Chesterfield patriot Archibald Cary is overlooked, underrated
A portrait of Archibald Cary
Although he was one of Virginia’s wealthiest men, Chesterfield County resident Archibald Cary isn’t well-known. And the part he played in history is overlooked and underrated.
Cary was the owner of 14,000 acres of land and hundreds of slaves, a leading figure in local government and instrumental in the quest for freedom in the colonies. In addition, Cary, nicknamed the “Wheelhorse,” was a fierce patriot and generous supporter of the cause of freedom.
Archibald Cary was the grandson of Miles Cary, a 23-year-old immigrant who arrived in Virginia 62 years after the founding of Jamestown and settled in nearby Warwick. Miles had four sons including Archibald’s father, Henry. Both Archibald’s father and grandfather were builders, working on government buildings in Williamsburg and The College of William and Mary. Henry Cary and his wife, Anne, built Ampthill House on the James River seven miles below Manchester in Chesterfield County in 1732, on land purchased from William Byrd of Westover.
Little is known of Archibald Cary’s boyhood. He came to Ampthill at age 10 with his parents and two sisters and lived there until he was 21, when his father gave him 4,000 acres of land in Goochland. Cary attended William and Mary, where he was likely a contemporary of George Wythe and Benjamin Harrison.
Cary entered public life in Goochland in 1747 and moved to Chesterfield upon his father’s death in 1750. Along with the plantation, Cary inherited a flour mill and developed a ropery, iron
furnace and foundry. He married Mary Randolph – whose mother was a descendant of Pocahontas – of the Randolphs of Turkey Island. Though their only son died in infancy, they also had five daughters.
Cary was considered a progressive man of diverse interests and influence. He imported purebred cattle, which came to be known as “Cary’s stock.” He was known for his hospitality and courtesy, was habitually punctual and nearly always present at meetings of the House of Burgesses and the other groups of which he was a member.
He hosted George Washington and Thomas Jefferson often, gave Washington grass seed to try at Mount Vernon, ran a large farming operation, bred his cattle, served as justice of the peace in Chesterfield, re-established the ironworks at Falling Creek after they had been destroyed in 1622 and stayed active in civic works throughout his life.
Cary was quick-tempered and impetuous. His fiery disposition and fierce determination were matched by his fervent patriotism. Although not as well-known as Revolutionary figures like Patrick Henry, his convictions were said to be uncompromised.
He was a firm proponent of local government and objected to the governor and his council having the power to intercede in local matters. Nothing seemed too trivial to interest Cary; he once urged the enactment of a law to curtail the damage squirrels were doing by setting a reward for their capture or elimination.
Cary focused on local matters and did not take a visible role in protesting the actions causing tension between the colonies and Britain. He didn’t like what England was doing and the regulations and taxes they were enacting, but he voted against Patrick Henry’s Resolutions of Protest in 1765, not because he disagreed with the sentiments, but because he was hopeful of reconciliation.
As the colonies moved inexorably toward revolt against Britain, Cary gradually became involved in the various petitions and committees formed in protest. He took a prominent role in supporting an adequate and efficient military. He participated in the establishment of a loan office and paper currency. His standing committee was that of public claims and he handled all sorts of requests involving the building of ferries, roads, bridges and defense against Indians. Regulating tobacco trade was crucial to Virginia and Cary used his influence to have laws passed for this vital export. He also advocated the inspection of pork, beef, flour and other commodities.
Cary’s experience in the House of Burgesses served him well in guiding the colonies’ establishment of self-government. Concerns such as raising funding to support a leadership body, creating and supplying the army, handling the slave issue, trade with Britain, manufacturing gun powder and ammunition and dealing with British sympathizers were all areas in which Cary was involved.
Cary was unanimously elected speaker of the new 1776 General Assembly. He served in this capacity until his death. At the time that the colonies were struggling to pull a new government together, there were some who thought it would be a good idea to name a dictator, one person in whom all legislative, executive and judicial power would reside. The man purportedly suggested to be that dictator was Patrick Henry.
It was said that on hearing this, Speaker Cary accosted the brother of Governor Henry and said, “I am told your brother wishes to be dictator; tell him from me that the day of his appointment shall be the day of his death – for he shall feel my dagger in his heart before the sunset of that day.”
In 1781, the British made a concentrated attack on Virginia. Generals Benedict Arnold and William Phillips came up the James, marched on Williamsburg and up to Richmond. They destroyed Westham, Manchester, Petersburg and City Point and burned Cary’s flour mills; a blow not just to Cary but also to the soldiers whose food he provided.
Prior to that, Cary had written to Governor Jefferson about the importance of protecting the plantations and settlements along the James, suggesting that it could be done by conscripting men and supplies from the landowners.
Unfortunately, his plan was not carried out.
Cary’s deep patriotism was never more evident than in the way he supplied Patriot forces. Although France and Spain had loaned the colonies money to combat the British, it was not enough and Virginia had to finance its military operations, as well as contribute to the colonies as a whole.
Cary advanced supplies for the army and helped to equip the troops. Not knowing if his expenses would ever be reimbursed, Cary gave generously to the extent that his vast wealth before the war was depleted at its end.
Archibald Cary never sought acclaim or position outside of Virginia. At that time, Virginia was a large territory and most people were content to confine their concerns to within her borders.
Writer William Cabell Rives wrote this of Cary in his “Life of James Madison,” (T)he cavalier blood of the noble Falkland flowed in the veins of the Virginia patriot, Archibald Cary, than whom liberty never had a firmer friend or tyranny a more determined foe.”
The surrender at Yorktown was followed within weeks by the death of Cary’s wife of 40 years. His health was failing and after the marriages of four of his daughters, he was left to the care of his youngest, 12-year-old Betsy.
Cary died in 1787. Interestingly, his place of burial is unknown. He died
cash poor though he owned much land and many slaves. Ampthill was mortgaged and he was being pressed by creditors.
It is said that the law of England, still in force in the colonies at the time of Cary’s death, allowed creditors to follow the body until it was actually interred. The story goes that, to avoid the possibility of such humiliation, Cary was buried in secret. Some say he was buried in his cellar and others say that his body was sunk in the river. Still others say he
was buried at his ancestral home in Warwick.
When Du Pont purchased the Ampthill tract that had long since passed from the Cary family, the plan was to raze the stately old brick mansion. State Sen.
Hunsdon Cary of Richmond had it moved brick by brick and reassembled on a bluff off Cary Street Road. The street that bears his name and this privately owned home are the only traces left today of Archibald Cary of Chesterfield, a patriot fallen into the obscurity of time.