Trotter, Thomas (fl. 1790s-1810s)
Thomas Trotter (ca. 1761-December 24, 1835) was a mechanic, millwright, builder and engineer of great versatility who was active in the Albemarle and Pamlico regions of eastern North Carolina in the early 19th century. According to a death notice in the Raleigh Register of January 6, 1835, he was a native of Scotland who had lived in Beaufort County for nearly 30 years before his death at age 74. He was obviously a man of ambition, many skills, and an adaptable character suited to the planters and other entrepreneurs of the area.
The censuses of 1790-1820 show him in Beaufort and Tyrrell counties. In 1790, the first United States Census recorded Trotter as a head of household in Tyrrell County, where he listed in his household 113 slaves “for the Lake Company.” He served as chief “engineer” for the Lake Company, the ambitious undertaking of merchant-planter Josiah Collins, Jr., and others to develop the land around Lake Scuppernong in Tyrrell County. In 1804, when Nathaniel Allen of Edenton, a member of the Lake Company, sought to sell his interest in the company, Trotter, who was identified as superintendent, certified the lengthy and favorable description of the plantation, its buildings, water, soil, and products. It included 53,000 acres in Washington County and 5,000 acres in Tyrrell County (Raleigh Register, November 22, 1804).
Over several years, Thomas Trotter put up mills, managed the saw mills of the Lake Company, cast iron parts for mills, and advised on selection of men and materials. While in Beaufort County, Trotter took an apprentice to the carpenter’s trade in 1811, and he wrote several letters to clients from his headquarters “near Washington.” In 1815 he made out a detailed bill of timber for the 3-story windmill that planter James C. Johnston planned to build at his Hayes Plantation in Chowan County. Trotter owned skilled slaves—”my blacksmiths” and “my carpenters”—and sometimes hired them out to local planters for their projects. In 1809 Thomas Trotter of Washington County applied to emancipate a slave named David (Raleigh Register, December 28, 1809), and in 1821 he advertised for the return of an enslaved blacksmith named Tom Walker, whom he described as a “very noted fiddler” and “very talkative and insinuating to strangers” (New Bern Carolina Sentinel, February 24, 1821).
Trotter was always on the lookout for a new opportunity, as he indicated in a letter of 1810 to planter Ebenezer Pettigrew after returning to Washington from New Bern:
“I am as the old saying is up to my B. side in bussness, I cannot have sawing done to go about my house &c and have engadged to finish the Iron work of a new Ship and also expects to do the Cabbin work &c., these things are all new to me, but I must be doing something, it is as the saying is a Cash Job, my Negroe men will clear me one dollar pr. Day, Mr. Davison and myself has join’d in the store line, and I am in hopes we will do well, I have cut 3600 lb of Nails and they begin to be saleable this is a sketch of my very bussey business.”
Trotter apparently left eastern North Carolina by 1830. An open question is his relationship (if any) to the silversmith of the same name (a native of Virginia) who was listed in Charlotte in 1830 and thereafter.
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, The Pettigrew Papers, 1 (1971).
- Bennett Harrison Wall, “Ebenezer Pettigrew, An Economic Study of an Ante-Bellum Planter,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1946).