Edward Watts, John Trout, Absolem Smith, Madison Pitzer Among Richest In Section
From the 1938 centennial edition of The Times-Register
Both writers of fact and fiction have described at length the methods of living and the splendor of the great planters before the War Between the States. Old Virginia had her share of wealthy planters and while Roanoke county probably had fewer men of immense wealth than eastern Virginia, there were men here who had large landed estates and a number of slaves. The free and easy life, the great generosity, the upright integrity of those planters, are matters of record. Every man of prominence in those days, and the prominent men were largely the planters, had a fine carriage with a fast-stepping span of horses.
As to the wealthiest planters in Roanoke county, the record is clear, since the tax books and the land books show distinctly who owned large amounts of land and slaves; how much taxes they paid and the tax books even list their clocks, watches, jewelry, pianos and harps.
Looking over these records we find that Edward Watts, who was the first commonwealth attorney for this county, paid the largest land tax for he evidently had the most valuable landed estate in the county although it does not necessarily follow that he had the most land since some of the mountainous land in this county was assessed at a very low figure.
Edward Watts, Gent.
That Mr. Watts was looked up to as a man of eminence, is shown by the court records as he is the only one in either the land book or the property book to have the designation “gent” after his name. In that day the highest honor that could be paid to a man was to place such a designation after his name. In Kegley’s history an account is given of a wealthy planter of Augusta county who insisted on the word “gent” being placed after his name and that after the signature of a man with a similar name but no relation the designation “ye little” be placed in order to distinguish between the prominent citizen and the man of less worldly fame. The designation was much like the word “Hon” today. While the official title of gentleman was one of honor it did not necessarily indicate that hose without such distinction were not gentlemen.
Not only did Mr. Watts have the most valuable land in the county but he had the most slaves in 1854. He paid taxes on 89 slaves over the age of 12 years at the rate of sixty cents each. Those under that age were not taxed. Besides his property Mr. Wats is listed as having $20,000 in money, bonds, securities or liquid claims. In this respect he had more capital than anyone in the county with the exception of George P. Taylor who was listed as having cash or its equivalent to the amount of $22,500. Whether the cash and securities were taxed at full value is not clear, but it is certain that other property was not assessed at full value. Regardless of this fact it seems certain that Mr. Watts’ slaves and other property were worth far in excess of the $20,000 he had in money. Altogether his estate must have been worth upwards of $100,000. However, taxes in those days were low and Mr. Watts paid but a total of $151.71 in taxes of which $108.62 was for personal property and $43.09 was for his land.
While Edward Watts, gent, had thirteen different tracts of land, some of them large ones, the best estate which was in one tract belonged to Nathaniel Burwell. He had 968 acres in one tract close to Salem and his plantation came right up to the town limits. This was the only land he owned with the exception of one comparatively small tract of 68 acres. With the exception of Mr. Watts, Mr. Burwell was the largest slave owner as he was credited with 69 slaves over the age of 12 years. Another gentleman of wealth in those days was Alexander White who possessed 1,137 acres of land in the Fort Lewis section. He was listed as having but 17 slaves of taxable age. Most of his land also was in one tract while that of Edward Watts was scattered about in different places.
Paid One Cent Tax
In those days the smallest tax was recorded on the books. We find that John Dooley was listed as having two acres of land located in New Salem on which the tax was but one cent as the total of the two acres was placed at only $9.00.
In looking over the property book which was used before the war it is seen that the great majority of the property owners did not own slaves. Many more of the landowners possessed but one slave. On each page of this property book thirty-one names are listed and on one page there was not a property owner listed who had a slave of taxable age.
Most of the slaves were owned by the large land owners and the tax books of 1854 show the number of slaves owned by individuals as follows:
Nathaniel Burwell, 69; James E. Bruce, 26; Sarah Betts, 26; Joseph Deyerle, 19; John H. Griffin, 11; John A. Hurt, 11; James Fleming, 21; Elizabeth Johnston, 18; John A. Langhorne, 10; James McClanahan, 15; Lucy Oliver, 25; Wm. M. Peyton, 34; David L. Read, 50; A. G. Read, 17; Madison Pitzer, 24; Geo. W. Shanks, 25; John H. Smith, 11; C. Snyder, 11; George P. Tayloe, 32; John Trout, 7; Alexander White, 17; Edward Watts, 89.
Among the larger landowners of the county besides those mentioned above were William Peyton, Absolom Smith, Madison Pitzer, James Bruce, Benjamin Deyerle, Alfred Dillard, John Garst. Henry Brubaker, David Shanks heirs and Henry Snyder heirs.
James Bruce seems to have been about the only man who had large interests here but did not reside in the county as he made his home in Halifax. His acreage here totaled 971 and this land was listed as being at Waverly.
Madison Pitzer owned about 1,500 acres of land in various places in the county but his land was not assessed at a large figure since his total land tax was $14.36. The location of his lands was placed at the South Roanoke River and along Carvin Creek.
Absolom Smith also had an immense amount of land about Catawba Creek and Mason’s Cove but his land was not very valuable as his taxes were small.
The location of the lands of Edward Watts was placed under four headings, they being Barrens, Mill, Tinker Creek and Roanoke River.
John Trout at that time was just beginning to acquire a large estate. He is listed with having 223 acres at Long Lick and another small tract of land at Cedar Springs.
Under the heading of horses, mules and jennets we find the following listings: Edward Watts, 47; Nathaniel Burwell, 21; Joseph Deyerle, 19; James Fleming,19; Lucy Oliver, 22; William M. Peyton, 28; David L. Read, 23; Madison Pitzer, 30; George P. Tayloe, 19; Alexander White, 19.
Had Fine Stock
Under another heading was listed cattle, sheep and hogs. These were all totaled under this heading with a value placed on all of them. As a rule the assessed value of such livestock was placed at three or four dollars per head but Nathaniel Burwell must have had some fancy stock for he is listed with 220 heads on which the assessment was $2,530.00.
There was quite a large amount of livestock on the larger farms of that day as will be seen from the tax books which listed the following: Edward Watts, 600; Alexander White, 240; Madison Pitzer, 330; David L. Read, 240; Wm. M. Peyton, 240; Lucy Oliver, 210; James Fleming, 200; Joseph Deyerle, 170; Sarah Betts, 270; James E. Bruce, 200; Nathaniela Burwell, 220.
In listing the personal property watches and clocks each had a separate heading and the number of each with the value was put down. Some of the watches and clocks were valued at more than $100. In another column was placed gold and silver plate and jewelry. Household and kitchen furniture was placed in a separate list as were pianos and harps.
In one column was to be found articles under the heading “pleasure carriages, coaches, jersey wagons, carryalls, gigs and buggies.” As there was no way to distinguish between these various articles except to judge by the value it is assumed the more handsome carriages and vehicles were those that had the highest assessments. Some of the vehicles listed under this head was assessed at as high as $450. It will be seen from the figures that a span of horses and a first class carriage cost more than an ordinary automobile today.
We list below the number of vehicles owned by certain individuals and their value: William Walton, 3-$500; Geo. P. Tayloe, 2-$400; C. Snyder, 2-$500; Madison Pitzer, 1-$350; A. G. Read, 1-$350; Thomas Read, 2-$550; Wm. Peyton, 3-$275; E. G. McClanahan, 1-$450; John B. I. Logan, 1-$225; Elizabeth Johnston, 2-$400; John W. Hurt, 2-$400; Col. A. J. Deyerle, 1-$200; Charles L. Cocke, 2-$500.
In a separate list was kept the real estate that was in town lots. In the Salem list of real estate owners we find that Charles and William Snyder jointly owned the property on which the largest assessment was placed. They paid a tax of $8.96. At Gainsborough the firm of Peck & Micon was taxed $2.40 and this is the largest tax on town property to be found there which is where Roanoke is now located.
-Prepared by Lisa King