Major John Minor II (1735 –1800)

Born November 13, 1735, to John Vivian Minor and Sarah Carr, Major John Minor was their heir and one of the most influential of the Topping Castle Minors. According to Charles Minor Blackford, who in 1903 wrote a biography of four successive generations of his family—all named John Minor—John Minor II, “was a man of mark. His judgement was sound and his energy tireless—a man of affairs, successful, practical, and much consulted by his neighbors and friends. He never held public office, and like all of his blood never sought one; yet no man so molded the public sentiment of his community or did more to elevate its morals.”[1]

John married Elizabeth Cosby in 1755.[2] They had four children. He and his second wife Mary Overton, whom he married in 1760, had seven children.[3] In 1769, he was appointed guardian for a family of eight children, which he transferred to another guardian four years later.[4] Those children were very fortunate, as John believed in the power of education and he sent those in his care to the best schools,[5] unlike many planters who chose to educate their offspring at home using private tutors.

At the time, most young boys received their education at parish schools where curriculum focused on the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, poetry, and religion, which were the basis of all learning.[6] But given the family’s location, wealth, and connections, it is possible that John attended the private Maury School for Boys in Albemarle County. This school was founded and superintended by Rev. James Maury, and boasted Thomas Jefferson and Dabney Carr, friends and relatives, respectively, of the Minor family as graduates.[7] Advanced studies included complex math, Greek, Latin, science, geography, history, and plantation management.[8] The last of these was likely the most practical for John who would someday be master over hundreds of acres and dozens of slaves.

At the age of twenty, the same year he married, John inherited Gale Hill lands from his father. He likely began his career as a tobacco farmer but would have experienced the transition to wheat[9] because the soil could no longer sustain the demands of tobacco and the difficulties of transporting thousand-pound hogsheads of crops over meager roads or dangerous streams proved unprofitable. Under John II’s oversight—and for the next 200 years—the land is said to have also produced oats, flax, rye, corn, and its vineyards yielded Norton grapes, while its terraced gardens provided fruits and vegetables, as well as opium poppy, which was used as medicine during the Civil War. The Minors also kept meat and dairy cows, sheep, lambs, pigs, and turkeys.[10]

At the time, it was not uncommon for planters like Minor to fund their lands not from the profit of their farms, but by taking other jobs in professions like medicine, education, or law[11]—all of which various branches of the Minor family excelled in. John was appointed a Justice of the Peace in Caroline County in 1769 by Governor Botetourt. He also owned a grist mill on the North Anna River by 1774, and it is likely he sold some of the corn, flour, or feed produced by the mill, as he was identified as a merchant in 1775.[12]

            In addition, he managed the affairs and estate of General Thomas Nelson Jr. while he was otherwise engaged as a member of Congress, was a delegate to the 1776 Constitutional Convention, and commanded the siege of Yorktown that resulted in the surrender of the British and an eventual end to the Revolutionary War. John visited the Nelson estates once a month to ensure the overseers were doing their job. One colloquial remembrance has the Major riding the many miles between the plantations on “a bob-tailed black cob of great endurance, and never slower than a brisk canter. If he met anyone who wished to talk to him, the person had to turn, take the Major’s gait, and ride on with him until the conversation was finished.”[13]

Beginning in 1777, John served in the Caroline County militia during the Revolutionary War. He was promoted to the rank of second major in August 1777 by Walker Taliaferro.[14] He served until January 1779, when he resigned his commission.[15] One Minor family historian claims John and at least one of his sons were present at General Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781,[16] but that is unlikely and cannot be otherwise substantiated.

Sometime in the 1770s[17] he built a mansion on his father’s land that came to be known as Gale Hill. The floor plans[18] for the original structure show a two-story building, with porches on the north and south ends. Entering through the north, or front door, one encounters a long foyer with stairs leading upward and doors on three walls. To the west are the dining room and parlor/sitting room, which might have been separated by a fireplace. It is possible that stairs to the cellar came off this room. To the east is the “Old Chamber,” a room similar in size to the dining room that functioned as Mary Waters Minor’s room prior to 1857 and was likely the domain of the lady of the house. It included one fireplace and led off the east wall into the “Shed Room,” which was later converted into a nursery. Off the back porch and sharing a wall with the Old Chamber is a smaller room whose door is not marked.

The second floor consisted of one large room with a single fireplace. The room may have been split into two at some point. Off to the side was another bedroom, which likely belonged to the master of the house, and adjoining that was the “Master’s Library.”

On May 18, 1777, John deeded 906 acres of land on the north fork of the North Anna River in Spotsylvania County to his younger brother, Garrett, for £566 and five shillings.[19] By 1787, the earliest year for which records are available, Caroline County land tax lists showed John owned a total of 725 acres. However, the following year, he owned only 525 acres, a pattern which continued until his death, and could indicate financial issues and/or the need to sell land in order to pay creditors.[20] The Census and property tax records agree with this possible decline in fortunes. The 1778 Census showed that John owned twenty-seven slaves, five horses, and twenty-nine head of cattle,[21] but personal property records from 1783 to 1799 show far fewer slaves, between seven and thirty-seven, and horses, between five and nine.[22]

John Minor died March 21, 1800, aged sixty-four. As a veteran of the Revolutionary War, he likely would have been buried with military honors, including a procession of fellow veterans, but not the pomp afforded to those of higher rank.[23] 

[1] Blackford, 391.

[2] The exact date is unknown.

[3] “The Minor Family,” Genealogies of Virginia Families, 709. Elizabeth Minor was born and died on the same day and so is left out of many genealogical accounts.

[4] “John Minor, of Topping Castle.”

[5] Blackford, 392.

[6] “Colonial Education.”

[7] Wells, 25.

[8] “Colonial Education.”

[9] Burns, location 211.

[10] Burns, location 219.

[11] Burns, location 224.

[12] “John Minor of Topping Castle.”

[13] Wingfield, 450.

[14] “Records from Caroline County Order Books,” Virginia Will Records, 72-–73.

[15] “Records from Caroline County Order Books,” Virginia Will Records, 75.

[16] “The Minor Family,” Genealogies of Virginia Families., 709.

[17] Burns, location 184. Family lore gives 1770, 1775, 1776, and 1777 as possible dates.

[18] Burns, location 7690.

[19] Virginia, Spotsylvania County Records, 1721-1800, Deed book J. 1774-1782, 331.

[20] Burns, location 224.

[21] 1217.

[22] “John Minor of Topping Castle.”

[23] Thacher, James, 323. This page describes the funeral of an ensign.