NOMINI, Va. -- In 1791, Robert Carter III was one of the richest and most powerful men in America.

His 16 vast plantations -- so many he named 12 after signs of the zodiac -- stretched from the Chesapeake Bay to the northern Shenandoah Valley. His schooners plied the Potomac and Rappahannock bearing textiles and tools from his plantation workshops and iron from his foundry in Baltimore. He had banking interests and land companies, and a mansion in Williamsburg, and his Westmoreland County estate, Nomini Hall, was a showplace of its owner's many accomplishments in music, literature, science and the arts. He even loaned money to Thomas Jefferson.

But 200 years ago on the first of August, Robert Carter did something that stunned the plantation society he seemed to typify: He freed his 500 slaves.

Seventy years before the Civil War, some 30 years before the abolitionist movement took strong root in the North or even in Britain, one of the nation's largest slaveholders decided that no man should own another, and acted on that decision.

"Whereas I Robert Carter of Nomini Hall in the County of Westmoreland & Commonwealth of Virginia am posessedcq as my absolute property of ... many negroes & mullato slaves ..." he wrote in an intricate legal document of manumission, "and Whereas I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true principals of Religion & justice ... I do hereby declare that such ... shall be emancipated... ."

Next Sunday, in a twilight ceremony on a torch-lit clover field near the site of Nomini Hall, the people of Westmoreland County, black and white, will gather to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Carter's momentous but little-known act of conscience -- the first such act of any scale in American history, almost certainly the largest private emancipation ever recorded.

"It's a bit weird deciding how to celebrate something like this," says Frank Delano, a Warsaw, Va., resident spearheading the observance. "Do you honor the man who freed them or the people he freed? My view is you honor them both."

"Nobody can really set anyone else truly free," says John Barden, a New Bern, N.C., historian writing a doctoral thesis on Carter's manumission. "All they can do is knock off the shackles. It's what the former slaves themselves made of that opportunity that counts. At heart, that's what this celebration is all about."

If the observance itself will be pointedly local, led by the 75-voice Northern Neck Baptist Convention gospel choir and several nearby black churches, organizers hope word of it will reach a wider world. For 10 generations have passed since that time of freedom 200 years ago, and the roots of thousands of black Americans lie in the fading document signed by Robert Carter. Curiously, historians have yet to find a contemporary descendant of those first freed slaves.

With luck, "A Celebration of Freedom" will uncover some.

The Unsung Act

Though the story of Robert Carter III is known to specialized scholars, few people outside academic circles have ever heard it. His grandfather, Robert "King" Carter, is a swaggering figure of power and wealth in Colonial American history, but the grandson's singular act of emancipation, has gone unnoticed in school textbooks and previous public observances. In Virginia, where roadside historical markers seem to commemorate every Confederate general's horse, no tourist map or marker has found it worthy of mention.

"I suppose in part it was because this was a private, not an overtly political act," said Delano, who learned of Carter as a boy growing up in Westmoreland County and acknowledges a deep fascination with the man. "He took all this talk of liberty during the Revolution and internalized it. He decided it meant black people too."

Prickings of Conscience

"King" Carter had owned virtually the entire "Northern Neck" of Virginia between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, and as one of his grandfather's four principal heirs -- his own father had died when he was a boy -- Robert Carter III was thrown early into the heady atmosphere of wealth and plantation society.

Sent to London for two years' schooling at age 21, he passed his time, according to one contemporary, "in idleness and gay diversions." An early portrait shows him finely attired in silk and lace, holding a mask in one hand, as if about to step out to a masquerade.

He returned to Virginia in 1751 and three years later married Frances Ann Tasker of Baltimore, who was clearly one of the great stabilizing forces in his life. Gifted, by all accounts, with a wide-ranging and inquiring mind as well as great beauty and charm, she bore him 17 children, continuing to amaze visitors all the while with her undiminished elegance, and her intellect.

Her wealth and family connections, moreover, helped Carter win appointment, at the age of 28, to the governor's council, the highest governing body of the colony of Virginia. In that role he lived with his growing family for 10 years in Williamsburg, the colonial capital.

Carter appears to have been more interested in ideas and management than power and intrigue, however, and as the Revolution approached he retired with his family to Nomini Hall and the life of a country squire. Though a supporter of the Revolution and a colonel in the Virginia militia, he seems to have found his largest role in supplying food and manufactured goods to the Continental Army and in the planning and management of his many business affairs.

"But at the same time," notes Delano "while most of his contemporaries were moving more and more into politics, he was moving away from worldly things and concentrating more and more on the spiritual.He was a seeker after religion his whole life."

A vestryman in the Anglican Church in his early years, Carter had become a Deist by 1776. Two years later, shaken by an evangelical experience while sick with smallpox, he shocked plantation society by joining the humble and suspect Baptist Church. By the time of his death in Baltimore in 1804 at the age of 76, he had left the Baptists to follow the views of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

Precisely when Carter began nursing serious doubts about slavery is not altogether clear. He seems to have bought and sold few slaves, relying for his labor supply on the natural multiplication of the 100 his own father had been given by his grandfather.When that proved insufficient, his records show, he rented slaves from other plantations, and also purchased whites indentured for a term of years.

But by 1786 he had sent two of his sons away to school in Rhode Island to free them from the "destructive" influences of a society tainted by slavery. "By that time," Barden says, "something clearly is going on in his mind."

And he was not alone.

"You see, you had these two great movements underway at that time," says Delano. "On the one hand you had all this talk about liberty after the Revolution. Jefferson, Washington and lots of others are asking, 'How can we talk about liberty and keep men slaves?'

"And on the other you have this great evangelical wind blowing into the churches -- Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians beginning to speak out against slavery. Some of them taking slaves into their congregations."

Economic forces were at work as well. With a postwar recession underway in the 1780s and the tobacco economy in decline, notes Louis Morton in a 1941 biography of Carter, slaves were starting to cost their owners almost as much to feed and clothe as they provided in benefits. During the last decade of the 18th century, he points out, the price of slaves reached the low point of a 20-year decline. It was only after the invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1793 made large-scale cotton plantations feasible in the Deep South that the demand for field labor made slaves a hugely valued commodity.

"But all these factors were working on everybody else too," says Delano. "Washington and Jefferson were great men and clearly thought slavery was wrong. But Washington died with what? More than 300 slaves? And Jefferson? More than 250? Robert Carter died with zero! He took it all that extra step! He turned 'em loose! I love him!"

How Humane?

Just what life was like for Carter's slaves is difficult to determine because, as historian Barden puts it, "we're obviously held hostage by what evidence we have."

Philip Vickers Fithian, a young Presbyterian scholar from New Jersey who lived at Nomini Hall from 1773 to 1774 to tutor the Carter children, sharply disapproved of slavery but in his journal describes Carter as "by far the most humane to his slaves of any in these parts." He notes that each slave was allotted a pound of meat and a peck of corn per week, supplemented by chickens and vegetables raised on their personal plots. And though he documents cruelty and inhumane treatment on other plantations, his journal records no such practices at Nomini Hall.

On Carter's other plantations, however, his papers clearly show that slaves were sometimes whipped for stealing or threatening an overseer; other transgressions, such as stealing off to another plantation to visit a loved one, went unpunished. At one point, Barden says, Carter removed a heavy-handed overseer from any role in discipline, and cautioned another in a letter to "have a care for the concerns of a mother" when disciplining her son.

"One thing that seems to separate Carter from many slave owners of the period is his early and enduring concern for slave families," Barden says. "Repeatedly in his personal papers you see his insistence that families be kept together."

Laws of Emancipation

For most of the 18th century a 1723 law forbade Virginians from setting free any slave "except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council."

It wasn't until 1782, largely as a result of blacks' loyalty and valor during the Revolution and the nation's new spirit of social reform, that a law was passed permitting most slaves to be emancipated by the slaveholder simply filing a statement in the county court. To prevent unscrupulous owners from just unloading the young, old and infirm, however, the law specified that freed slaves must be sound in mind and body, and be between the ages of 18 and 45 if female, and 21 and 45 if male. All others, if manumitted, had to be maintained at the expense of their previous master.

In addition to fulfilling requirements of the law, wrote Carter in his 1971 deed of manumission, "I have with great care & attention endeavored to discover that mode of Manumission ... which can be effected ... with the least possible disadvantage to my fellow Citizens." To that end he provided that the 30 slaves over 45 were to be set free immediately, even though he would still be charged to support them. Those of legal age would then be set free at the rate of 15 a year, over a 10-year period, beginning with the oldest. The younger slaves were to be released as they reached their majorities.

The scheme was intended to turn loose on the state no more than 30 slaves in any one year, and since it included babies born in 1791 who couldn't be legally freed for 21 years, it was to continue until 1812, eight years after Carter's death.

Carter ordered each slave to come to court with both a first and last name with which to start his new life, and it is the list of those family names in the court records that most intrigues contemporary historians. (See accompanying story, Page F4.)

What happened to the slaves?

"The most tantalizing thing is that in most cases we don't know," says historian Barden. "Unfortunately, the ones we know the most about were the ones who got in trouble. Some of those were in and out of the courts so we can trace them for a while. But unfortunately, the outlook for free blacks at this time became increasingly bleak."

Carter tried to ease his slaves' transition to freedom by renting them land and experimenting with sharecropping.

Neighboring slaveholders, however, wrote Carter accusing his freedmen of "disquieting the minds" of their slaves. One compared Carter's manumission to a man burning down his own house, heedless of the danger to his neighbors.

A short-lived and abortive slave insurrection near Richmond in 1800 further heightened the fear of the growing free Negro population, eventually triggering passage of an 1806 Virginia law requiring all slaves freed after May 1 that year to leave the state. A number of Carter emancipees probably went west to Ohio as pioneers.

Still others may never have received their freedom at all. Rippon's Annual Register, published in London, estimated in 1791 that Robert Carter's slaves were worth in the neighborhood of $100,000 -- a considerable fortune for the time. As the impact of the cotton gin doubled and sometimes tripled the value of those slaves, Carter's children looked with an increasingly jaundiced eye on their father's notions of religious and moral responsibility.

John Tasker Carter, one of the sons Carter had sent to Rhode Island as a youth to escape the destructive influences of slavery vowed, according to one letter, to do everything in his power to "overturn and frustrate" his father's deed of manumission, including selling whatever Carter slaves he could before their time of freedom. The other son Carter had sent off to protect, George Carter of Oatlands, bought slaves from dealers continually even as he was freeing others to settle his father's estate.

Yet many Carter slaves clearly did win their freedom and keep it.

Rebecca Ebert, an archivist with the Handley Library in Winchester, said she learned about Robert Carter in 1984 while working with a black history task force put together by the library.

"It became increasingly clear we had just nothing in the archives on the local black community. So we asked around for help and we kept hearing these reports that there had always been a large community of free blacks in Frederick County. We knew we had always had a lot of Quakers and Germans here and figured that made us too fair-minded here to have had slaves. But then we looked into it and discovered it wasn't us, it was Robert Carter."

Many of his slaves, she says, had been manumitted from Carter's plantations in the Shenandoah Valley and had stayed in the Frederick County area. Some of their descendants may still be there, she says. "So many of the names around here are the same."

She has begun searching for some, starting with the "certificates of freedom" free blacks were required to have on file in the local courthouse. Each certificate carried a description of the person and how he became free. "That's where we repeatedly find Carter's name," she said.

Searching through the certificates, she says, "you can begin to put families together, and then work from that through deeds and wills and tax records and so forth. But all this is really just getting started and there's so much still to be done. What we really need are genealogists working back from the present at the same time ... people saying, 'Hey! Maybe that's how we got our start!'

"That's the real fun of history," she says. "Who would think that after 200 years there is still so much to discover?"

'By Far the Biggest'

To Ira Berlin, professor of history and director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, "what you have to understand is that Robert Carter was really a heavyweight. He was a heavyweight socially, politically, economically and just in the number of slaves he had."

Though most people don't realize it, he says, "the overwhelming number of plantation owners in the South had only something like 10 or 20 slaves. One hundred slaves was a huge holding. There were a few really big ones with hundreds of slaves in the deep South in the 1840s but they were a tiny percentage. To find a slaveholder as big as Robert Carter at any time in this country's history you would generally have had to go to the Caribbean or Brazil."

Berlin, whose book "Slaves Without Masters" is a landmark study of free blacks in the antebellum South, says Carter's manumission is "by far the biggest" private emancipation he's ever heard of. "It's always dangerous to say it's the biggest, because new things are always turning up. But I don't know of anything even close."

It's not more widely known in Virginia, he suggests, because "of a historic ambiguity among white people there and elsewhere about what they think of freedom for black people."

Frank Delano, 47, grew up with that ambiguity and like many white Southerners of his generation, found it troubling. He worked some in the civil rights movement, meditated on Faulkner ("I don't hate the South! I don't, I don't I don't!") at the University of Virginia then tried to confront his demons with two years in the Peace Corps in Ghana.

In the end he came back to take over the family fuel oil business in Warsaw, filling his off-work hours with mischievous forays into history and theater. One year he staged Shakespeare in a succession of Virginia landmark mansions. Another he staged Poe short stories in the writer's old room at U-Va.

"Who knows why I do these things?" he says with a grin. "It would take years of therapy to find out and I don't have the time."

This year, when his daughter Meriwether began researching his old hero Robert Carter for an independent study project in high school, "I was sitting around with some friends talking about how the 200th anniversary of the manumission was coming up and nobody knew about it. After about the fourth gin-and-tonic, I said what the hell, let's do it, and here we are."

His major recent inspiration, he says, was the Rev. Henry Lee, pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in Westmoreland County, who a few years ago had a tombstone erected at the old slave cemetery near the site of Nomini Hall. "If it hadn't been for him I wouldn't have known this cemetery was here," Delano said the other day, pointing out the unmarked sunken graves on a thickly wooded hillside overgrown with periwinkle. "This is where we'll have the stage and the Sankofa African Drummers Ensemble. The parking will be over there. We're going to light it with torches."

The 6 p.m. ceremony, he says, will be free and open to the public. There'll be speeches by Berlin and Barden as well as Lee and several other local ministers, plus prayers and hymns from the Northern Neck Baptist Convention choir. But it will be short on official invitees. "The governor's part of the public, and we'd love him to come," he says, "but we haven't invited him officially because we don't want people swooping down here with helicopters. That's not what this thing's about. We want this to be spiritual, like a church service. No TV lights. No flash pictures."

"You know," he adds, "I find it kind of wonderful that these former slaves are lying here in these unmarked graves, and across the road over there somewhere lies Robert Carter, his grave unmarked too. He never wanted any tombstone. I think that's why he's been ignored by what I call the blue-haired lady faction of Virginia history. He didn't leave an edifice for rich people to fuss over. They don't understand that this here is what real history is."

Where Carter Sleeps

There's not much to see across the road. Nomini Hall was quite splendid, by all reports, but it burned around 1850, and all that really remains is an avenue of massive tulip poplars that once shaded the drive.

The 70,000 acres Robert Carter once held have dwindled to about 11 now. Tom Arnast, who lives in the two-story tin-roof home on the Nomini Hall site, says he's a direct descendant of Carter, but doesn't know just how. He says he sold off 100 acres of the old Nomini Hall estate a few years back, and just recently let go the historic water frontage for a recreation home development on Nomini Creek.

He's presently unemployed but hopes to have his job back soon at a family camping resort in Oak Grove.

What does he think about the coming ceremony?

"I haven't really thought about it," he says. "But I got nothing against it."

Outside in the family cemetery, a few black angus cows graze among the handful of 20th-century tombstones. Just where Robert Carter lies, it's impossible to say.

For Family Facts

Was one of your ancestors set free by Robert Carter?

The names on his deed of manumission include Allen, Arnold, Banks, Brooke, Brutus, Burke, Burton, Cary, Colson, Conway, Cooper, Craft, Daley, Daniel, Dial, Dicher, Dickerson, Gaskins, Glascock, Greggs, Gumby, Hackney and Harris.

Also Harrison, Henry, Hollady, Hubbard, Johnson, Johnston, Jones, Kenardy, Mitchell, Newgent, Newman, Peterson, Puss, Reid, Richards, Richardson, Robinson, Single, Smith, Spence, Taylor, Thomas, Thompson, Thornton, Tosspot, Tuckson, Walker, Weldon, Wells, Wilson, Wormley and Wyatt.

Discovering the answer to that question, says James Dent Walker, archivist and assistant director of Sumner School and an authority on black genealogy, "depends directly on your ability to trace your family history back, step by step, to 1791 using basic genealogical resources."

These, he said, include U.S. Census records between 1790 and 1910, state and local tax records, specialized records such as the special census of free blacks that was conducted periodically in Virginia before the Civil War, military records and other community and family resources.

Both the National Archives and the Library of Congress offer free instruction sheets on how to get started tracing your genealogy. More elaborate instruction books are available at most bookstores.