[Subseries 1.1. Folder 50: 1791: Scan 16], in the Cameron Family Papers #133, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This image features a letter written by John Davis to Richard Bennehan, Paul Cameron’s maternal grandfather and a prominent landowner. In 1776, Bennehan bought 1,213 acres of land which became the Stagville Plantation—North Carolina’s largest pre-Civil War plantation.[1] Richard Bennehan’s investment in this extensive tract of land made him one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina at the time. Additionally, Bennehan was close friends with William Richardson Davie, a Revolutionary war hero and North Carolina’s governor. As a result of this relationship, Bennehan was an early supporter of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, donating supplies and serving on the Board of Trustees.[2] John Davis, the letter writer, originally owned land in Orange County, North Carolina, but he temporarily resided in Norfolk, Virginia, to gauge Norfolk’s living conditions for fellow North Carolinians.[3]

In this letter, Davis wrote that he agreed to Bennehan’s request for rum and sugar. Bennehan’s desire for these particular items highlights Orange County’s connection to the West Indies and triangular trade. By purchasing and consuming rum and sugar from the West Indies, the Bennehans participated in the preservation of slavery, as enslaved people cultivated the sugar used to produce rum. More broadly, this letter reveals the beginning of North Carolina’s, and the entire United States’, reliance on imports from the West Indies—a reliance that existed for many decades.

Davis’ letter also alludes to the great power the Bennehan family wielded in the Orange County area during the 18th century. The fact that Davis wrote that he had selected the “best sails [sic] and purchases that could be made” at the time for the Bennehans reveals the family’s importance, as they deserved the highest quality imports at the “best” prices.[4] Moreover, Davis’ declaration as Richard Bennehan’s “most obedient servant” further suggests the Bennehan’s affluence and authority in Orange County, which can still be seen on UNC’s buildings and street signs today.[5]


[1] “The Bennehans.” Visit Stagville State Historic Site. Accessed October 09, 2018. http://www.stagville.org/history/the-bennehans/.

[2] “Cameron Family Papers.” The Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library. Accessed October 9, 2018. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/00133/#folder_50#1.

[3] “The Davis Family of Norfolk County.” Long Point Settlers. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://sites.google.com/site/longpointsettlers/the-davis-family.

4] “Cameron Family Papers.”

[5] Ibid.

Written by Morgan Parker