Frances Bland Tucker
Virginia woman of means, military wife, and mother
“Making a good marriage” occupied much of the attention of both young men and women in colonial Virginia; establishing important connections through marriage insured the consolidation of landed wealth and the maintenance of political and social power. Although the average age for a first marriage had slowly crept upwards in Virginia during the eighteenth century, young women of socially prominent families continued to be married at age fifteen or sixteen. Usually the match involved a groom in his later twenties or even older, and thus it was not uncommon that a Virginia woman would find herself a widow with a considerable inheritance.
Frances Bland succeeded marvellously in Virginia society. Born in 1752 as the daughter of Colonel Theoderick Bland, Jr. of Prince George County, she enjoyed a relatively wealthy and privileged childhood. However, when in 1767 Frances married John Randolph of Mataox in Chesterfield County, she became linked to one of the most prominent families in Virginia; Randolphs traditionally occupied many of the most important offices in the colony. Although certain members of the Randolph family displayed Loyalist sympathies in the 1770s, the Revolution ultimately confirmed the family’s position among Virginia’s ruling gentry.
As was the typical pattern for eighteenth-century colonial women, Frances spent a considerable portion of her marriage to John Randolph as an expectant mother. In 1770, she gave birth to her first son, Richard. Within two years, John and Frances had a second son they named Theoderick, after Frances’s father. In 1773, Frances bore a third son, John. When Frances’s husband died in 1775, she was just twenty-three years old, already a widow, and now the owner of a plantation in Chesterfield County. Under the law of coverture, she was entitled to the use of a third of her deceased husband’s estate, with the remainder going to the surviving sons. However, their oldest son Richard was just five years old when his father died. Thus, the widow Frances Bland Randolph was a woman of means, and at greater liberty to select, and not just accept a husband.
On September 22, 1778, Frances married St. George Tucker, a promising young lawyer from Bermuda without any social connections in Virginia. The son of Henry Tucker, whose Royalist ancestors had fled to Bermuda in the 1650s after the execution of King Charles I, St. George was born in Port Royal, Bermuda in 1752. In 1771, he went to Virginia to attend the College of William and Mary where he studied law. Tucker family tradition maintains that Frances first saw St. George in Williamsburg at Bruton Parish Church. When they each rose from their knees, their eyes met and they fell instantly in love. As with her marriage to John Randolph, much of Frances’s marriage to St. George was spent as an expectant mother. She had a total of five children with her new husband, although only three survived childhood. Unlike her first marriage, Frances spent a great deal of time separated from her husband. St. George had attended William and Mary during the eventful 1770s, and the Revolution inspired him to join the Virginia militia where he rose to the rank of Colonel.
Frances and her children spent most of the year 1781 on the run from possible British raids in the Virginia countryside. Soon after British general Benedict Arnold led his troops up the James River in January 1781, Frances relocated west to Cumberland County. The family temporarily had to take refuge in a “smokey cabbin,” which may be a reference to an overseer’s cabin. Regardless of the original occupants, the genteel Frances found the accommodations unpleasant. Then in July 1781, British cavalry under Colonel Banastre Tarleton (known as “Bloody Tarleton” to Americans) threatened Frances and her children. She wrote to St. George that “I have been in the utmost distress ever since yesterday–a party of british [light cavalry] consisting of 900 March’d from Pe [Prince] Edward CtHouse [Courthouse] this Morn where they Encamp’d last Night, they took the road to Coles Ferry – as it is possible they may return this way.” Hoping to “Set off for some place of safety,” she fretted that she “cannot possibly get the [wagon] wheels in tolerable order.” Pending word from St. George, she planned to remove across the James River, “till I hear something more of their [Tarleton’s] route.” She worried that the British might steal one of her horses, for “every horse we can get will be necessary for the journey.” The family was soon returned to their temporary home at Bizarre plantation, though not before several of the children had taken ill with fevers.
Throughout the war Frances wrote to St. George frequently, worrying about his health and wondering when he would be home. Her letters reveal a woman deeply in love with her husband, and despite the presence of her children, she felt very lonely during the war. In 1779, she complained “how unsatisfactory was your last letter to me, not one word of your return nor of the place you were to be stationed.” She nearly asked him to return from the war, if only for a brief time, stating that “there are many who were called on as early as you, are now indulging themselves at home.” St. George proved sympathetic to his wife’s anguish, and encouraged her to keep her spirits up. Frances promised she would try, and “set about repairing this smokey Cabbin.” She claimed the project “amuses me till the evening,” and she hoped that “by that time I have the happiness of seeing you it will be much more comfortable.” However, the only thing could bring her real comfort was the safe return of her husband. In 1781, she professed “I could surmount every difficulty with cheerfulness if I could only be certain of your safety,” concluding that “if it is possible let me see you.” The war ended soon after, allowing St. George to return home to his anxious wife.
After the war, St. George started his law practice again, and in 1787 was appointed a Judge of the General Court. Frances died a year later in 1788 at the age thirty-six. Her death meant that the children would be alone at Mataox, so St. George bought a house on Palace Green in Williamsburg and expanded the structure to accommodate his large family. In 1791, he married another widow with excellent family connections, Lelia Skipwith Carter, adding two step-children to the Tucker family, though Lelia and St. George did not have any children together. St. George became Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia in 1804, and a U.S. Circuit Court Judge in 1813. He served as head of the Law School of the College of William and Mary, and died in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1827.
Three of Frances and St. George’s five children survived to be adults. Ann Frances Bland Tucker married John Coalter, and the couple had two children. Henry St. George Tucker became a successful lawyer in Winchester, Virginia, and later the head of the Law School at the University of Virginia. He married Ann Evelina Hunter, and they had seven children. The youngest, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, became a lawyer and a judge in Missouri. Like his father before him, Nathaniel later joined the faculty at the College of William and Mary as a law professor. He married Lucy Ann Smith, and they had four children. Of Frances’s three sons by her first husband, John Randolph, two died soon after their mother. Theoderick Randolph died in 1792 at the age of twenty, and Richard Randolph died in 1796 at the age of twenty-six. Their youngest son, John Randolph of Roanoke, became the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency.
Primary Source Documents: Frances Bland Tucker
The following letters are taken from the Tucker-Coleman Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, The College of William and Mary.
Letter of Frances Bland Tucker to St. George Tucker, May 23, 1779:
Was I to judge of you by my own feelings my most dear St. George, I should not suppose the character of husband wou’d in the smallest degree diminish that tender anxiety which you felt when alone for I can truly say, not a moment passes without my feeling the utmost solitude, for your health & happiness . . . how unsatisfactory was your last letter to me, not one word of your return, nor of the place you were to be stationed at. I have been robb’d of ten days happiness, when there are many, who were call’d on as early as you, are now indulging themselves at home. Our Friend Patty has been my constant companion since you left me indeed I might say the only one. I have seen PB only once.
My Father has kept his bed these four days with the gout. I was informed of it by a servant of my Brothers for they were not kind enough to let me know it. the weather is too hot to visit him on horse back & therefore shall defer it if he is better when Tony returns.
Adieu my love & if the supplication of the tenderest wife will avail, you will you soon return to her who is with never ceasing affection Yours most truly
Letter of Frances Bland Tucker to St. George Tucker, February 1780:
I did not receive your letter till Tuesday at which time Dick kept his bed with a severe Fever & pain in his side which Dr. Hall thought was a pleurisy – but as I was very anxious to see you, & also not to disappoint you, I determined to . . . set out [as soon as] our clothes were put up & the carriage ready, when the weather grew so extremely bad that had there not been a ferry to cross which was that day impassable for a chariot, the wind being so high, I cou’d not think of going out particularly with an infant, & as it lasted till Thursday . . . [I] concluded to deprive ourselves of the pleasures of visiting Brandon, as we thought it probable, that on likely the succeeding days we should meet you returning, or perhaps take a different road & miss you – these reasons I flatter myself will convince you, that my wishes were to be with you & particularly at Brandon – the proprietors of which have my most cordiall love & esteem & I beg you may offer them my best affections . . . . . . God bless you My St. George & return as soon as possible to me who can never cease to be your
Letter of Frances Bland Tucker to St. George Tucker, July 7, 1781:
What can make you think my dear scolding St. George that I wou’d not embrace every opportunity of assuring you that you are ever remembered by me with the tenderest affection . . . however, I freely forgive your compplaints as I think them as additional proof of that tender anxiety which constitutes my greatest happiniss . . . I think it is quite time to mention our dear Children they are well – the Boys often play truant. They will prepare a packet for the next oppty [opportunity] they beg their tenderest love to be offer’d to you. Fan is a sweet cross puss & shakes her fist at the English Men for carrying Papa from home. . . Let me beg of you to believe that nothing makes me so happy as writing to you except receiving similar testimony of your regard. I am my ever dear Tucker yours with Unalterable tenderness
Letter of Frances Bland Tucker to St. George Tucker, July 14, 1781:
I have been in the utmost distress ever since yesterday – a party of british [light cavalry] consisting of 900 March’d from Pe [Prince] Edward CtHouse [Courthouse] this Morn, where they Encamp’d last Night. they took the road to Coles Ferry – as it is possble they may return this way, I think I shall Set off for some place of safety on Monday Morn. I shou’d have done it before, but I cannot possbly get the [wagon] wheels in tolerable order till then. . . I shall endevour to stay somewhere on the other side of James River till I hear something more of their rout, or hear something from you which is what I most ardently wish, as I have not had a letter from you since the Engagement at James Town . . . we have only our waggon & that is very weak, you will know how difficult & arduous my task is, but I shall endeavor to follfill it with as much chearfullness as I can – your absence causes my principle pain, for with you I cou’d encounter every hardship, but I must support myself without that comfort & therefore it is needless to mention it. My faithful Servants are every thing I could wish them, & are willing to follow my fortune, I shall take with me as Many as will be necessary to assist me on my journey . . . Mrs. Harleston had determined to stay till your return, but thinks it prudent now to set off for Philadelphia she begs me to say every thing to you that a friendly heart can dictate – so do the Girls – so do the Boys but we are all too much frightened to be very particular. God Bless My dearest St. George when shall I see him again! May heaven defend me from such another absence Adieu my Love! Think Most unfeign’d truth your Unalterable
Letter of Frances Bland Tucker to St. George Tucker, Oct. 14, 1781:
. . . I shou’d not be able to support this tedious separation, tho I can only say the same thing over again – I never regreted any thing more than my not possesing the talent for writing, at this time it wou’d afford me infinite satisfaction as I cou’d confidently scribble on, knowing that it wou’d be entertaining to you, as well as assureing you how happy I am when so delightfully employed . . . my anxiety is much increased, as I hear the batteries [at Yorktown] have been some time opened, do my St. George mention your particular Situation & do not withhold from me any circumstance that concerns your wellfare – I am with the sincerest effection Yrs forever
For Further Reading:
Emory G. Evans, A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite,
Jonathan Daniels, The Randolphs of Virginia (1972).
Phillip Hamilton, The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family (2003).
Elizabeth Cometti, Social Life in Virginia During the War for Independence (1978).