Dabney Minor I (1749–1799)

Dabney Minor I, Francis Minor’s grandfather, was the eighth child of John Vivian Minor and Sarah Carr, born June 11, 1749. History is mute on his upbringing, but he was certainly apprenticed to the trade of carpentry at a young age,[1] as his profession is described as a carpenter and house joiner.[2] Such periods of study usually lasted between four and seven years,[3] and given that many of the people who taught craft work were planters and other artisans, it’s possible that Dabney learned his skill from a family member or a free or enslaved craftsman in their employ.[4]

Since his father was a wealthy man, it may seem incongruous that Dabney was given to study a craft, but several factors shed light on this decision. The first is that Dabney was a younger son—the sixth of seven boys—and was unlikely to inherit the vast fortune and lands awaiting his elder brothers. Therefore, he would need to be able to support himself. He is not mentioned by name in his father’s will, so no major bequests awaited him when he obtained his majority. 

Second, “self-sufficiency,” whether voluntary or forced as an economic model was very important to the Chesapeake Bay region. Prior to the Revolutionary War, imported goods were very expensive and there were many people competing for them. Having skilled laborers in the towns enabled more people to have access to the items they needed/desired and at a more affordable price.[5]

Third, there is a strong historical suggestion that the Chesapeake area had a shortage of craftsmen who were not slaves.[6] That being the case, a career in one of the trades would not have made Dabney looked down upon, but rather highly valued as an artisan.

Dabney married Anne Anderson, daughter of David and Elizabeth (Mills) Anderson of Albemarle County, on October 12, 1773.[7] Together, they had five children, including one daughter who died young and is therefore omitted from some family and historical records.

Dabney appears to have prospered in his craft. The 1774 Richmond County census shows him as head of a household of fourteen adults:[8] “three of them—his wife Anne and two slaves named Amy and Liddea—were women. Of the men, two were white apprentices, and eight were adult male slaves. Presumably Minor could lead a substantial ten-man gang to construction sites or split up his force to work simultaneously on separate projects. As long as his slaves didn’t run away, Minor had a large, stable, and presumably skilled labor force.”[9]

However, some of Dabney’s slaves did try to escape, as newspaper ads calling for their return show. One even indicates that Dabney may have trained them well enough to have ambitions of working for themselves. “Dick, a ‘good carpenter’ who ran away from Dabney Minor, took ‘a band saw, jack and long plane,’ suggesting that he intended to continue working at his craft when free.”[10]

Dabney was so well-respected for his work he received several commissions. He was part of a commission of five men who prepared two acres of land for public buildings in Orange, the county seat. He also completed several commissions in construction of the courthouse and furniture to be housed within it, including tables and bookcases.[11] Personal property and tax records from the period 1784–1796 show him owning anywhere from six to fifteen slaves, three to seven horses, and two to nineteen head of cattle,[12] additional signs he was doing well.

At some point before 1797,[13] the family acquired over 1,000 acres on the North Anna River, a plantation they came to call Woodlawn.[14] That was a popular name for residences in the area, with no fewer than five others bearing the same name; this one is believed to be located south of present-day Highway 612 just west of the Spotsylvania border.[15] 

On this land, Dabney built a large-frame Georgian house which was considered one of the largest and finest residences in the country in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Its construction marked the Minors as a family of distinction and highlighted just how far they had come in a century from their maritime merchant roots. Local historian Ann Miller describes the house as:

Two stories high, measuring 50 by 30 feet, it stood on a full brick basement laid

In Flemish bond. In the summer, the wide central stairhall [sic] served as a

summer living room, and the double front and back doors could be thrown open

to admit breezes from the river. A single large room adjoined each side of this

central hallway, and a one-story, shed-roofed library room, 20 feet square, opened

off one gable end. All rooms on the first floor had wainscoting and chairrails, [sic]

paneled doors and elaborately carved mantels. Woodlawn must have been a

showplace indeed: Dabney Minor’s inventory lists fine gilt-edge china, silverware

and mahogany furniture among the contents of the house, and the Minor account

books include an entry for the purchase of “imported materials” for the house.

Insurance policies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries show the main house

surrounded by a complex of long-vanished plantation buildings: two kitchen

buildings, a barn, smokehouse and dairy.[16]

This was the home that came to identify a whole branch of the Minor family, but Dabney did not live in it long. The year of his death is in some question, as the Minor Family Bible clearly records it as November 7, 1797,[17] but tradition holds to November 7, 1799,[18] possibly the result of a transcription error somewhere along the way.

[1] There appears to be no set age at which boys were apprenticed. Some were as young as three or as old as eighteen. See Russo, 428n42.

[2] Sidbury, 51.

[3] Russo, 406.

[4] Russo, 418.

[5] Russo, 420-421.

[6] Russo, 420.

[7] Minor Family Bible.

[8] “The Minor Family,” Genealogies of Virginia Families.

[9] Sidbury, 51.

[10] Sidbury, 55.

[11] Priddy III, Sumpter T. and Vick.

[12] Richmond City Personal Property Tax List 1787, 1093; 1787 Census of Virginia, 835.

[13] Clopton, 100.

[14] Miller, Ann, 185.

[15] Miller, Ann, 11.

[16] Miller, Ann, 185.

[17] Minor Family Bible.

[18] Clopton, 100.