Rawleigh Colston

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Rawleigh Colston[1] (May 10, 1749 – July 26, 1823), was a Virginia attorney, planter, and a commercial agent during the American Revolution in the West Indies, supplying the Colonies with military stores. Colston was orphaned at a young age and not formally educated, but had a private tutor during his childhood, and read law for three years under George Wythe in Williamsburg, Virginia in the late 1760s and early 1770s. He married Elizabeth Marshall, a niece of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

Colston left a brief, handwritten history of his family and his own life written inside a family Bible — replete with amusing anecdotes from his childhood — a transcript of which is presented here.[2]

Life and career

Rawleigh was born to Travers (1714-1751) and Susanna Opie Colston (1719-1750) in Northumberland County, in 1749 at the family's Exeter Lodge on the Yeocomico River.[3] Rawleigh had three siblings, Travers the younger (who died before he was of age), William, and Samuel (a captain in the Revolutionary War); and three half-siblings: two from his father's first marriage, and one from his mother's (both were widowed). Susanna Colston died in childbirth with Samuel around 1750; his father took the children to live at their great-uncle's, Daniel Hornsby's estate, on the Rappahannock River. Travers Colston died in November, 1751.[4]

After their father's death, William and Rawleigh were sent to live with another great-uncle, Charles Beale. The brothers had a private tutor, and Rawleigh was considered a "pretty good latin scholar" by the age of fourteen. He was soon apprenticed by his guardian, Travers Tarpley — another family relation — into a mercantile house in Williamsburg, Tarpley, Thompson & Company, under Travers' brother, James Tarpley. While in Williamsburg, Rawleigh "fell into the dissipated practices" of his friends at the College of William & Mary, and he learned very little of the business in his three years there.[5]

Following the death of James Tarpley in late 1763 and the dissolution of the firm, Colston returned to Richmond and a life of relative leisure supported by his indulgent guardian. Finally exhausted of idleness, Colston set about the study of law, and returned to Williamsburg in or about 1769 to read with George Wythe at the recommendation his father's childhood friends, John Taylor and Presley Thornton. Colston "studied with great attention" under Wythe for three years. He may have lived with Wythe for some of that time, as Wythe often boarded students and apprentices at his home in Williamsburg, and later in Richmond. Colston received his license to practice law in 1772.[6]

Returning to Richmond, Colston found himself bored, underpaid, and "disgusted with the practices" of being an attorney.[7] With the outbreak of the Revolution and the closing of the courts, Colston decided to join the militia, and borrowed money on his share of his father's estate. Arriving late to Philadelphia and missing an appointment as an officer, he took up employment as an agent for the colony of Virginia, rendering "not splendid, but useful services procuring arms, ammunition, etc. for the supply of the army engaged in the contest,"[8] and settled himself at "Cap-François," Saint-Domingue in the neutral West Indies, in what is now Haiti.[9] Colston also mentions he was "connected with a house" in Curaçao, a Dutch colony, source of much-needed salt, and a center of the Atlantic slave trade.[10]

Colston amassed an "easy fortune" during the war and after returning to Virginia in 1784, he married Elizabeth Marshall, the daughter of Thomas Marshall (brother of John Marshall) in Richmond on October 15, 1785,[11] and retired to Frederick County to become a planter.[12] In 1801 the Colstons moved to "Honey Wood" (sometimes, "Honeywood"), their Berkeley County estate, formerly part of the land grant of Lord Fairfax, now part of West Virginia.[13] They had nine children: Edward, Mary Isham, Susanna, Thomas, Marshall, Rawleigh, Travers, Lucy Ann, and John James Marshall.

After a painful illness of two years, Colston died at the age of 75 at Honey Wood, in July, 1823.[14]

Autobiography, 1812 (undated typescript)

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Copied from record in the handwriting of Rawleigh Colston, written on the first leaves of The Christian's Family Bible (London, 1763), vol. 3. This work was left to the John Marshall House by Miss Zelma Rogers, of Montgomery, Alabama.

As my children may desire to receive some information respecting their Ancestros (sic) since their emigration to Virginia, I will here give them such [an record?]

When I was a young man, I think about the year 1768 or 69, I resided in the County of Richmond near an aged relation of the lady of Col: John Smith. Her maiden name was Colston. She informed me that the first of that name & family which emigrated to this country was William who had been bred to the profession of law and was the Clerk of Rappahannock County which I believe comprehended the counties now called Essex & Middlesex on the south side of that river, and those of Richmond Lancaster & Northumberland on the north side. I have seen some of the record books of his office which impressed me with an opinion that he was well versed in his profession. This gentleman Mrs. Smith informed me was the brother of Edward Colston of the city of Bristol in old England who devoted a large fortune to Charitable uses such as building and endowing Alms houses, Hospitals & Charity Schools two of which for the maintenance and education of forty youth of both sexes were established in Bristol the place of his nativity. The scholars of this institution are always draped in blue clothes from whence it took the name of blue coat school or hospital. They wear a silver medal engraved with his coat of arms. I have seen in this country several highly respectable gentlemen who were indebted for their maintenance & Education to this institution, which has no doubt contributed to the happiness of thousands who have been snatched from poverty ignorance & vice. He was born in 1636 I think in the month of November and died on his birthday in 1721. His remains are deposited in All Saints Church in Bristol where a sermon in (sic) annually preached in honour of his memory accompanied by the solemn sound of muffled bells. Mention is made of him in a work entitled a tour through England[15] and in the Biographical Dictionary. Mrs. Smith showed me a copper plate picture of this gentleman elegantly framed to which was annexed his character & his various charities printed in letters of gold, to show the respect in which he was held in his native City.

To return to William Colston the first emigrant & clerk of Rappahannock--Mrs. Smith informed me he had a son named William and as well I recollect some daughters. This last named William had two sons William and Charles and I believe some daughters. William was the father of Mrs. Smith & Charles was my grandfather. Charles intermarried with a Miss Susanna Travers the daughter of Samuel Travers (or William Travers) and Winifred his wife who I believe emigrated from England--The issue of this marriage was Travers my father & Susanna who married a gentleman of the name of Eustice and died without issue. Travers my father married for his first wife Miss Alice Corbin Griffin the daughter of Col. Thomas Griffin of Richmond County by whom he had issued Charles & Elizabeth Griffin. Charles Griffin married with Miss Ann Fauntleroy

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the daughter of Griffin Fauntleroy of Cherry Point in Northumberland County by whom he had issue Judith Swam and Alice Griffin. Judith married William Grayham by whom she had a son named Charles who died under age & four daughters Nancy Fanny Alice and Sally. Alice Griffin married Richard Beale by whom she had several children one of whom married a Mr. Peyton of Loudoun. Elizabeth Griffin the sister of Charles & my half sister intermarried with Col. William Peachy of Richmond County by whom she had issue Susanna the wife of Mr. John Nicholson Merchant of Baltimore by whom she had several children and William Travers the father of Elizabeth Griffin now living in my family and Susanna William & Travers living with Mrs. Nicholson.

Travers my father married a second wife whose maiden name was Susanna Opie then the widow of a Mr. Kenner and the mother of Col. Rodham Kenner of Kennerly in Northumberland and one of the best of men. By this lady my father had the following children--Travers who died under age William Rawleigh & Samuel who was a Captain in the revolutionary war and died unmarried William intermarried with Miss Lucy Carter daughter of Col. Landon Carter of Sabine Hall in the county of Richmond by whom he had issue William Travers who has several children & now resides in the county of Frederick and Elizabeth who married Dr. Hall now living in the town of Falmouth and Susanna who married Mr. Turner. Rawleigh intermarried with Miss Elizabeth Marshall daughter of Col. Thomas Marshall who resided in Faquiere (sic) but removed to Kentucky. By her he has the following children Edward named after Edward Colston of Bristol whose memory I highly respect for him many charitable works Mary Isham the wife of John Hanson Thomas Esq. of Frederick Town in Maryland Susanna Thomas Marshall Rawleigh Travers Lucy Ann & John James Marshall.

The family of Colston on the maternal side--

The first emigrants from England were William (or Samuel) and Winifred his wife who had issued William Samuel and Rawleigh and I believe four daughters--Susanna my grandmother one married a Mr. Beale one married a Mr. Tarpley and one married Daniel Hornsby of Hornsby Manor in the county of Richmond who having no issue or relatives in this country bequeathed his estate to William & Rawleigh Colston in tail male but the law on entails being abolished in the Revolution it descended to the family of William.

[Part of Manuscript is missing.]

I believe William Travers the son was speaker of house of Burgesses and settled at James Town. There is still a family there of that name & I suppose his posterity. Samuel & Rawleigh I believe died without issue. I am inclined to think that William Colston the first emigrant was born about the year 1618, came to this country in 1640 & was clerk of Rappahannock about 1645. That William his son was born about 1665 and Charles his son about 1689 or 1690. Travers son of Charles about 1712 & Charles son of Travers my half brother about the year 1736. & myself on the 10th of May, 1749. My father I suppose died about the year 1752. His will as well as that of his father I believe are recorded in the county of Northumberland. I think it probable that my grandfather Travers was born about the year 1665. My grandmother about 1690.

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At what period they emigrated I know not. I find from the records in the Land Office that a grant issued to Samuel Travers for land in Northumberland County in 1690. I think it probable that my greatgrand (sic) father William (or Samuel) I am not certain as to the Christian name came to this country between 1685 & 1690. If this conjecture be correct the family of Colston has been in this country about 170 or 172 years & that of Travers from 127 to 132 years.


March 24, 1812

(next leave)

Supposing it will be agreeable to my children to be made acquainted with some few particulars of my life I have thought proper to state as follows.

I was born on the 10th of May, 1749, at Exeter Lodge the seat of my father on Yocomoco Rover in the county of Northumberland in Virginia. Nature bestowed on me a sound and vigorous constitution which was strengthened by the active pursuits of my youth. Perhaps few persons ever had a more early recollection of events. I think I can venture to affirm that I still retain a pretty perfect recollection of certain circumstances which took place before I was two years old, which I ascertain in the way--my father had issued by my mother four sons in the following order: Travers William Rawleigh and Samuel--from the register of our births it appears there was about two years between our births. My mother died in childbirth of Samuel and consequently I was not more than two years old at my mother's death. I well recollect traveling in a carriage with my father & mother and that she wore stone or paste buckles. I also recollect my father purchasing some Dutch toys for our amusement. He presented William with a coach & horses & myself with a trumpet & drum. The coach was attached to a cat which was turned loose in a spacious passage for amusement, but in making its escape and attempting to pass through the grating of a cellar window demolished the coach. The drum and trumpet which I remember stained my lips with yellow & red paint were now transferred to William. Shortly after this my mother died and the family was removed from Exeter Lodge to Hornsbys Manor on Rappahannock River, an estate which has been bequeathed by our good old Uncle Daniel Hornsby in tail mate to William & myself (Samuel not being born at the time of the bequest). After our removal to this estate I recollect a variety of circumstances not worth relating but which are thoroughly impressed on my mind at the moment.

My father died at Hornsby's Manor I think in 1752 or 53. If so I was not more than three or four years old when he died. I perfectly recollect seeing my father's corpse [though?] I was in pettycoats or what was called a banyan made of Scotch tartan plaid. I recollect my father frequently rode me out before him on a pillow and made the servant who attended me carry his gun to shoot squirrels and crows the sca^lps of which were paid in discharge of taxes as I have understood. After the death of my father William & myself were sent to live with Charles Beale Esq., one of the guardians appointed by my father in conjunction with Major Travers Tarplay. A Scotch gentleman by the

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name of Richardson was employed as our tutor. He was a most excellent man and one of the misionaries (sic) of the Scotch Society for propogating (sic) the gospel in America-distributed a great number of religious books amongst the poor and instructed their children on holidays. This good amn (sic) taught me to read & write and carried me as far as Eutropius in latin. He made me read the Scriptures & chatachised (sic) me through the principal parts. He was very attentive to my moral conduct and impressed me with religious sentiments which I have never forgotten. I am thoroughly convinced from experience and observation through a pretty long life that parents cannot commence too early with the religious and moral education of their children. At the age of 14 I was considered as a pretty good latin scholar for my age and opportunities.

My guardian Major Travers Tarpley now put met an apprentice to his brother James who was member of an extensive mercantiel house in the city of Williamsburg under the firm name of Tarpley Thompson & Company the principal partners of which resided in Bristol in old England. Here I remained between two or three years. I acquired but little knowledge in the line of business. My principal associates were the students of William and Mary College most of whom were at that time much more celebrated for their vices than their literary acquirements. I frequently fell into the dissipated practices of my companions. I read none. My mind was a blank. No inquiry was made into my conduct by my guardian. The concern of Tarpley Thompson being dissolved (sic) by the death of Tarpley I now returned to my guardian residing in Richmond County. He was very indulgent. I was furnished with a good home and went and came when and where I pleased. After passing this dissipated course for twelve or eighteen months I became perfectly disgusted with an idle life and determined to apply myself. There was a gentleman in the neighborhood who had married a relation of mine. He was a man of science. I boarded myself with him. After pretty close application to reading for twelve to fifteen months, I determined on the study of law. For this purpose I returned to Williamsburg and placed myself under the patronage of George Wythe Esq. to whom I was introduced & recommended by the Hon. John Taylor & Presley Thornton, the juvenile friends of my father. I here studied with great attention for three years. Having obtained a lisence (sic) I commenced to practice in Richmond & northumberland but The (sic) fees were too small to engage the attention of an active mind. I became disgusted with the practices. After a short period an opportunity was afforded me of quitting the practice without reproach. The Revolution commenced & the courts were shut up. With a view to meet the event I sold my patrimonial estate and intended to enter the army but having sold on credit a considerable part of my fortune was lost by depreciation. The dispute between Great Britain and the Colonies having been fully discussed the mind of all men was preferred to refer to the ultina ratio regum (sic).[16] The young men formed themselves into independent companies were well armed uniformed & pretty well disciplained (sic) at their own expense. The immortal Washington was the avowed patron of the one to which I apperained (sic). It was expected that those young men who had been most appointed by the Committee of Safety to proceed to Philadelphia for the purchase of military accutraments (sic) I was absent in the earlyppart of the time when officers were named for the six new regiments and although in the list of candidates for

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Lieutenant Colonel my opponents who were present attained a preference. Determined not to remain an idle spectator I received the appointment of Commercial Agent for the purpose of collecting military stores from abroad and for this purpose settled at Cape Francois in St Domingo, and was connected with a house in Curacoa where I sometimes resided. I returned to my native country in June 1784 after having acquired an easy fortune for the period until October 1785 I resided in the city of Richmond where I married and retired to the county of Frederick and became a farmer. In 1801 I removed to the county of Berkeley and established myself at Honey Wood on the banks of the Potomac.


See also


  1. Occasionally "Raleigh" Colston, or Coulston.
  2. Rawleigh Colston, "Autobiography, 1812," Genealogy Collection - Colston Family, Manuscripts and Rare Books Department, Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Typescript. Original at the John Marshall House in Richmond, Virginia.
  3. Colonial Dames of America, Ancestral Records and Portraits: A Compilation from the Archives of Chapter I, the Colonial Dames of America, vol. 2 (New York: Grafton Press, 1910), 729-730.
  4. Ancestral Records and Portraits, 730.
  5. Colston, "Autobiograpy," 4.
  6. Mary A. Stephenson, George Wythe House Historical Report, Block 21 (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, 1952).
  7. "Autobiography," 4.
  8. Obituary, Martinsburg Gazette (Martinsburg, VA), 31 July 1823, Find A Grave, accessed April 29, 2018.
  9. In a letter to Benjamin Franklin dated February 15, 1778, Colston says he arrived in Cap François in December, 1777: "To Benjamin Franklin from Rawleigh Colston, 15 February 1778," Founders Online, National Archives, citing The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 25, October 1, 1777, through February 28, 1778, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 670–672.
  10. "Autobiography," 5.
  11. "Papers from the Virginia State Auditor's Office, Now in the State Library," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 25, no. 3 (July, 1917), 281 n16.
  12. "Autobiography," 5.
  13. William McClung Paxton, The Marshall Family, Or A Genealogical Chart of the Descendants of John Marshall and Elizabeth Markham, His Wife, Sketches of Individuals and Notices of Families Connected with Them (Cincinnati, OH: R. Clarke & Company, 1885), 46-47.
  14. Obituary.
  15. Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain: Divided into Circuits or Journeys, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (London: J. Osborn, S. Birt, D. Browne, J. Hodges, A. Millar, J. Whiston, J. Robinson, 1742), 275.
  16. Ultima ratio regum: "The final argument of kings," i.e., war.

External links