Creating a Family in Southside Virginia

A Republican Family

Peyton Skipwith was born December 11, 1740, in Middlesex County, Virginia. The death of his brother in 1756 allowed Peyton to be the seventh Skipwith to inherit the title of the baronet. It was a title that he would keep throughout his life, despite the political changes that occurred after the American Revolution. Skipwith, like most second sons, was educated in Virginia. When he became heir to the title, his family thought it necessary that his education be completed by a trip to England. In 1763 he was sent on his trip to the British Isles, where he became re- acquainted with Anne Miller, originally of Prince George County, Virginia. At this time Anne was residing in Scotland with her sisters and brother, Jean, Lillias, and Hugh Miller, Jr. Peyton married Anne in 1764, and they returned to the colonies. Over the next fifteen years Anne Skipwith gave birth to four children, Grey (1771-1830),Lelia (also called Lillia- dates unknown), Maria (ca.1777-1792) and Peyton Junior (1779-1808). Anne Skipwith died as a result of her last pregnancy in 1779. Peyton Skipwith was left with the challenge of managing his estate and raising his four children, ranging in ages from eight to infancy.[1]

During the Revolutionary War, Peyton Skipwith's actions earned him neither the title of patriot nor of loyalist. Skipwith's activities suggest that he viewed the war as an economic opportunity. He invested heavily in livestock which he sold to America's French allies stationed in the colonies. This practice, in the end, became more of a financial liability than an opportunity when he lost his contract with the French Army. After the war Peyton was eager to resume commercial relations with England and recoup some of his economic losses. On a business trip in 1784, Peyton met his second wife, Jean Miller. It is the life that Peyton and Jean Skipwith created for themselves and their family in Mecklenburg County that will be the focus of this study.[2]

Enter Jean Miller

Anne Skipwith's sister, Jean Miller, was born February 21, 1748, at Blanford in Prince George County. Her mother, Jane Bolling Miller, died in 1756, and four years later her father, Hugh Miller, moved the family (Anne, Robert, Lillia, Jean, Hugh, Jr.) back to Scotland. Jean was twelve when she began her new life in Glasgow. Her father died in 1762, providing in his will an income that was to be received by Jean and her sisters when they married or came of age. Jean and her siblings were in many ways left in charge of their own affairs with only the guidance of family advisors and each other. In 1764 Jean's sister Anne left Scotland to begin her new life in America with Peyton. The extent of Jean Miller's formal education is unknown. She lived in Scotland during the Scottish Enlightenment, and the size of her personal library indicates that she was a well read and educated wornan.[3]

No letters between Jean and Anne, or even with Anne's family, survive. Lelia Skipwith wrote to her aunt, Lillias Miller Ravenscroft, at the end of the Revolutionary War inquiring into the health of her aunt Jean Miller's health. She had never met Jean Miller and admitted to knowing little about her. On a business visit to the British Isles in 1784, Peyton Skipwith renewed his acquaintance with Jean Miller who was then living with her sister Lillias Ravenscroft at Cairnsmoor in southern Scotland. Peyton Skipwith's visit had a strong effect on his sister-in-law for by 1786 Miller was on her way back to Virginia to continue the relationship.[4]

“A Union on which my future happiness so much, and so immediately depends”

In 1788 Jean Miller was in residence at Elm Hill in Mecklenburg County. Elm Hill had originally belonged to Miller's father but had passed to Peyton Skipwith through Anne Miller's dowry. Jean Miller was an independent woman. She had controlled her own income since her majority. Such self-sufficiency may have caused her to be cautious about relinquishing independence for marriage. This may explain why the Skipwith-Miller courtship appears more like a negotiation than a romance. Peyton was an ambitious, practical man who could appreciate Jean's taste and gentility. Jean was a strong woman who could recognize the opportunities a marriage with Peyton offered, specifically wealth, status, and a family of her own. Sometime in early September, 1788, Jean Miller received a final proposal of marriage from Sir Peyton Skipwith.[5] She hesitated long enough to prompt an acquaintance of Skipwith to write urging her to marry soon. Evidently she took his advice, for on september 25, 1788, Jean Miller and Sir Peyton Skipwith were married in North Carolina.[6]

Building a Home and Family

At the time of his second marriage, Sir Peyton Skipwith was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, making a living by planting agricultural commodities and by mercantile enterprises.[7]

Jean Skipwith came to the marriage as a woman who had long enjoyed independence. Within the first year of their marriage Peyton and Jean began their family. At the advanced age of 41 Lady Jean became pregnant for the first time. She endured five pregnancies with only four children surviving infancy. Their first child, Helen (1789-1864) was followed by Humberston (1791-1863), Selina (1793-1870) and Horatio Bronte (ca. 1794-1805).[8] Peyton and Jean Skipwith began their married life at Elm Hill. They eventually built one of the largest houses in southside Virginia and created a way of life that put them at the top of Mecklenburg society.

Map of Prestwould

Peyton died in 1805 at the age of 65. His children from the first marriage had all reached majority and were on their own. The children from his second marriage with Jean ranged in ages from 16 to 11. Jean was faced with managing an estate and discharging payments which totaled "upwards of $30,000."81 Even though Peyton Skipwith had demonstrated his faith in Jean, she initially expressed doubts as to her ability to manage the estate and responsibilities she inherited from her husband. Soon after Peyton Skipwith's death, Lady Skipwith wrote to her nephew, John Ravenscroft, for advice on how to administer the will. Ravenscroft expressed surprise at finding his Aunt so confused over business matters. "I am truely sorry my Dear Aunt," he wrote,

to find, that you, who have so much strength of mind on all other occasions, should on Pecuniary matters suffer anxiety and doubt to overcome you so far, as from your Letter I find you do. . . . Permit me to say that habitually viewing any thing as arduous and difficult only renders the accomplishment more so and that in our situation, tho new, and probably not exctly to your wish yet there can be no serious difficulty nor eventual injury to the Interest of your family . . . at any rate not one in five houndred would allow their spirits to be overcome and their health to be injured – and you owe it to your children to counteract such impressions & to prevent such consequences.[9]

References

1. "The Library of Lady Jean from the Age of Jefferson," G Mildred K. 91 (July 1983); Virginia Magazine of History, 298-299.
2. John Hetlin to P. Skipwith, May 10, 1782, Skipwith Papers, Box 1, fol. 73, Swem Library.
3. Ibid.; "Notes and Queries," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 10 (190 -1903), 322-323; Jean Miller Skipwith was christened Jane Miller but later changed her name to Jean for the sake of simplicity she will always be referred to as Jean.
4. Ibid., Lelia Skipwith to Lillias Ravenscroft, March 16, 1781, William and Mary Quarterly, XXIII (1914-1915), 281-282.
5. "Notes and Queries," VMHB, 10, (1902-1903), 322-323; Abraham, "Library of Jean Skipwith" VMHB, 91, (1983), 298-299; Sir Peyton Skipwith to Jean Mlller, September 7, 788, (typed transcript) Skipwith Papers, Prestwould Foundatlon, Chase City, Virginia.
6. R. Hylbon to Sir Peyton Skipwith, October 12, 1788, Skipwith Papers, Box IV, fol. 76, Manuscript and Rare Book Department, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia; Marriage Certificate, September 25, 1788, Skipwith Papers, Mss2 Sk3662, Virginia Historical Society. The fact that Sir Peyton Skipwith wanted to marry his deceased wife's sister made it illegal for the Skipwiths to marry in Virginia; they had to marry in North Carolina where there was no such restriction.
7. Abraham, "Library of Jean Skipwith," VMHB, 91, (1983), 300; Mark Fernandez, "Growth of a Fortune: The Career of Sir Peyton Skipwith, Planter and Entrepreneur of Colonial Virginia" an Unpublished paper, 17, 19.
8. Abraham "Library of Jean Skipwith," VMHB, 91, (1983), 298-303; Ibid.; P. Skipwith to St. George Tucker, December 12, 1795, (typed transcript), Skipwith Papers, Prestwould Foundation. The letter is unclear as to the circumstances surrounding the loss of the fifth child.
9. John Ravenscroft to J. Skipwith, July 6, 1806, Skipwith Papers, Box VIII, fol. 43a, Swem Library.