Wm C. Somerville

William C. Somerville

While William Clarke Somerville’s ownership of Stratford was short-lived, his tenure could have brought about some dramatic changes in the landscape as well as in the buildings.  William Somerville, born March 25, 1790, was the older of two sons born to William and Elizabeth Hebb Somerville of Maryland.  His mother died in 1792 and his father died in 1806, leaving William Clarke and his brother Henry Vernon orphans.  The brothers, still minors when their father died, went to live in Richmond, Virginia, with their uncle and appointed guardian, William Hebb.

William Somerville received a classical education at the College of William & Mary where he graduated in 1809[1] and became friends with schoolmate Henry Lee IV.  Details of Somerville’s early manhood are somewhat sketchy.  Appleton’s Encyclopedia notes that he “was striking in personal appearance,”—a description confirmed by his portrait by St. Memin made 1808 in Richmond.[2]   In 1808 Somerville inherited his father’s estate Mulberry Fields, a circa 1763 brick Georgian mansion in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, as well as a significant fortune.  Mulberry Fields commanded an impressive view by means of an allee stretching a mile to the Potomac River.

Sotterley

 Somerville was a major in the American army during the War of 1812, serving as far south as Louisiana.   While in New Orleans, Somerville met, and fell in love with, Cora Livingston, “daughter of the great jurist, Edward Livingston, who later became Secretary of State in Jackson’s cabinet.”[3]  Somerville’s leisure time was often spent in literary pursuits.  In his diary Somerville noted, “I once passed two days at Clermont and left it charmed with every member of the Chancellor’s [Livingston] family and delighted with the variety of his extensive library.”[4]

By some accounts, William Somerville was engaged to a young woman who died in the tragic Richmond, Virginia, theater fire in 1811, since a few days later N. Randolph wrote him, “you have my tenderest sympathy—to offer consolation, is impossible.”[5] Accounts of the death of Miss Sarah “Sallie” Conyers, who had just become engaged to James Gibbon, are recorded in newspaper accounts of the time.  Sarah Conyers was an intimate friend of Miss Jane Gay Robertson (later Bernard) of Gaymont, where Somerville’s letterbook (now in Stratford Hall’s collection) was found.[6]  Mrs. Bernard’s daughter, Gay, married Charles Tiernan of Baltimore, Maryland.   As late as 1815, Somerville still expressed his sadness in a letter to his sister-in-law,” . . .I took my departure for Richmond, where I have been retracing with melancholy pleasure the scenes that delighted the morning of my life.  But those scenes are changed to me—then, my heart was full of hope and joys and expectation; but . . . reality has sadly dissipated the illusions of hope.”[7]  This hint of depression was perhaps “intensified by the Byronic melancholy then sweeping the world.”[8] After the War of 1812, Somerville was a favorite of Washington, D.C., society.

In 1812, Somerville became an agent for Hezekiah Nile’s Weekly Register, a Baltimore-based national weekly news magazine, and covered the Martinsburg,Virginia area.  Somerville published “Lines on a Serenade to the young ladies of Philadelphia; on the night of the illumination for peace, being Valentines” on February 14, 1815.[9]  He also advertised his Montalbino, Bloomsbury, Belvidere and Cintra properties—a total of 4300 acres of Potomac land—for sale the same year.[10]

William Somerville was well traveled and made his “Grand Tour” in 1817, recording his adventures in a diary:

Baltimore Landing, Wednesday Augt  6, 1817.  I shall leave Baltimore today to make a tour thro’ the northern part of the United States and thro’ the two Canadas.  I have determined to keep a Diary not to describe the feelings that are inspired by the scenes through which I pass.  I shall endeavour to catch every fancy as it rises in my mind and to make my journal of my sensations and sentiments. . . . This little volume of souvenirs is intended for myself alone.  If any accidents, or my confidence in the sincerity of any friend should ever cause it to be seen by another it must be read with indulgence for the foibles of my nature.[11]

 

Somerville left New York December 3, 1817, and reached Ireland by January 2, 1818.  For over a year, he traveled across Europe, with letters of introduction, attending balls given by nobility and writing.  In his 390-page Letters from Paris on the Cause and Consequences of the French Revolution, Baltimore: Edward J. Coale (1822), Somerville commented that the French Revolution had been more about equality than liberty and that Frenchmen “prated as much about liberty as if they really possessed it.”[12]  His Letters received a favorable review from Jared Sparks: “I have been especially delighted with the graphic and sprightly manner in which you narrate the recent political events in France.”[13]  On his return from his travels, Somerville became politically active as a Whig and personal friend of John Quincy Adams.

Perhaps Somerville’s most influential friend was General Juan D’Evreux, Commander of the Foreign Legion of Liberation, who was mentioned in John Finch’s account of a dinner party in Baltimore, “General Devereux was proceeding from Columbia on a mission to some court in Europe.”[14] Sympathetic with the cause of the South American states for independence from Spain, Somerville enlisted in the Venezuelan army in 1820, where he was commissioned as lieutenant-colonel and eventually awarded 10,000 acres from the Venezuelan government for his services.  While in South America, Somerville evidently contracted a disease, possibly malaria, which ruined his health and eventually caused his death.[15]

On January 1, 1822, Somerville sold Montalbino, St. Mary’s County, to Mr. Benjamin Jones of Philadelphia for $25,000.  In July 1822, George Plater V deeded his heavily mortgaged estate, Sotterley, in St. Mary’s County, to Col. William Somerville (his step-uncle) for $29,000.  Within a month, Somerville, who already owned a sizable estate, sold Sotterley to Thomas Barber for $7,000 and purchased Stratford from Henry Lee.  Along with the real estate, Henry Lee sold to Somerville, on August 26, 1822, all the Stratford furniture, kitchen furniture, and his library with some exceptions: family portraits, furniture he got through his marriage, furniture bought since his marriage, and some books for which Henry substituted his maps by Arrowsmith.[16]

While living at Stratford, Somerville wrote his book, Essays by a Citizen of Virginia.  While Somerville is not listed for Washington Parish in Westmoreland County’s personal property tax lists for 1823, it appears that by 1824 Somerville owned 19 slaves over the age of 12, plus 3 horses.  The following year, fifteen slaves over the age of 12 were listed, along with 4 horses.[17]

In the mid-1820s, John Finch, a British geologist who was traveling through the United States and Canada, was introduced to Major Somerville in Baltimore.  Finch described Somerville as “. . . the author of ‘Letters from France.’ They display much liberality of sentiment.  He escapes a common fault in political writings, where so much declamation is wasted against tyranny:  it should be employed against the people who allow it to exist.”  “A great sensation was created in America in favor of the Greeks; subscriptions were raised in the different cities. . . at Baltimore a ball was given in honor of their cause. . . Major Somerville asked me to accompany him. . .” and on the following day they attended a dinner party attended by a prince, an ambassador to a European court, and a gentleman collector of old masters paintings.[18]

A few weeks later, Finch visited Somerville at Stratford, which he described as containing four thousand acres.  Finch wrote, “Major Somerville intended to lay out a park near the house in the English style.”[19]  Somerville, on an earlier tour of Blenheim in England, had described the landscape changes brought about by William Kent and continued by Lancelot Brown: “You are aware that the taste. . . has undergone an entire revolution. . . The straight avenues and formal square, which delighted the eyes of our stiff and ceremonious ancestors, have given way to the airy curve and serpentine belt, whose windings imperceptibly varying your views, no longer tire your imagination with a dull uniformity.”[20]  Finch said that the farmyard supplied “all kinds of poultry,” the wine cellar was well stocked, and the library had an “excellent collection of English, French and Italian books.”  Somerville “wished to establish a fishery on the Potomac” and large windlasses were fixed on the shoreline to haul in a two hundred fathom-long seine which would have been cast off boats heading away from shore.  A “winding road” skirting forested cliffs led to the shore where Finch observed that slave women tended a fire of “cedar and red oak” to light the hauling in of the seine.[21] 

The desired “fishery” was a “regularly hauled fishing landing”[22] that was protected by law from encroachment from other fishermen within a quarter-mile of the owner’s shoreline.  Even before Somerville purchased Stratford, the National Intelligencer reported concerns about overfishing shad and herrings.  During the early 19th century, the Potomac was considered the largest supplier of shad, which then weighed 6 to 8 pounds each.[23]  Salted herrings, a large portion of a slave’s diet in this area, were harvested in abundance and sometimes used to fertilize the soil.  Rockfish (striped bass), averaging 60 pounds apiece, as well as bass, carp, perch and sturgeon, were plentiful.[24]   Oysters, crabs, diamond back terrapins and other food sources also furnished a variety of food for the table.

Finch’s account of the Stratford cliffs in the mid-1820s provided some of the very first geological information published about them:

 

The cliffs at Stratford present a bold escarpment to the view; they extend five miles along the bank of the river, and are accessible at low water.  The lowest stratum is green marle; it attains an elevation of twenty feet.  I asked a fisherman, if he knew of any fossil bones in the cliffs; he replied, some giants were buried there, but he did not like to meddle with them.  On the following morning, we went to the place, and found the fossil remains of some animals, and the first fossil bone of a manatus discovered in America.  Some bones are washed out by the waves, and left on the shore by the tide.  Sharks’ teeth are found on the beach and in the cliffs.  Large fossil trees are also buried in the marle.  Reposing on the marle is a ferruginous sandstone, three feet thick, which extends along the whole of the cliffs, and probably over a large tract of country, as I found a similar tock at a distance of two hundred miles; this sandstone is full of the casts of various species of mactra, cardium, pectin, donax, arca, natica, olive.  Masses of this rock have fallen from the cliffs, and lie scattered on the beach.  In one place, you walk over antediluvian pectens, which, after being concealed for so many thousand years, are once more exposed to view; here, you cannot avoid stepping on fossil mya; there, you see the cliffs full of the white and fragile pinna, washed every returning tide by the waves of Potomac.  Above the sandstone is an extensive deposit of yellowish loam, containing strata, near two feet thick, of fossil shells; most of these are broken and imperfect, but with care some perfect specimens may be collected.  Every geologist who wishes to acquire a knowledge of the tertiary formations of the United States, should visit the cliffs at Stratford.[25]

 

In his account of his travels near Stratford, Finch discussed a common mode of fertilizing the land; a field had been made fertile for planting by cutting down fir trees and allowing their leaves to fall off and compost in the ground.  Noting that this part of Virginia was half covered by old woods of oak and chestnut, Finch was informed that, after those trees were cut, fir trees usually grew up where none had been before.  Somerville told him that there was “no other mode of enriching the farms.[26]  The “fir” trees described by Finch were actually native pines.[27]

Finch saw Somerville again in Philadelphia and corresponded with him until his death a few years later.  The Englishman was puzzled at how Somerville’s ownership of a large number of slaves (around 100) conflicted with his ideas of liberty; Somerville, indicating that he disliked owning slaves, told Finch that he could not give up such a large portion of his property unless he had the “prospect of doing extensive good.”[28]  It might not be coincidental that Finch’s chapter on the treatment of slaves in America came just after his account of visiting Somerville.

It is likely that Somerville leased part of his Stratford property to tenant farmers.  An archaeological survey indicates that several probable tenant sites, including two in Loghouse Field, one in Kanzler Field, one at Kentucky Hill, and one on the Morris tract, were occupied between the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century.  Some tenants could have been farming part of Stratford since the time of the previous Lee owners since their leases were negotiated for lifetime terms.[29]

As Finch traversed through Westmoreland County, he noted that, “the greater part of the distance was through woods; we saw the ruins of houses, which had been burnt by parties from the British fleet, and the plantations were consequently desolate.”  The neighboring plantation to the northwest—previously called Pope’s Creek Plantation but renamed Longwood—belonged to Somerville’s friend Major Henry Lee, who had sold him Stratford.  Through his marriage to Ann McCarty, Lee owned 1,859-acres plus the main house and outbuildings allotted to Ann in the division of her father’s (Daniel McCarty) estate.[30]

Lee wine coasters used by Somerville at Stratford

Although he owned Stratford for around six years, Somerville actually occupied the property for less than three years due to his extensive travels and social commitments.[31]  “Family documents and Westmoreland Courthouse records show that he made extensive and costly improvements to the mansion and outbuildings, in the grounds, gardens, and the farms; and also that he purchased from Henry Lee all the original furniture and furnishings from the time of Thomas and Hannah Lee, including part of the Stratford library, maps, a portion of the Lee silver and a number of pictures.” “Among the portraits and paintings that I recall, were one of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, one of Peyton Randolph…and one of Lafayette”… Jane Shore, Nell Gwynn, and an unknown woman in nun’s garb, William Somerville’s own portrait made in France 1818, and his marble bust made in Italy.[32] Some Stratford furnishings (non-Lee) used by Somerville included paintings—The Sibyl, Leda and the Swan, and The Duchess of Portsmouth as well as two hunting scenes in the forest of Versailles—and possibly leather-covered library chairs carved with heads of dragons with painted details.[33]

In 1825, Somerville offered to sell his library, many of which were Lee books that were sold with the estate, to Thomas Jefferson[34] along with the freestanding bookcases that contained the library.  He described the Stratford library “of three or four thousand volumes. . . generally of the best London and Paris Editions, in folio, Quarto, & Octavo—many of them old and rare works and they form altogether the best private Library I have seen in this country.” [35]   Jefferson declined the offer, replying that funds for the university had not yet been appropriated.

About this time, Somerville published “Extracts of a Letter on the Mode of Choosing the President” (1825), which his friend, John Quincy Adams, used in his subsequent publication of “Suggestions On Presidential Elections: With Particular Reference to A Letter by William C. Somerville, Esquire.”  On May 9, 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed William Somerville Charge d’Affaires to Sweden and Norway, allowing him to “postpone his departure. . .till July or August, to accomplish his matrimonial project with Miss Cora Livingston, at New Orleans, his salary not to commence till he shall start upon his mission.”[36] Miss Livingston was considered the “belle” of New Orleans and was often seen in Washington, D.C., society.  However, Somerville’s illness returned, preventing him from traveling to either New Orleans or Sweden; his marriage was postponed and his diplomatic post lost. 

On September 7, 1825, Somerville received from President Adams another commission as political and commercial agent to Greece.[37] The President urged his immediate departure due to the unstable European political situation and arranged for him to travel on the next ship to Europe, the same one on which Lafayette would be returning to France from his American tour.[38]  Adams noted in his papers that Lafayette was willing to give up his own berth to accommodate Somerville on his assigned mission.  Before Somerville left for Europe, he made a quick trip to Philadelphia to see Dr. Philip Syng Physick, eminent surgeon and the country’s leading authority on treating yellow fever. [39]

Somerville and Lafayette’s party left Washington, D.C., boarding a small Potomac steamer to transport them to the frigate U. S. S. Brandywine, Capt. Morris.  Lafayette and Somerville became good friends during the month-long voyage.  On route to France, Somerville became ill and remained so after arriving in Paris.  Lafayette visited Somerville during his illness and tried to persuade him to come to his home, La Grange.  Attempting to reach Greece, Somerville traveled as far as Auxerre, where he instructed his physician that, in case of death, his body was to be sent to Chateau de Le Grange. 

The rest of the story is told by Count Louis de Lasteyrie, great-grandson of Lafayette: “One American. . . in Lafayette’s own time, came on a lonely pilgrimage to La Grange; he was greeted with respect, but of that greeting he took no heed.  He was a silent guest, nor has he left any record of his impression; in fact he was dead before starting on his journey.  He arrived quite simply one fine. . . [winter] morning, in his coffin, accompanied by a letter which said: ‘William Somerville, having the greatest admiration for the General Lafayette begs he will bury him in his land at La Grange.’  This, being against the law could not be done, but Lafayette bought the whole of the small cemetery of the neighboring village and laid the traveler from over the sea to rest in his ground indeed, though not under one of the many American trees at La Grange itself, of which the enthusiastic wanderer had probably dreamed.”[40]

Somerville’s will, dated Paris, December 20, 1825—just before his death on January 5, 1826, at age 35—left his property—both personal and real—to his younger brother, Henry Vernon Somerville, under several conditions: that he set up a trust for $5,000 for the wife of his friend Cumberland Dugan Williams [wife’s maiden name Elizabeth Pinkney]; and that he set free William’s negro slaves at specified lengths of service .[41]  Somerville, although a slave owner, wrote in his will, “That as the existence of Slavery is an evil I deprecate & wish to mitigate as far as is consistent with justice to my brother, that he shall set free my negro slaves after they shall have served the periods herein after specified. . . that he shall see that the negroes are never ill treated, & that he shall render their situation as comfortable as he can.”  Somerville also left a small legacy to Geo. Platter “to save him from entire ruin.”[42]  One particular slave Jacob (“whom I bought”) must pay $150 to Henry to partly pay for himself.[43]    Henry Somerville, who married Rebecca Tiernan and lived at Bloomsbury in Maryland, died August 26, 1837.

Some of William Somerville’s furnishings used at Stratford were located by researcher Ethel Armes in the late 1930s at the home of Somerville family descendants in Natchez, Mississippi.[44]  These included a marble bust of Somerville, Bell’s edition of Shakespeare (21 vols.) which are identified on the fly leaf, “W. C. Somerville, Stratford, Va., Tuesday, May 6th 1824.”[45]

No personal property records appear for Stratford from 1826 to 1828, after Somerville died.  The house remained tenantless for several years, with only a caretaker and a few slaves.[46]  An ongoing chancery suit between Henry Lee and the administrators of Elizabeth McCarty’s (by this time married to Henry Dade Storke) estate complicated the settlement of Somerville’s estate.  Henry Somerville, William’s heir, figured that his brother’s reserve of $3,000 would cover any deficit that Lee might have had in his guardianship account for Elizabeth McCarty—but he was mistaken.  The court added interest to the amount originally awarded to the Storkes and, due to many delays, ordered the Stratford property to be turned over to the county sheriff, who advertised Stratford for auction.   On May 7, 1827, Henry Storke purchased the property with the highest bid of $11,000.  Household furnishings and farm equipment were sold to other local bidders.[47] Although Henry Somerville formally protested the sale in August 1827, the confirmation of Stratford’s sale to Storke was made in a court order dated June 30, 1828.[48]

 

 

 

 


[1] William & Mary Catalogue (1859) 56.  Shows Somerville enrolled in 1809.

[2] Fillmore Norfleet.  Saint-Memin in Virginia (Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, 1942) 125.  

[3] Ethel Armes.  Stratford Hall: Great House of the Lees (Richmond, VA:Garrett & Massie, 1936) 415.

[4] Diary of William C. Somerville, Swem Library, College of William & Mary, pages unnumbered.

[5] Charles B. Tiernan. The Tiernan and Other Families (Baltimore: William J. Gallery & Co., 1901) 154.  It is possible that the author was mistaken about the relationship between Somerville and Conyers; they could have been friends instead of being engaged.  Somerville lost several close friends in the blaze.

[6] Manuscript Collection of the Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall

[7] Tiernan, 155.

[8] Armes. 412.  Somerville was later to become acquainted with Lord Byron and is mentioned in “Three New Byron Letters.” Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 5, winter 1956, 97-101.  

[9] William Somerville’s article was published in Philadelphia in 1815.

[10] The Virginia Herald, Frederick, MD 7 Oct. 1815.

[11] Diary, Swem Library, College of William & Mary, pages unnumbered.

[12] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese.  The mind of the master class: history and faith in the Southern slaveholders.  Contains quotes (p.17) of some of Somerville’s Letters from Paris, which were printed in Baltimore in 1822 (390 pages).  

[13] Tiernan, 236.  Letter from Sparks to Somerville dated June 13, 1823.  Jared Sparks et al reviewed Somerville’s Letters from Paris in The North American Review, Vol. 19, #44, 50-68.

[14] John Finch, Travels in The United States of America and Canada.  London: Longman et al (1833)189.

[15] Armes, 414

[16] Westmoreland County Deed Book #24 (1822) 36

[17] Westmoreland County Tax Book for 1824

[18] Finch, 227

[19] Somerville’s taste in landscape design is revealed in a notebook entry dated March 31, 1819: “. . .to decorate nature; not to spoil her.  Everything around is left to sprout with its native ease, without any twisting into fantastic angles, and torturing into curves.”  Somerville notebook, manuscript collection, duPont Library, Stratford Hall.

[20] Tiernan, 192-3

[21] Finch, 228

[22] Tilp, 13

[23] Tilp, 16

[24] Tilp, 17

[25] Finch, 229-230

[26] Finch, 232

[27] Northern Europeans, particularly pre-19th century, used the term “fir” for pine.

[28] Finch, 228

[29] Westmoreland County Deed Book #16, 288-290 records a lifetime lease by Henry Lee to James Brown in 1785.

[30] William M. McCarty and Kathleen Much, The McCartys of the Northern Neck (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 2005) 199

[31] Armes, 414

[32] The Tiernan Family in Maryland, 1898, 102-3

[33] Recorded by Ethel Armes in the 1930s as still being owned by descendants living at “Lansdown,” Natchez, MS.

[34] Thomas Jefferson Papers (microfilm Roll #10) ALS William Clarke Somerville to Thomas Jefferson dated January  3, 1825. 

[35] TJ Papers, William C. Somerville to Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 3, 1825.  Jefferson’s reply was dated January 17, 1825.

[36] Charles Francis Adams, ed.  Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (Philadephia, PA: Lippincott & Co., 1875), Vol. VI, 533.  

[37] Edward Ingersoll to Henry Clay, Papers of Henry Clay, 1825-1829, p. 334.  “I am very glad Somerville has a chance of reconciling his two interfering blessings.  His situation between the mission and the miss was somewhat like the lover who sings (in the Beggar’s opera I believe), how happy could I be with either, were t’other dear charmer away–.  I advised him to tell his whole story frankly and freely to you and the President, and told him I was sure you would contrive some method of relieving him from a quandary so perplexing–.  I have some misgivings as to the sincerity of the lady—and can’t but suspect there is some coquetry in the case—if so however the sooner he puts it to the test the better. . . This is a very light letter to send to a Secretary of State…”

[38] Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII, 49 (Aug. 28, 1825 entry).

[39] Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII, 49.

[40] Armes, 419

[41] The fate of Somerville’s slaves is unknown.  As transportable personal property, his brother Henry could have removed them and put in effect William’s stipulation for their emancipation.       

[42] Baltimore, MD Will Book, No. M, folio 270

[43] The Tiernan Family in Maryland, 1898, p. 107-9

[44] Tiernan, 161-2.  Henry Somerville’s heirs sold some of the Stratford portraits; however, other furnishings passed down in the family.

[45] College of William &Mary Archives, Robert Hunt Land Papers

[46] Armes, 422

[47] Armes Research Papers: Ethel Armes memo to Mrs. Bingham, 2/23/35.  duPont Library Archives, Stratford Hall. 

[48]Westmoreland County Deed Book #26,78