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The Ghosts of Belmont: from Margaret Mercer to George Kephart

Yardley Taylor’s 1854 map of Loudoun County included this illustration of Belmont, “res. of Geo. Kephart Esq”


Margaret Mercer (1791-1846) was an educator and held strong anti-slavery sentiments.  She wrote: “Do not for a moment doubt that slavery is in my mind a direct violation of Christianity….”. Margaret Mercer was the daughter of John Francis Mercer, a governor of Maryland. In 1821, with the death of her father, Margaret inherited his estate and the enslaved men, women and children belonging to the Mercer family. Margaret manumitted her family’s enslaved workers. In 1836, she purchased the Loudoun County, Virginia estate known as Belmont, located about five miles east of Leesburg, the county seat. At Belmont, Mercer opened Belmont Academy, a boarding school for girls.

Margaret Sprigg Mercer (1791-1846) Picture courtesy of Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA

The Memoir of Margaret Mercer, written by Caspar Morris in 1848, emphasized how devoted Mercer became, at an early age, to both education and anti-slavery efforts. She was a leading member of the American Colonization Society, which advocated colonization as a peaceful means to ending slavery. A schooner funded by the colonization society and named the “Margaret Mercer” made long, difficult journeys across the Atlantic, carrying passengers to what they hoped to be a new life of justice and freedom in the young west African nation of Liberia.

An unpublished manuscript called “The Gifted One, a Brief Biography of Margaret Mercer 1791-1846 Educator, Emancipator and Heaven’s Advocate” by Frances King Kelly mentions that a schooner built to take emigrants to Liberia was named the “Margaret Mercer.” Courtesy of Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA

Morris wrote in his Memoir of Margaret Mercer that the costs of manumitting her family’s servants, as well as paying for their emigration and that of others, depleted Mercer’s own inheritance, leaving her “dependent on her own exertions for maintenance.” Colonization eventually fell out of favor, but through the early 19th century it remained popular with many anti-slavery advocates, including Loudoun County Quakers such as Yardley Taylor. According to Morris, one of the reasons Margaret Mercer made her home in Loudoun County is because her anti-slavery beliefs were shared in Loudoun by a number of like-minded citizens, such as the area’s Quakers.

Belmont Academy, run by Margaret Mercer on the 433 acre estate, had the girls’ classrooms and bedrooms in the manor house. The school held challenging academic standards. Mercer had herself received a rigorous education equal to that of her brothers and she knew the value of knowledge and hard work. She wrote a book entitled, Popular Lectures on Ethics, or Moral Obligation: For the Use of Schools. According to Caspar Morris, Belmont Academy students helped Mercer run a “Sunday School” in which African Americans of all ages were taught to read and write. She also built an Episcopal chapel on her property, where her students, employees, and neighbors could worship together.

Belmont manor house, is located five miles east of Leesburg, Virginia. The house is on a commanding hill overlooking the Potomac River valley. Belmont estate sits alongside a road leading into Alexandria, located 35 miles away. The property is now a subdivision and golf club, the manor house is a wedding venue. Photo by the author.

Margaret Mercer died of tuberculosis on 17 September 1846. Her Belmont property – the chapel, the school, the beautiful manor house, the 433 acres of farm land – all came into the hands of family trustees. The trustees sold the property on April 24, 1851 to George Kephart. Kephart was a slave trader and agent, running the biggest slave auction house in the nation, Alexandria’s Armfield & Franklin. The location of Belmont was perfect for Kephart’s business: it was not far from his old base in Frederick, Maryland, and it was located next to the Potomac River and Leesburg-Alexandria turnpike. Plus, Belmont was a large, grand estate, with barns and tenant houses. The entire deed selling Belmont to Kephart can be viewed here, and is partially transcribed below:

Mercers trustees to Kephart, Geo. BOS [bill of sale]

This deed, made the 24th day of April, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty one, between Thomas S. Mercer and Richard S. Mercer, trustees under the will of Margaret Mercer deceased, of the one part, and George Kephart of the other part, witnesseth, that in consideration of the sum of five thousand and forty two dollars, thirty four and 24 cents to them in hand paid, and secured by the said George Kephart the said Thomas S. Mercer and Richard S. Mercer, acting as trustees as aforesaid, do grant unto the said George Kephart all that tract or parcel of Land lying and being in the County of Loudoun, State of Virginia on which the said Margaret Mercer now deceased, resided at the time of her death, containing according to a recent survey made by John M. Wilson, 433 ¼ Acres, by the same – Beginning at  A. in the center of the road that leads to the Church from the Leesburg Turnpike Road, thence with the Church road, S. 66 poles…

Like Margaret Mercer, George Kephart (1795-1870) had been born and raised in Maryland, but there the similarities ended. Kephart became wealthy in the burgeoning slave trade, and by 1836 he was operating Armfield & Franklin, at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dr. Donald Sweig, in his series on the interstate slave trade, writes: “Franklin and Armfield retired from the slave-trading business late in 1836. Two of the firm’s ships, the Tribune and the Uncas, were sold to William H. (Yellow-House) Williams, a well known trader in the federal city. The “slave pen” on Duke Street and the ship Isaac Franklin were sold to George Kephart, Franklin and Armfield’s former agent in Frederick, Md. Kephart may have been less careful about his reputation and more anxious for a fast profit than Armfield, He is reputed to have shipped as many as 400 slaves at one time in the Isaac Franklin.

This Alexandria Gazette ad is from the November 10, 1838 edition. The ad ran regularly in the Gazette. The brig, “Isaac Franklin,” named for one of the Armfield & Franklin slave auction founders, traveled between Alexandria and New Orleans. Kephart does not have to explain what was shipped between those two ports; readers knew Kephart and were familiar with what stood at the “upper end of Duke street”. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Belmont had been the home of Margaret Mercer and the setting of her life’s work to end slavery and supply an equal education for everyone. Now her much loved home estate was owned by George Kephart and central to his slavery business. A tenant of Belmont in 1860-1861, Emma Moore, wrote of Kephart in her Southern Claim document. Under oath, Moore, who was a Unionist supporter during the Civil War, stated in her deposition:

“While we were at Belmont we did every thing we could for the Union side, gave information to Union officers & scouts very often, and waited on the soldiers & officers whenever they came there. They were always kind to us there when they found we were Union folk. There were only two Union families of us right there & the other neighbors didn’t like us much. They talked about us being on the Yankee side, & the “Nigger side.” It wasn’t pleasant at all to live among them, and I was so glad when the Union soldiers came I wouldn’t hardly know what to do. Seemed like I was living among my own people. We didn’t believe in Slavery. I thought it was the unforgiveable sin almost, and my husband thought so too – we talked about that so often. Kephart was a slave trader & kept buying & selling slaves all the time. And it was an awful thing. It often made me cry to see how they were treated & separated. It was a dreadful sight.”

“It was a dreadful sight,” said Belmont tenant Emma Moore, referring to Kephart’s use of Belmont in his trading and selling of men, women and children. “Slave auction, Virginia 1862” by Lefevre Cranstone, Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
At the time of this Alex. Gazette June 19, 1840 ad, Kephart was running Armfield & Franklin. Kephart lived in Frederick, Maryland in 1840, moving his family to Belmont estate in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1851. Courtesy of Library of Congress, “Chronicling America.”

In 1858, the Alexandria slave auction house conveyed and brought in new investors, going from Armfield & Franklin to Price, Birch & Co. George Kephart was still the principal agent. Much of what we know about Price, Birch & Co. and George Kephart is learned from Testimonies Concerning Slavery published in 1864 by Virginia abolitionist Moncure D. Conway. (As an aside: in his book, Conway wrote of Goose Creek Meeting’s Samuel M. Janney, citing Janney as a fellow anti-slavery Virginian. Conway mentioned Janney’s 1849 arrest for writing against slavery.)

Moncure D. Conway (1832-1907) American minister and abolitionist. In 1864, Conway wrote a book, Testimonies Concerning Slavery, about his study of the American slave trade.

Kephart regularly put business ads in the Alexandria Gazette. His occupation was legal, and he was an important businessman, living a prosperous lifestyle. He occasionally carried on business or personal disputes through the press, airing grievances. Yet his own name was never on local business property. Even today, there is no publicly known picture of him or his immediate family.

George Kephart regularly ran this ad in the Alexander Gazette, this one dated Sept. 2, 1839. Courtesy Library of Congress

By the year 1858, in spite of a new name – and financial backers – Price, Birch & Co., things had fallen apart for George Kephart. He was forced into a sale of his properties, including Coton farm, located next to Belmont, and two mills. Belmont “on which George Kephart resides” was included in the sale. The notices repeatedly appeared in Alexandria newspapers, skipping the war years 1861-1865 – when courts were closed – then returning in 1866 through 1868.

Though Belmont and Coton are not labeled on this map, they are near the upper right map location of the mills, turnpike, and Potomac River. Shown courtesy of map-maker Eugene Scheel

In 1869 George Kephart died of “chronic diarrhea” at his home at Belmont (his death notice and other miscellaneous papers may be read here.) He was buried in Leesburg’s Union Cemetery alongside his wife, Margaret, who died in 1867. Rest in peace, George Kephart, seller of souls.

This notice was placed in the Alexandria Gazette between 1858-1868, with time out during the years of war, 1861-1865. It seems Kephart was losing every property he owned. Courtesy Library of Congress, “Chronicling America”
This Civil War picture of Price, Birch & Do “dealers in slaves” shows the U.S. Army in front of Kephart’s 1315 Duke Street business. 1315 Duke Street today is home to Freedom House, a museum devoted to understanding Alexandria’s slave trade history. Picture courtesy of Library of Congress.

War brought an end to both transporting human cargo on the “Isaac Franklin” brig ship and by the slave coffles that moved along Leesburg Turnpike. Belmont was part of that turbulent era, a heavy burden for one house to bear.

For radically different reasons, slavery was central to both Margaret Mercer’s and George Kephart’s lives. Of the two, Margaret Mercer led a life well lived and she was loved.

In 2018, Mercer received recognition for her progressive social efforts; a plaque was put up at the site of her Belmont Chapel, giving a brief history of her ownership of Belmont.

This Belmont Chapel marker was put up in 2018 near the site of the original chapel. Photo courtesy of Loudoun Now newspaper

The Belmont Slave Cemetery has been located and protected through the hard work of the Loudoun Freedom Center, led by Pastor Michelle Thomas and local activists. Enslaved workers from both Belmont and Coton plantations are buried on the cemetery site. Now the men, women and children there may have the peace and respect their lives deserved.

We know from Emma Moore’s deposition that Belmont was part of Kephart’s slave trading, but all evidence of his operation has been sculpted away by tennis courts and golf putting greens. He gets no mention on Belmont promotional websites. OK…hardly surprising. But even the Department of Interior, Belmont National Historic Registry listing document (Reference #80004198) merely includes Kephart’s name as a former owner, but gives absolutely no detail of his years there. In contrast, the document details the other, more salubrious Belmont owners, including Margaret Mercer. National Historic Registry document #80004198 erases important history.

George Kephart, after a lifetime of turning cruelty into a profession, has almost disappeared from our national conversation. Was he haunted by the thousands of lives he destroyed? Probably not. Slavery at Belmont would have haunted Margaret Mercer, however, and Belmont tenant Emma Moore was haunted by the enslaved families trapped there. Their stories need to be learned, acknowledged and remembered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Special thanks to Eric Larson, Historic Records manager, at the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s Historic Record and Deed Office, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA and Laura Christiansen, librarian extraordinaire, at Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA. Both shared historic records which tell this fuller story of Belmont’s remarkable history.

3 comments on “The Ghosts of Belmont: from Margaret Mercer to George Kephart

  1. Amazing how much of America’s complex story is represented in the dichotomy of these two Belmont owners. For every Margaret Mercer there’s a George Kephart, but we can only hope the spirit of the former triumphs. Great post!

    Like

  2. Great post. Amazing how much of America’s complex story is represented in the dichotomy of these two Belmont owners. For every Margaret Mercer in this country there is a George Kephart. May the spirit of the former triumph!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Henry, dead or alive – Nest of Abolitionists

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