Warner Washington Minor (1792–1830)

Virginia’s father, Warner Washington Minor, was born on November 22, 1792, the eldest child of William and Mildred Gregory Lewis Minor. He was described as a “man of notable presence and personality.”[1] Nothing is known of his childhood.

It is likely that he served his country during the War of 1812. A Private Warner W. Minor is listed as fighting for twenty-three and a half days as part of Captain Bentley Brown’s Company of the Seventy-Fourth Regiment of the Virginia Militia commanded by Colonel William Trueheart in 1813.[2] This creates a tenuous connection between him and at least one of the Col. William Minors whose records are detailed above, and it is possible that father and son fought at the same time. However, it is no guarantee, because all able-bodied men would have been expected to do so.

Warner married Maria Timberlake on January 25, 1819. They had seven children, of whom Virginia Louise (or Louisa) was the second daughter and third eldest. Her older siblings were Lewis Madison Timberlake (1828–1874) and Mary Mildred Madison (1821–1843) and her younger sisters were Lucy Ellen (1826­–1872), Maria Warner, who was born and died in 1827, and Harriet Ann (1828–1830), plus brother Warner W. (1830–1832).[3]

The children were raised with the help of slaves. Even though slavery was beginning to be criticized in Virginia,[4] the Minors owned eleven slaves in 1820[5] and by 1830 had increased their human property to thirty-nine slaves and also employed nine free blacks. [6]

Little is known about Warner’s life between his marriage and 1825, other than he seems to have lost whatever fortune he had.[7] His plight was not uncommon, however, as 1820 was the beginning of “the lean years” for Albemarle, which would stretch decades beyond the Civil War.

Many contributing factors made this a tough time for the area. Slavery slowed the efficiency and productivity of a diversified agriculture that had branched out beyond tobacco into wheat and other grains and was quickly becoming the trend in more prosperous parts of the country. On top of that, generations of tobacco farming had worn out the fields and farmers were facing competition from newly settled, richer lands out west. Plus, in other parts of the country, “the first movement toward urban industrialization was beginning to take place, threatening to leave rural Albemarle behind.”[8]

It is unclear where the family was living prior to 1825, when they moved to Charlottesville so Warner could take a job as one of the first “hotelkeepers” at the University of Virginia,[9] employed under Proctor Arthur Spicer Brockenbrugh.[10] 

Thomas Jefferson created the University of Virginia after leaving the White House. A lack of local institutions of higher learning had vexed him as early as 1820, when he realized “that Virginia had no satisfactory colleges or universities” and had to urge his grandson, Francis Eppes, to enroll at Columbia College in South Carolina instead. His situation was not unique. Hundreds of Virginians enrolled in out of state universities like Princeton each year.[11]

To combat this problem, Jefferson wanted to “create a Harvard in Virginia,”[12] a school that offered an attractive alternative to the prestigious northern schools where students would be wrenched from their southern roots and taught “opinions and principles in discord with those of their own country,”[13] namely that slavery was wrong.

Ever the Renaissance man, Jefferson designed all of the university buildings and the entire “Academical Village”[14] surrounding it. This complex included general boarding houses, called hotels, special rooms on the Lawn given to outstanding undergraduates, pavilions for the professors, and dedicated buildings in an area called the East and West Ranges that housed the most gifted graduate students.[15] Construction of the school was complete by March 7, 1825, when the first term began for the inaugural class of sixty-eight students.[16]

The boarding houses on campus were called hotels and were separate from the dormitories.[17] The University had six hotels, named A through F. Warner was in charge of Hotel C.[18] Each was a single story, except for F, which was two. They ranged from thirty-four to fifty feet in size. Each had a basement kitchen and on the main floor a large public dining room. Two small rooms made up the private quarters of the hotelkeeper and his family.[19]

Though a supervisory position, a hotelkeeper was not a job a person would take if he or she could help it. “All [of the hotelkeepers] belonged to families that had somehow or another fallen on hard times,”[20] notes Jefferson expert Marie Frank. The job was undesirable because it was expensive and thankless. As a hotelkeeper, Warner was responsible for watching over the students in his dormitory and providing their board, furniture, and linen.[21] Yet, he was not hired outright. Frank explains,

Visitors rented each of the hotels for $200 per year. In a sense, therefore, the

keepers ran their hotels much as independent boarding houses in a village… They

had to furnish all the furniture, not only for their own hotels but for the dormitory

rooms of the students as well. They contracted for all supplies on their own and

hired their own servants or brought their own slaves. They were responsible for

feeding the students three times a day, cleaning and making fires in the student

rooms, keeping their own building in shape, delivering firewood, water, and ice,

and doing their own laundry.[22] 

How well a hotelkeeper did financially depended upon the number of students boarded at his hotel.[23] Estimations from 1827 concluded that in order to make a profit, a hotelkeeper had to have at least thirty students. This was nearly impossible for half of the hotelkeepers as only ninety-eight students boarded that year, so each hotel average only sixteen students.[24] The requirement that he supply such provisions was a burden to Warner from the beginning, as was the expectation that he would buy or rent slaves to help oversee the students’ needs.[25] He expressed worry that these expenses “would force me to quit this place” in several letters from March 1826 to 1830.[26]

To make money, some keepers kept a bit of the sum they received from the bursar based on the number of students they had.[27] The money was supposed to go toward supplying the students, but holding some back was an easy way to make a little profit.

Those with higher morals used the garden and lot that was a part of their holding to make money, usually by selling produce to one another or to students and faculty.[28] They also performed odd jobs like hauling wood or allowing guests to stay in their hotels during meetings and other events in exchange for a reduction in rent.[29] Warner Minor is on record as having hauled wood for the Proctor, as well as for a man named George Long.[30] He also helped someone move house sometime between May 1827 and February 1828, for which he was paid twenty-eight dollars.[31]

University records show that Warner also kept several cows and pigs,[32] while others kept horses and chickens, likely both for food and profit. Sometime before 1827, Warner received a written reprimand, possibly because his animals wandered onto the lawn.[33] It stated, “Minor be informed that the Faculty disapproved of his keeping hogs within the precincts of the University.”[34] In 1827, fences were constructed to the north and the south of the lawn to protect it from animals.[35]

Warner was constantly trying to think of ways to improve the University and its hotel system. In October 1826, he sent a lengthy, detailed letter to John Hartwell Cocke,[36] who was on the board of the University of Virginia, with such suggestions. In addition to offering counsel for improving the students’ morals by rooting out drinking, gambling, and other disruptive behavior, he addressed the role of the hotelkeeper, saying they “should not be considered ‘informers’ on student behavior.”

He also stated his opinion that there were too many hotels. Because of this the number should be reduced and “the students compelled to board in them until filled.” He writes, “As it stands that the greatest number each house can have is thirty-three; that makes profit impossible.” He opined that in 1826, his house had an average of twenty students, which made it difficult to feed his family, a claim he backed up with income and expense tables showing his expenses left “nothing for contingent expenses which I set down at $97.” At the end of his calculations, the most profit he could make was $300 (about $2,600 today),[37] which is what he had to provide for his family for the year.

However, he didn’t present problems without solutions. Warner suggested “fare regulated by the visitors should vastly improve this,” as would lowering rent and requiring students to pay “a four- or five-dollar deposit and leave their dormitory in as good of a condition as they found it.” If any repairs were needed this money should be used to pay for them, and if not, it would be refunded, but the burden would not be on the hotelkeeper. He also noted the preposterousness of being “required to furnish a dormitory with one student with the same amount of wood, candles and furniture, as if there were two.”[38]

To illustrate his ongoing complaints, in 1828 he turned in a long list of expenses he paid the previous year, totaling $5,706 (about $155,000 today)[39] which came out to $1,800 ($48,878 today) [40] once the fifty boarders paid their fees. These included the hiring of wash women and other servants “at an average rate,” “good-like candles used only in the amount to make life tolerable,” clothing, and bedding whose cost “may seem high but from the abuse and damage” that they suffer, he assures it is accurate. He also notes that “I have never in a single instance been paid for broken lost, or abused furniture” [sic]…when “a student is expelled or leaves the place we incur a loss, having on our hands the various articles we have laid in for his accommodations…if he stays during the winter we have incurred an extra expense for fuel and light that is not in proportion to the summer months.”[41]

Unable to take the strain any longer, Warner finally resigned in the fall of 1828.[42] No further record of his employment currently exists. The next mention of him is his sudden death on March 27, 1830, which left six-year-old Virginia and her siblings without a father, and her mother a widow with three young children. Given the family’s financial straits, his funeral was likely small and private.

The loss of the man of the house and provider of income was a severe blow to Virginia’s family, but as they would do throughout her life, after this tragedy her fortunes rallied, presenting her with opportunities she otherwise might not have encountered. This once poor daughter of a hotelkeeper would go on to have a privileged education and marry into wealth that would decades later enable her to change the women’s suffrage movement irrevocably.

[1] Bruce, 43.

[2] Virginia Militia in the War of 1812, Vol II, Muster Rolls, 170.

[3] Sorley, 132.

[4] Moore, John Hammond, 107.

[5] U.S. Census Bureau, 1820 U S Census; Census Place: Hanover, Virginia

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, 1830; Census Place: Spotsylvania, Virginia,

[7] Frank, 39.

[8] Moore, John Hammond, 107.

[9] Pinkney.

[10] Frank, 38.

[11] Moore, John Hammond, 129.

[12] Martin, et al., 36.

[13] Martin, et al., 36.

[14] Moore, John Hammond, 130.

[15] The Range Community.

[16] Moore, John Hammond, 133.

[17] Frank, 32.

[18] Frank, 45.

[19] Frank, 35–36.

[20] Frank, 39.

[21] Opdycke.

[22] Frank, 39.

[23] Frank, 40.

[24] Frank, 40n12.

[25] Martin et al., 24–25. Students were not allowed to bring their own slaves or servants to campus.

[26] John Hartwell Cocke Papers.

[27] Frank, 41.

[28] Frank, 54.

[29] Frank, 54.

[30] Frank, 54n42.

[31] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, Letter from W.W. Minor to Gen. John H. Cocke., October 25, 1828.

[32] Frank, 45.

[33] Frank, 47.

[34] University of Virginia.

[35] Frank, 47n26.

[36] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, W.W. Minor to John Hartwell Cocke, October 1826.

[37] CPI Inflation Calculator.

[38] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, W.W. Minor’s Estimate of Expenses at U. VA

[39] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, W.W. Minor’s Estimate of Expenses at U. VA; CPI Calculator.

[40] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, W.W. Minor’s Estimate of Expenses at U. VA; CPI Calculator.

[41] John Hartwell Cocke Papers, Warner Washington Minor to John Hartwell Cocke, July 1828.

[42] Frank, 49n33.