Hannah Lee Corbin

 

Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee (February 6, 1728 – 1782) was the oldest daughter, and second oldest surviving child, of Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee of Stratford.  Born at her father’s leased residence at Machodoc, Hannah, when just a baby, survived the fire in late January 1729 that completely destroyed the family’s home and surrounding buildings.[i]   Hannah would have been living at Stratford by the early 1740s.  Judging from her letters, management skills, and addiction to reading, Hannah was obviously well educated, possibly alongside her brothers who were tutored at home by Scottish Presbyterian ministers prior to more advanced schooling in England.  Thomas Lee had an extensive library at Stratford.   The Lees also had musical instruments at Stratford and, presumably, most of the children learned to play.  Hannah probably played the harpsichord, an instrument known to have been at Stratford and at her later home, Peckatone.

Hannah married planter Gawen Corbin of Peckatone—a cousin—in 1748.  Corbin served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses (and later on the Council) and was a justice for Westmoreland County.  The match was a comfortable alliance of families, finances, and political connections.   Not much is known of their married life.  They had one child, a daughter named Martha (nicknamed Patty), who was born in 1749.   Portraits of Hannah and her husband hung unframed in the parlor at Peckatone, a large house with a traditional plan of four rooms per floor connected by a central passage.[ii]

Peckatone after 1880s fire

Unfortunately, Gawen Corbin had a riding accident in early winter 1759 that left him near death.  In short order, Corbin, like many wealthy planters, drew up a will which specifically discouraged a remarriage by Hannah and undesirable marriage partners for his daughter Patty.  Hannah’s portion of his estate—she and Patty were to divide the estate equally—would be diminished by one sixth (with Hannah only receiving a “widow’s third”) if Hannah were to remarry or leave the country.  Patty had to wait until age 21 to marry and a majority of her guardians, as specified in her father’s will, had to approve of her choice of husband.  If these stipulations were not met, Patty would receive only one shilling from her father’s vast estates.

Despite being under a doctor’s care, Gawen Corbin died in December 1759.  Hannah became a widow, owning half of her husband’s estates and control of all his properties until daughter Patty reached age 21.  While Hannah skillfully managed the Peckatone property through her hired overseer Dobyns,[iii]  she had also inherited her husband’s debts.  In March 1761, a special act of the legislature allowed the executors of Corbin’s estate to sell certain entailed lands in Lancaster and Caroline counties and slaves for payment of his many debts, which were mostly to British merchants.[iv]

Soon Hannah began a liaison with Dr. Richard Lingan Hall[v], the doctor—much younger than herself—who had treated her husband’s life-threatening injuries and had witnessed his will.  Realizing the restrictions in the will would reduce her inheritance, Hannah chose to co-habit with Dr. Hall at Peckatone without marrying him….a fairly radical idea at the time.   Hannah had two children by Dr. Hall—Elisha[vi] (born 1763) and Martha (born by 1771)—named after Hall’s parents.  Dr. Hall and Hannah lived together, in a common-law relationship, for thirteen years, eight of them at Peckatone.[vii]  Hannah’s brothers, while at first horrified by the liaison, eventually accepted the relationship.  Hannah signed her name as Corbin, and she was referred to as the “widow Corbin” until she died.

Her siblings seemed to be genuinely fond of Hannah and she was particularly close to her cousin, Squire Richard of Lee Hall.  However, Hannah’s determination and strong will made life particularly difficult for her younger brother Richard Henry, one of the chief executors of Gawen Corbin’s will.  Her respected position in the family and authoritative demeanor must have irritated older brother Philip Ludwell Lee after his personal, enslaved manservant sought refuge with Hannah after being disciplined. Younger brother William, one of Hannah’s commercial agents in London, had to compete with other merchants for Hannah’s tobacco, especially after she expressed her dislike of Capt. Walker of William’s ship Liberty.

After Patty Corbin married George Turberville on June 1, 1769, she was entitled to half of her father’s estate. Hannah divided the properties so Patty would receive the Corbin family seat, Peckatone.  In 1771, Hannah moved to a newly purchased Richmond County plantation which was divided into three farms consisting of around a total of 500 acres bordering the Rappahannock River:[viii]  Woodberry, Hussey and Peacock Hill.  She and her family settled in the house on the Woodberry tract.  The division of the properties was not particularly an amicable one; George Turberville, a lawyer, and Hannah bickered back and forth because she refused to give over the slaves and lands “currently employed in a crop” until the crops were harvested.  Richard Henry Lee, Gawen Corbin’s acting executor, complained to Edmund Pendleton in 1772 that Hannah hired a lawyer “merely for delays” of paying debts owed by the estate. [ix] John Mercer, Hannah’s lawyer, had advised her to settle the issue with a bill in chancery court—which she did.   On these Richmond County lands, as well as on tracts in Caroline, Fauquier, and King George Counties, Hannah and Dr. Hall raised tobacco and other crops.[x]  In 1772, Hannah gave Dr. Hall a lifetime lease to those properties.

Prior to the Revolution, orders for expensive clothing materials such as “silverized” and “gilt” buttons, “best rum,” wine, coffee, “fine hats” for Elisha and Dr. Hall, London shoes and knee buckles, show that Hannah and Dr. Hall had expensive tastes and dressed their family in the latest styles.  Another shopping list to merchant Archibald McCaul for 1774 gave Hannah’s preference for Madeira although she would settle for white port.  In 1762 Hannah had ordered a second-hand post chariot from Robert Cary & Co., London.  This vehicle was painted green with gift carved work.  However, in 1768 Hannah ordered a new, custom-built chariot with a coat-of-arms on the doors.  Ordered by George Turberville for his mother-in-law, the chariot was purchased through merchant James Russell from Poole & Ringsted and was left to Hannah’s daughter Martha Hall in her will.[xi]

While visiting Hannah’s Marsh Quarter plantation, Fauquier County, in 1774, Dr. Hall became sick and died.[xii]  In his will, Hall left most of his Fauquier estate to his son Elisha, but he had also incurred many debts.  By December 1774, Hannah was making her own orders for goods from McCaul with a signature that looked like a combination of her initials H. L. C.  This was probably the same symbol Hannah used for her tobacco mark, which identified her plantation’s hogsheads of tobacco at the riverside inspection stations.  However, during the Revolution, Hannah, like most other planters in the Northern Neck, was forced to become more self-sufficient because imported goods could not easily come through British blockades.

Hannah Corbin joined the Baptist Church (Choppawamsic and later Potomac in Stafford County) in 1778 and hosted Baptist meetings on her Richmond County properties in 1778 and 1779.[xiii]  Baptists in the county were often harassed and threatened during their church meetings.  That same year, Hannah sent a letter to her brother Richard Henry Lee, complaining that widows could not vote for the tax commissioners who assessed the taxes on her property; she wanted her brother to get her and other widows a vote.[xiv]

Thomas Lee’s library at Stratford was large

Hannah ordered books from various booksellers, through her brother William when he was a merchant in London, and also through her sister Alice in Philadelphia[xv].   Her taste in reading inclined toward novels and she ordered at least a dozen between 1764 and 1772.[xvi]  However, Hannah’s library included religious titles, such as Gilbert’s Christian Religion, “1 odd vol. on [Christian Religion],” A French and English Prayer Book, Watt’s Hymns, 1 new testament, 2 prayer books, Stillingfleet on idolatry, and a book of Sermons.[xvii]   The book of sermons, described as vol. 4 and consisting of pages numbered 563-860, was neatly written in Hannah’s hand.[xviii]

Like her famous brothers, Hannah was not without a revolutionary spirit.  She was among the Westmoreland citizens who wished to honor the outspoken members of Parliament who supported equal rights for the American colonists and worked against unfair taxes such as the Stamp Act.  Hannah and Dr. Hall contributed toward a portrait of Lord Camden in 1767[xix] but were reimbursed their money by Richard Henry Lee when Edmund Jenings, unable to get Lord Camden to sit, donated a portrait of William Pitt, Lord Chatham, to the citizens of Westmoreland.

Unused to making long trips, Hannah visited her sister Alice Shippen, who lived in Philadelphia, in 1780 in order to see their brother Arthur, who had just returned from France.  Soon after, in bad health, Hannah left Woodberry and, with ailing daughter Martha, went to live with the widow Elizabeth McFarlane in Westmoreland County, leaving Elisha to manage the Richmond County plantation.  At McFarlane’s, Hannah wrote her last will and testament. [xx] She left son Elisha her land at Woodberry and Peacocks, as well as other properties in Westmoreland.  Hannah left Martha half of her two houses at Woodberry and Peacocks, her personal belongings, and her coach and four horses.  To Patty Corbin Turberville, her eldest daughter, Hannah left all of the former Corbin properties in Fauquier, King George and Westmoreland.  Hannah died at age 54 in Westmoreland County during the summer of 1782 and she was buried at Woodberry in a black walnut coffin in an unmarked grave.

At the time of her death in 1782, Hannah owned 36 negroes, 13 horses, 30 head of cattle and a four-wheeled vehicle for riding, according to her personal property tax record.   George Turberville wrote about the subsequent auction of Hannah’s estate, “I fear the personal estate will not half pay the debts.”  The sale of Hannah’s personal estate brought over 1,000 pounds sterling.[xxi]  After Hannah’s death, her children by Dr. Hall elected as their guardian “Squire” Richard Lee of Lee Hall, their mother’s cousin to whom they had retained close ties.  Elisha Hall later sold Woodberry to his uncle Arthur Lee, left Virginia, and settled in Kentucky.    Martha Hall married William Thaddeus McCarty in 1783, had four children, and died in 1795.

 

We had no clue about the fate of Hannah’s children by Dr. Hall—their names were never listed in early Lee genealogies—until  Paul Verduin started looking for them in the 1990s while researching Abraham Lincoln’s mother in the Richmond County records.[xxii]  I am indebted to Mr. Verduin and Dr. Bill McCarty for their excellent research that has made this short biographical sketch of Hannah Lee Corbin possible.

–Judy Hynson, Director of Research

 



[i] The Maryland Gazette, dated February 4, 1728/9, refers to Thomas Lee’s wife and child “forced to be thrown out of a window.”  Hannah, pregnant at the time, lost the child she was carrying.  It is not known where the Lees resided while another home was being constructed at Machodoc.

[ii] Corbin’s probate inventory taken in 1760 lists: Dining Room (with closet), Nursery, Chamber (with closet), parlor and passage on the lower level; passage up stairs, chamber up stairs (with closet), room over Dining Room, room over nursery, room over the old chamber [parlor] on the second floor.

[iii] Others properties included tracts in Westmoreland, King George, and Fauquier Counties, as well as 500 acres in Lancaster and a two-thirds interest in 3,000 acres in Caroline County.

[iv] Gawen Corbin’s debts amounted to 1,210 pounds, nine shillings and twopence sterling (696 pounds, 19 shillings current money).

[v] Dr. Hall was a widower from Fauquier County and owned his own property there. He treated some of the Lee family members; Richard Henry Lee complained of Hall’s high prices.

[vi] Hannah recorded Elisha‘s name as Elisha Hall Corbin when she deeded him slaves.  Martha Hall Corbin, daughter of Hannah and Dr. Hall, was called Martha while Martha Corbin, daughter of Gawen Corbin, was called Patty.  Elisha’s name in later records was recorded as Elisha Lingan Hall.

[vii] This information comes from research by Paul H. Verduin, who has clarified the relationship between Hannah and Dr. Hall, by uncovering the fact that Dr. Hall was still an Anglican when he died and was buried with an Anglican funeral.  His address, “New Light on Hannah Lee Corbin,” was published in the May 1995 newsletter of The Society of the Lees of Virginia.

[viii] Elisha Hall inherited Woodberry and later sold it to his uncle Arthur Lee; George Turberville, Patty’s lawyer husband, handled the transaction.

[ix] ALS Richard Henry Lee to Edmund Pendleton, 2 September 1772 in Tazewell Family Papers, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

[x] Records from merchant Hudson Muse’s account with Dr. Hall in 1773, showing tobacco at Totuskey, a Richmond county tobacco inspection station.  From The Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printer Ephemera.

[xi] Dr. William McCarty uncovered this information while researching for a biography of Hannah Corbin; his notes describe a chariot as a closed carriage with one seat inside and a fixed top.

[xii]“Hannah Lee Corbin: The Forgotten Lee,” Virginia Cavalcade, autumn 1979 (70-77) suggests that Hall’s body was returned for burial at Woodberry, but researcher Paul H. Verduin, in a letter to Jeanne A. Calhoun dated Jan. 6, 1994, states that Hall’s Fauquier County executors “hired and paid the Rev. James Thomson, the local Anglican rector, to preach his funeral sermon.” Dr. Hall had time, before his death, to write his will, dated March 1, 1774.  Hall had close relatives in Fauquier who could have possibly buried him in one of the family cemeteries there; however, the burial place of Dr. Hall remains unknown.

[xiii] Documented in the diaries of Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, who also attended the Baptist Church; the Robert Carter Papers are at Duke University.  The Richard Dozier Text Book tells of Baptist services held at Woodberry and Peacocks.  This information was provided in a letter from Rees Watkins to C. Vaughan Stanley (RELMA Librarian) in 1989.  Watkins names the churches attended by Hannah in her article,“Hannah Lee Corbin Hall—A Baptist,” published in The Virginia Baptist Register.

[xiv] Hannah’s letter to Richard Henry Lee has not survived.  Richard Henry Lee’s reply letter, dated 17 March 1778, is in the Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library collection [M2009.057], on loan from Mrs. Virginia Russell.

[xv] In a letter to Alice, Hannah wrote about her latest order, “the most valuable part the Books I never have got.”

[xvi] From Hannah’s accounts and inventories in the Peckatone Papers at the Virginia Historical Society, she owned Rival Mother, Lady Montague’s Letters, History of Mrs. Somerville, Vicar of Boray, Curate of Coventry, Mis. Melmouth, Belle Grove, The Mother in Law, The Fortunate Country Maid, and Country Cousins.  Catherine K. Foster furnished this list to Dr. William M. McCarty in 1997.

[xvii] Hannah’s probate inventory is in the Richmond County records.

[xviii] The volume is now in the collection of the Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library at Stratford Hall.  Inscribed on the front cover pastedown, “Volume found at Peckatone with other relicsw of my great, great-grandmother Mrs. Gawin Corbin who was Hannah Lee…The letters were composed and written by Mrs. Corbin more than one hundred years ago. M. F. Brown May 7th 1880.”  These sermons, not letters as described by Mrs. Brown, were bound, probably by a descendant.  The book is comprised of meticulously copied articles from sources such as the Universal Magazine, published in London.

[xix] James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, New York: Macmillan (1911), v. 1, p. 24, a letter from Richard Henry Lee to Edmund Jenings, dated 1 June 1767, gives Hannah’s contribution as £5 (the highest amount, which was also given by Arthur Lee and Daniel McCarty) and Hall’s contribution as £3.  Two other women, Elizabeth Steptoe and Anne Washington, also contributed a lesser amount.

[xx] Hannah Corbin’s will is in the Richmond County records [Will Book 7, p. 416, 7 October 1782].  In this document, Hannah, for the first time, lists her children with Hall with his surname.

[xxi] No slaves were sold because they had been previously deeded to Elisha and Martha Hall.

[xxii] For a fuller discussion of Verduin’s work, see The McCartys of the Northern Neck: 350 Years of a Virginia Family by William M. McCarty and Kathleen Much, Baltimore: Otter Bay Books (2010), pp.296-305.