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Too much vigor in the beginning of an undertaking often intercepts and prevents the steadiness and perseverance always necessary in the conduct of a complicated scheme… Samuel Johnson

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The fabulous history of the Dismal Swamp Company : a story of George Washington’s times  Charles Royster  New York : Alfred A, Knopf, 1999  Hardcover. 1st ed. xi, 622 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [435]-607) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

In this absorbing narrative Royster traces the rise and fall of the eighteenth-century transatlantic culture that was built on the insatiable demand in Europe for Virginia tobacco and the equally insatiable American demand for European manufactured goods.

Moving from the plantations of Virginia and Antigua to the warehouses of London and Glasgow, from the Gold Coast of Africa to the valleys of the Allegheny Mountains, from the iron furnaces of southern Wales to the subscribers’ room of Lloyd’s of London, Royster gives us the story of the Dismal Swamp Company, a fantastically delusional enterprise that proposed draining and developing a vast morass along the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Sabine Hall was built in 1730 for Colonel Landon Carter by his father, Robert Carter, of Corotoman, whose extensive possessions in the Colony of Virginia caused him to be called "King" Carter by his compatriots. According to tradition Colonel Carter named his estate for Horace's Sabine Farm because of his interest and great delight in the Roman poet Horace. The estate consists of some four thousand acres on the Rappahannock in Richmond County. On the river side of the house is an excellent example of a Colonial garden at its best. Practically unchanged since it was laid off about 1730 by English gardeners, it has a series of six terraces. Broad grass ramps lead down from one terrace to the next. It was in this garden that George Washington unfolded to Landon Carter his plans for the campaign at Morristown. Upon leaving he took with him the young son of Sabine Hall to enlist in the Army of the Revolution. Sabine Hall has come down for nine generations and is still owned by Carter descendants.

Sabine Hall was built in 1730 for Colonel Landon Carter by his father, Robert Carter, of Corotoman, whose extensive possessions in the Colony of Virginia caused him to be called “King” Carter by his compatriots. According to tradition Colonel Carter named his estate for Horace’s Sabine Farm because of his interest and great delight in the Roman poet Horace. The estate consists of some four thousand acres on the Rappahannock in Richmond County. On the river side of the house is an excellent example of a Colonial garden at its best. Practically unchanged since it was laid off about 1730 by English gardeners, it has a series of six terraces. Broad grass ramps lead down from one terrace to the next. It was in this garden that George Washington unfolded to Landon Carter his plans for the campaign at Morristown. Upon leaving he took with him the young son of Sabine Hall to enlist in the Army of the Revolution. Sabine Hall has come down for nine generations and is still owned by Carter descendants.

Examining the interconnected lives of the company’s partners, Royster reveals a colonial order built on a system of cronyism, conspicuous consumption, and debt that seems hauntingly familiar. He writes about the many schemers and dreamers (including George Washington, Robert “King” Carter, two William Byrds, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Morris) who failed to amass their desired fortunes, and a few realists (Samuel Gist, Dr. Thomas Walker, and Anthony Bacon) who succeeded, but at the dire expense of others. And we see the breakdown of this culture and the transition to a more democratic, though similar, system after the Revolution.

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Throughout Royster’s narrative we see possessors possessed by their possessions, slaveholders possessed by slavery, and heirs possessed by litigation. Connecting all their stories are their unceasing efforts to make something substantial out of the insubstantial – chief among them the almost unbelievable delusion that fortunes could be made from the Dismal Swamp.

Graves of Sir William Byrd, Mary Byrd and Evelyn Byrd, Westover, James River, Va.

Graves of Sir William Byrd, Mary Byrd and Evelyn Byrd, Westover, James River, Va.

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