The Revolutionary War was at a critical stage when Pittsylvania County's “Shirtmen” crossed the Dan with General Nathanael Greene en route to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. It was February 24, 1781 when the last of Greene's 1600 troops rowed to the Carolina side.
Coincidentally, at that precise moment, Virginia's Governor Thomas Jefferson sat down to write a letter to the largest landowner in Pittsylvania County.
David Ross owned 7800 acres of land in the county and his plantation near the confluence of the Staunton and Pigg Rivers was known as Ross's Quarter which contained two overseers and 41 slaves. Virginius Dabney, the Dean of Virginia historians, characterizes Ross as an “enterprising Scotchman.” Therein lies the most logical reason for Ross's absence in most Revolutionary War history.
Unlike Washington, Jefferson, Henry, Monroe, et al, or even Pittsylvania's Daniel Coleman, he was not born in America.
Neglect by historians notwithstanding, this remarkable Scot became a dedicated patriot who performed invaluable service to the cause with rare business acumen and unmatched energy. Before, during and after the Revolution he built an enormous business and industrial empire. It was because of this success and his indefatigable efforts in scrounging supplies for Virginia's troops that he received the aforementioned letter from Thomas Jefferson: The letter (from Calender of Virginia State Papers, Volume I page 484) read as follows:
I do myself pleasure in enclosing your appointment as Commercial Agent for the State. The General Assembly have by their act, declared that they will make good all your engagements and thereby pledge the faith of the State to supply any deficiencies of the funds put in your hands or any accidental losses which may occur. To which I have only to add an assurance that every aid will be furnished you which are in the power of the Executive. I am with respect sir, Your obedient Servant, Thos. Jefferson
The reader is challenged to produce another document among the papers of Thomas Jefferson in which such latitude was granted by the Sage of Monticello. It was while in this capacity that he devised a system that enabled farmers to pay taxes with tobacco — thus keeping Virginia solvent during the trying days of the Revolution.
Through connections in the West Indies, the intrepid Ross successfully evaded the British blockade and sold this same tobacco on the world market. Who was this remarkable Pittsylvanian? If he were that illustrious, why was he relegated to relative obscurity? Maud Clement, the venerable county historian gave him little more than a footnote in her History of Pittsylvania County.
The answers to the puzzle lead through immensely interesting avenues. He was to eventually become Virginia's largest landowner. Ross was to own the two largest flour mills on the James above Richmond. He had extensive holdings in Bedford, Campbell, Pittsylvania, Cumberland, Fluvanna and Buckingham Counties. The empire included county stores in Bedford, the famous Exford Iron Works in Campbell and a foundry in Buckingham.
Of most interest to Pittsylvanians is his application to erect a grist mill at the “mouth of Frying Pan Creek in 1769.” (C R Book I, page 13.) Although the foundation of a mill at the same site is still in place, it is apparently of a later origin. It is likely that Ross's mill perished in the terrible flood which struck the region in 1771.
Ross owned land where the Point of Fork Arsenel (one of Virginia's largest) stood at the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers near Columbia. He had a home in Columbia which still stands. Most importantly, his name appears on the list of the original Board of Directors of the James River Company which built and operated the great canal system.
The question persists: Why has the name of the valuable Pittsylvanian not evoked patriotic fervor? Why are accounts of his many exploits missing from histories of the Revolution when those of lesser patriots are elaborated upon? To be sure, there are conjectures, not the least of which is his greed. Ross never missed a chance to “make a buck” and the term “conflict of interest” had not yet entered the American lexicon at the time of his zenith.
The truth is that he was penniless and bankrupt after overexpanding his empire by the year 1807. Thus, it seems safe to surmise that Ross's disastrous financial failure turned historians away from him. So catastrophic was his end that after his death in 1817, it took the administrator of his estate (the Pittsylvania lawyer, Thomas Bouldin) 17 years to untangle his affairs. Most of his land in Pittsylvania County (including the mill site) was eventually purchased by John Ward. Walter Coles tried to buy it earlier but could not obtain a clear title.
It is also logical that since Ross owned residences and holdings in six counties, none could claim him as their own. Other reasons are that he was not born in America and that his exploits were in the field of economics and industry as opposed to military exploits. The latter makes for more interesting reading and is consequently of more value to writers.
Despite his ignomious end, David Ross deserves a higher rung on the ladder of greatness among Pittsylvania's patriots. Who can discount the importance of his establishment of the first tobacco inspection station west of the “fall line?” Moreover, he ranged far and wide collecting food, supplies and equipment for Virginia's troops during those dark days.
It is of no small consequence that David Ross alone paid 28 percent of Pittsylvania's war assessment by the General Assembly and that he personally loaned the State 2000 pounds in currency and 1299 hogsheads of tobacco.
Finally, not enough has been written about this patriot extraordinary, and the resurrection of his memory is long overdue.
Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills
Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills
Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On
Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County
Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books
Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town
Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1992–2005 Herman E. Melton.