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  • 8/7/2019 William Rogers and Yorktown-1


    Benjamin Bakkum


    William Rogers and Yorktown: Independence from the Virginia

    Planter Culture, 1710-1740

    Though it seems a truism to state that the rich were getting richer, the poor poorer, that

    is exactly what was occurring in early eighteenth century Virginia, claims T. H. Breen in

    Tobacco Culture.1 Indeed, Breen uses compelling evidence to support his argument concerning

    the growth of an elite and solely planter class, but he also glosses over a story that adds

    complexity to the image of the Virginian economy. William Rogers has been believed to have

    lived in the London area before immigrating to Yorktown around 1710.2He arrived at a time

    York County and the remainders of the peninsula surrounded by the James and York rivers were

    building a reputation for high quality tobacco exports.3Rogers, however, did not intend to plant

    the staple on the plots he purchased within Yorktown, but instead ventured to become a potter

    and from there achieved prominence within the community.4 Yorktowns businessman, having

    little of the wealth Breen thought necessary to become richer, still profited greatly and took part

    in the governing of the town, illustrating that the proverbial American dream in the early 1700s

    could be economically, socially, and politically independent from the tobacco culture.

    It should be noted that many scholars have joined Breen in already analyzing the social

    and economic state of colonial Virginia and Rogers has been the topic of articles before as well.

    The insight of the more general and prolific Virginia history scholars, however, does not

    1T. H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: the Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of

    Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 35.2 Yorktowns Poor Potter: A Man Wise Beyond Discretion, Martha

    McCartney and Edward Ayres, accessed November 15, 2010

    http://www.chipstone.org/publications/CIA/2004/mccartney/mccartneyindex.html3Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton and

    Company, Inc., 1975): 415.4Yorktowns Poor Potter.


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    Benjamin Bakkum


    typically delve deeper than the major role of tobacco. 5 Specific pieces on Rogers, contrastingly,

    fail to strongly relate the man to the culture and business environment around him, and instead

    describe his style of pottery and appearances in historical papers.6 As Breen recounts, The great

    Tidewater planters dominated Virginia society, and though his assertion has been proven

    correct, historians have generally accepted that no exceptions to this rule e

    mentioning.7This article therefore serves to bridge the gap between the broad narratives of

    Virginia in the early to mid-1700s and the specific accounts of William Rogers life.

    Rogers did not hesitate to fashion himself into a tycoon upon arriving in Yorktown. He

    bought lots 51 and 55 in May of 1711 and before that had already imported an African slave .8

    Within a year he had paid off the land and constructed his pottery factory and a home. 9 Easily it

    seems, a man new to the region could buy property within its towns and work as an entrepreneur.

    He capitalized on the need of the ordinaries of jugs and other earthenware by building the pottery

    workplace.10 Earthen items useful to the ships docked in the York as they loaded hogsheads of

    tobacco must have also been a major source of revenue for Rogers. He profited from the tobacco

    trade by selling to its merchants, sailors, and laborers. The shipping created economic hubs along

    5Virginius Dabney in his exhaustive account of Virginias history, Virginia: The New Dominion

    (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), only thoroughly cites the economicinfluence of tobacco in the early 18th century. Rhys Isaac in his popularThe Transformation of

    Virginia,1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) also only references

    the economic strengths of the planters, focusing on the religious and political shifts in the colonyrather than the changing landscape of manufacturing and commerce.6Norman F. Barka, Edward Ayres, and Christine Sheridan, The Poor Potter of Yorktown: A

    Study of a Colonial Pottery Factory; Colonial National Historical Park, 3 vols. (Denver: U.S.Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984). Ivor Noel Hume, Here Lies Virginia:

    An Archaeologists View of Colonial Life and History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia

    Press, 1994).7Breen, Tobacco Culture, 35.8York County Deeds, Orders, Wills 14 (17091716): pp. 82, 123.9Ibid, 123.10Yorktowns Poor Potter.


  • 8/7/2019 William Rogers and Yorktown-1


    Benjamin Bakkum


    the rivers emptying into the Chesapeake.11 Rogers placed himself perfectly to take advantage of

    that fact. While many immigrants travelled further into the interior of Virginia in order to stake

    claims and begin planting themselves, Rogers settled in the already developed east and filled the

    need of taverns and ships for cups, plates, and containers. Whereas the small tobacco operations

    had their financial potential squelched by the entrenched elite in the Tidewater, he cleverly

    benefitted from their use of the shippers.

    Rogers also keyed into the heart of colonial life in the Tidewaterits taverns. Names

    such as the Byrd familys Westover, Carters Sabine Hall, and Washingtons Mount Vernon

    have engrained themselves in the lore of Virginia history as the great estates of the planters. The

    Rose and Crown in Hampton, Rising Sun in Fredericksburg, and Raleigh in Williamsburg,

    however, certainly hold just as much historical significance as taverns.12 Yorktown was not

    without one of these social and cultural icons. Merchants Thomas Nelson and Joseph Walker

    bought a lot in 1719 on which the Swan Tavern would be constructed at some point in the next

    several years.13 The Swan, which accommodated seamen in its six beds upstairs as well as

    housed gaming (typically cards or backgammon), served as the preeminent meeting place in the

    town.14 Its rates were sanctioned by the York County Court, signifying its importance to the

    community.15 In these mandated rates the first historical reference to Rogers appears as Rogers

    best Virg aile, selling for sixpence a quart.16 This entry, by revealing that Rogers operated a

    brewery as well as a pottery, illustrates his business sense and commercial goal: build a

    conglomerate based on the demands of a port town. As Edward Riley writes in his article11Edward M. Riley, The Ordinaries of Yorktown. William and Mary Quarterly 23 (1943): 8.

    12Mary Newton Stanard, Virginia: Its People and Customs (New York: Kessinger Publishing,

    2006): 151.13Riley, The Ordinaries of Yorktown, 20.

    14Hume, Here Lies Virginia, 154.

    15Ibid, 154.

    16Ibid, 155.


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    Benjamin Bakkum


    appearing in the William and Mary Quarterly, The Ordinaries of Yorktown, At the sign of the

    Swan seamen, tobacco traders, merchants, and all of the varied classes of eighteenth century

    Virginia find rest and refreshment.17 To hear of business, court proceedings, and the news of the

    town, citizens of Yorktown meted at the Swan. There, Rogers smartly began a branch of his

    small business empire, and there he started his rise to aristocracy on the back of a town rather

    than tobacco.

    The business plan quickly proved fruitful, and by 1716 he traded under the title William

    Rogers & Company.18 Yorktown not only allowed Rogers to make money off of the shipping of

    other merchants, but to become one himself. The slave trade factored into his dealings

    considerably. In the mid-1720s he bought several slaves between the ages of nine and fourteen,

    gave them English names, and put them to work in his home and the pottery factory. 19 An

    acquaintance of Rogers, William Dalton, who lived in nearby Gloucester, owned a slave ship

    which may have transported Rogers, but definitely other slaves from Bristol to Virginia and

    Pennsylvania.20 These men were able to enter the slave market and be successful in it regardless

    of the major ship captains and London merchants who discouraged competition. It can therefore

    be inferred that substantial profits in Virginia not only belonged to the planter elite but also to

    newcomers who had the business sense and capital to trade slaves as well as products such as


    Rogers wealth only continued to grow as his wares began to be sold outside of

    Yorktown and as he diversified his business among several trades. Then publisher of the Virginia

    Gazette, William Parks took with him shipments of Rogers earthenware to Maryland around

    17Riley, The Ordinaries of Yorktown, 20.

    18York County Orders, Wills, and Inventories 16 (17201729): 25, 59, 248, 280.

    19Ibid, 280.

    20Yorktowns Poor Potter.


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    Benjamin Bakkum


    1735.21 Even in small-town colonial Virginia business owners had the capacity to expand into

    other markets outside of the Old Dominion. Rogers himself can be traced to owning the Susanna,

    a 150-ton ship, an impressive piece of property for an immigrant who arrived with few

    possessions.22 Furthermore, the inventory of his estate illustrates his accrued wealth as portrayed

    by a number of slaves, silver, and physical capital. The inventory lists in his ownership and in

    all probability, a reflection of his brewing activitiesa copper cistern, a cold still, a worm still,

    some casks, beer tubs, hops, and 240 quart bottles.23Subsequently, it appears that unlike the

    planters who were bound by the onerous task of managing their crops, Rogers could diversify the

    businesses he ran, consistently profiting from the operations of his pottery factory and brewery.

    This situation likewise propelled him to a comfortable position in society, garnering him the

    luxurious items listed in his will and inventory of the estate.

    Rogers also made a point of being independent in the social sphere from the planter

    culture within the Tidewater, though here too he seems to have secured for himself a happy

    existence. He avoided attending church and consequently received fines for skimping on such a

    legal obligation.24The social tradition of the planter culture lay in church going, and the planters

    in many cases were as religious as their puritan counterparts in the north.25 Accordingly, Rogers

    insubordination reveals distaste for the mainstream social structure of the aristocratic, but he was

    not a lonely man. His will lists four children born by his wife, Theodosia.26Rogers business

    exploits assuredly would have allowed for a decent lifestyle, and the will stipulates that family

    members received his slaves. Unlike settlers in the west, little danger existed of Indian attack by21Yorktowns Poor Potter.




    25Louis B. Wright, The First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial

    Ruling Class, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1964): 68.26York County Wills and Inventories 18 (17321740), pp. 537-540.


  • 8/7/2019 William Rogers and Yorktown-1


    Benjamin Bakkum


    the 1720s in Yorktown, giving Rogers time to focus on his work and family instead of attending

    to defense. Rogers also differed from the wealthy elite, however, in that he did not isolate

    himself on massive estates which began to be built in the 1720s and 30s, spread out along the

    eastern portion of the colony.27 The life of a port town must have staved off the boredom for

    Rogers and his family which those on plantations often experienced. Rogers subsequently can be

    thought to have prospered not only in a financial sense, but in social terms, having a loving

    family and a community whose respect he would go on to win.

    Social obligations did not stop Rogers from playing a role in the governing of Yorktown,

    representing that not all important positions were connected to the tobacco planters. During the

    1710s he often served as an agent of York Countys court justices. 28 In this capacity he held

    responsibility for auditing business accounts, appraising descendants estates, and serving as a

    juror.29Of more significance, however, serves Rogers being named the official surveyor of

    Yorktowns landings, streets, and causeways.30 Seemingly he quickly gained the admiration of

    the townspeople after arriving around 1710 to so speedily be appointed to these political seats

    within Yorktown. This fast climb to a respectable status and notoriety without being related to an

    old planter or already having a huge estate provides evidence that the tobacco culture did not as

    strongly dominate as some scholars have thought.

    Interestingly, shards of pottery were found within in the old main street of Yorktown.

    Rogers effectively used the waste from pottery as chief proprietor of the roads in the town. This

    practice may have been derived from the English technique of using pottery refuse in drainage

    channels and roads.31 Regardless, to be as involved in the operations of the town, specifically the

    27Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia,1740-1790, 36.

    28Yorktowns Poor Potter.



    31Hume, Here Lies Virginia, 222.


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    Benjamin Bakkum


    planning and construction of its transportation routes, surely gives a sign Rogers business

    venture lead to further responsibilities in Yorktown.

    Rogers political impact extended beyond Yorktown as well, figuring in

    relationship between the Virginia colony and London at times even. Lt. Governor William

    Gooch, one of the most distinguished Virginians during the 1730s and 1740s, made several

    remarkable comments about Rogers. Writing to the English Board of Trade, Gooch referenced

    Yorktowns poor potter in 1732 when discussing the meager manufacturing status of the

    colony.32 Goochs intentions are not entirely apparent, but he may have been trying to downplay

    the amount of manufacturing going on in the colony. Another plausible theory, however, lies in

    Gooch demeaning someone outside of the typical planter upper echelons gaining the wealth of an

    aristocrat. Himself an elite, Gooch may have thought poorly of a break from the status quo in


    Making sense of Rogers place in the unclear motives of the language necessitates

    examining the political climate during Goochs administration. The Lt. Governor found himself

    well liked by Virginians after arriving in Williamsburg in 1729.33Legislators there loved his

    even-tempered and reasonable approach to governing.34 Gooch emboldened the Burgesses to be

    more politically independent.35 Consequently, the confident representatives along with Gooch

    soon pitted themselves against the powerful English merchants who filled the political vacuum

    during the British Empires period of salutary neglect of its American colonies.36The tobacco

    merchants fixed prices, demanded onerous inspections, and induced high amounts planter debt.37

    32Ibid, 222.

    33Richard L...


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