Elizabeth Burks Cabell (c. 1706-1756)
Unlike her eventual husband, William Cabell, Elizabeth Burks was born in the New World, in 1706. Her parents, Samuel Burks and Mary Davis Burks, claimed that Elizabeth’s Virginia roots were more ancient still. Mary Davis’ grandmother, they insisted, had been a princess in the Powhatan Confederacy, the daughter of chief Opechancanough. Elizabeth Cabell thus grew up on the still-wild Virginia frontier with stories of great-grandmother “Nicketti,” whose Indian name meant “she sweeps the dew from the flowers.”
Soon after William Cabell’s arrival in Virginia in 1725 or 1726, he asked Elizabeth Burks to be his bride, beginning a thirty-year partnership. The two started their family immediately and welcomed their first child, Mary, in 1727. By the time that her husband left Virginia to take care of family business in England in 1735, she had already borne him four children. Elizabeth Cabell had also agreed, along with friends William Mayo and George Carrington, to serve as William’s attorney during his absence from Virginia. Her willingness both to run a growing household and to represent her husband legally made the next six years challenging ones for her.
While her husband was away, Mrs. Cabell contended against unruly servants, illness, harsh weather conditions, anxious creditors, and perfidious friends to keep the Cabell estate afloat. She not only survived, but flourished. She purchased slaves, oversaw the addition of some 6,320 acres of patents to the Cabell domain (bringing their total holdings to almost 8,000 acres), and kept her four children healthy and strong. She persevered in all of her labors despite rumors that found their way into the Virginia backcountry, which convinced “most of [William’s] friends & acquaintances, that [he] never intend[ed] to return to Virginia again.”
Her worst trial came in 1739, when the other attorneys representing William Cabell’s interests, William Mayo and George Carrington, collaborated against their faraway friend. Without notifying Elizabeth Cabell of their plans, Carrington sued Cabell for almost £ 40 in surveyor’s fees, a suit which Mayo swiftly conceded as Cabell’s legal representative. As soon as she heard of this deceitful bargain, Mrs. Cabell wrote to Edward Barradil, a Williamsburg attorney, to block payment of the funds. At no time did Elizabeth argue that the Cabells did not owe surveyor’s fees–for she kept track of every debt–but she did protest both the timing and the amount. Mrs. Cabell’s protest inaugurated over six years of court battles, finally concluded on terms slightly more favorable to the Cabells in May 1746.
After bearing two more children to her newly returned husband, one of whom died in childbirth, Elizabeth Burks Cabell died in 1756, the matriarch of a Virginia dynasty. Her children cherished the memory of their mother so dearly that each named a grandchild in her honor.
Additional Sources Consulted:
R. W. Cabell, Cabell Sightings (1996)
Cabell Family Papers (MSS 5084)