857 March 27, 29
    Infants--Death
    • 1848 December 21
    Infants--Weaning
    • 1848 December 21
    Invoices
    • See collection description
    Jewelry
    • ca. 1854 August 5
    Legislators--North Carolina
    • 1844 December 9
    Liquor
    • 1855 April 12
    Lodging-houses--Louisiana--New Orleans
    • 1847 February 14
    Marriage
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1846 December 17
    Men--Conduct of life
    • 1855 January 30
    Men--Social life and customs
    • 1844 June 12
    Merchants--Virginia
    • 1851 February 15
    • 1853 December 12
    • 1855 April 12
    • 1855 August 24
    Mother and son
    • 1857 April 2
    • 1857 May 26
    New Orleans (La.)--Social life and customs
    • 1847 February 14
    • 1848 February 27
    North Carolina--Politics and government--1775-1865
    • 1844 December 9
    North Carolina--Social life and customs
    • 1840 January 6
    • 1846 February 10
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1849 January 16
    Parent and child
    • 1857 March 27, 29
    • 1857 April 2
    Peach--Planting
    • 1857 March 10
    Plantation owners--North Carolina
    • See collection description
    Price indexes
    • 1853 January 20
    Quarreling
    • 1857 March 27
    Railroads--North Carolina
    • 1844 December 9
    • 1854 March 15
    Railroads--Virginia
    • 1856 July 31
    Religion
    • 1855 January 23, 30
    • 1855 March 24
    Runaway wives
    • 1857 March 27
    Sarsaparilla
    • 1849 January 16
    Sexual ethics
    • 1841 September 12
    • 1854 December 15
    Shipping--North Carolina
    • 1853 January 20
    • 1853 April 7
    • 1853 April 15
    Sick
    • 1841 March 22
    • 1847 October 16
    • 1848 February 21, 27
    • 1848 April 2, 9
    • 1849 January 16
    • 1854 November 28
    Sisters
    • 1846 December 17
    Slaveholders--Louisiana
    • 1849 January 8
    Slaveholders--North Carolina
    • 1846 July 1
    • 1846 December 17
    • 1847 February 14, 23
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1848 June 8
    • 1849 June 19
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1855 April 12
    Slaves--Abuse of--North Carolina
    • 1857 March 27
    Slaves--Death
    • 1846 July 1
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1854 April 27
    Slaves--Employment-
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1848 June 8
    • 1857 April 2
    Slaves--Kentucky
    • 1847 February 10
    Slaves--Louisiana
    • 1847 February 14
    • 1848 February 27
    • 1849 January 8
    Slaves--North Carolina
    • 1846 December 17
    • 1847 February 23
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1847 May 10
    • 1848 February 21
    • 1848 April 9
    • 1853 December 12
    • 1854 November 28
    • 1855 April 12
    Slaves--Prices--North Carolina
    • 1855 January 23
    Slaves--Transportation
    • 1846 December 17
    • 1847 November 28
    • 1848 June 8
    • 1849 June 19
    Slaves--Virginia
    • 1848 December 21
    Taylor, Zachary, 1784-1850
    • 1847 April 30
    Teachers--North Carolina
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1854 March 15
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1855 January 30
    • 1856 July 31
    Tobacco
    • 1845 March 6
    • 1845 April 28
    • 1847 March 17
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1854 October 15
    • 1856 April 18
    • 1856 July 31
    Tobacco farmers--Virginia
    • 1846 July 1
    • 1855 April 12
    • 1856 March 6
    • 1856 April 18
    • 1859 September 26
    Tobacco industry--Virginia
    • See collection description
    Tobacco--Prices
    • 1843 July 26
    • 1845 March 6
    • 1845 April 28
    • 1847 March 17
    • 1856 July 31
    Wages--Clerks
    • 1859 February 2
    Wedding costume
    • 1846 December 17
    Wheat--Prices
    • 1843 July 26
    • 1844 November 13
    • 1853 September 3
    Whig Party--North Carolina
    • 1844 December 9
    Wholesale trade--Virginia
    • 1853 January 20
    Widowers
    • 1855 September 5
    Women slaves
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1849 January 8
    • 1854 April 27
    Women--Conduct of life
    • 1846 November 18
    • 1847 April 30
    • 1854 December 15
    • 1855 September 5
    Women--Education
    • 1844 March 19
    • 1850 May 30
    Women--Health and hygiene
    • 1845 October 6
    • 1849 January 8
    • 1859 August 24
    • 1859 September 9
    • 1859 September 26
    Women--Social life and customs
    • 1840 January 6
    • 1844 March 19
    • 1845 October 6
    • 1847 February 10
    • 1848 April 2
    • 1850 May 30
    Young men--Conduct of life
    • 1841 September 12
    • 1844 June 12
    • 1854 March 15
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1854 December 15
    • 1855 January 16
    • 1855 January 23
    • 1855 March 24
    • 1856 July 31
    • 1856 November 29
    • 1857 January 12
    Young men--Employment
    • 1854 March 15
    • 1854 April 27
    • 1855 January 16
    • 1855 January 23
    • 1857 January 12
    • 1859 February 2