Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Mary Marshall Tabb Bolling (ca. 1737–by 28 October 1814), merchant, was born probably on the Amelia County estate of her parents, Thomas Tabb and Rebecca Booker Tabb. Her father was one of Virginia's wealthiest merchants, and her standing was further secured on 11 April 1758 when she married Robert Bolling, of Dinwiddie County, scion of another wealthy merchant family. They had two sons and four daughters.

Bolling inherited £10,000 from her father in 1769. Following her husband's death on 24 February 1775, she assumed the management of an enormous estate. The property, much of it in Amelia County, included plantations and scores of slaves. Bolling also managed tobacco warehouses, a gristmill, and much of the land on which the rapidly growing town of Petersburg was built. By 1790 she owned thirty-three of the town's most valuable lots, four of its eight tobacco warehouses, and at least thirty-eight slaves who lived in the town. Bolling paid taxes on more than 10 percent of Petersburg's total taxable wealth.

During the American Revolution Bolling earned a reputation for exceptional mettle. Many residents fled when the British army occupied Petersburg briefly in the spring of 1781. Bolling stood her ground, hoping to save her property from destruction. British officers placed her under house arrest and established their headquarters at Bollingbrook, her residence and the largest house in town. Before they left, the British confiscated her horses and burned her tobacco. Bolling persuaded them to return her slaves, however, and the British spared her warehouses and mill. After a visit to Bollingbrook the following year the marquis de Chastellux pronounced its mistress "lively, active, and intelligent; [she] knows perfectly well how to manage her immense fortune, and what is yet more rare, knows how to make good use of it." This combination of character and wealth would likely have won a man high public office, military honors, or distinction in one of the learned professions—perhaps all three. But however great their talents, women were excluded from all such positions of public authority.

Because she never remarried, Bolling could take advantage of a legal system that authorized single women and widows to exercise control over property. In the thirty-nine years of her widowhood she engaged in almost every kind of transaction. Bolling served as an executrix and a guardian. She bought and sold land, rented out houses and shops, and took debtors to court. Like other cautious mothers Bolling settled a separate estate on one daughter to prevent any risk of the property's being seized by the creditors of her son-in-law. Other transactions reflected the institutional development of Virginia towns in the early republic. Bolling invested heavily in two new banks, petitioned the assembly to empower Petersburg to pave its streets, and in 1787 gave land to the town for its municipal offices. She contributed to a fire company, a theater company, the Episcopal Church, and the Female Orphan Asylum.

A tough-minded proprietor, Bolling, unlike some of her female contemporaries in Petersburg, evidently freed none of her slaves. When she wrote her will not long before her death she distributed her wealth, including the slaves, according to her notions of the varying deserts of her heirs, rewarding some and slighting others. This personalized style of bequest became commonplace among Petersburg women later in the century, but Bolling was unusual in stipulating that heirs who contested her will would be cut off. On or shortly before 28 October 1814 Mary Marshall Tabb Bolling died, probably at Bollingbrook. She was buried in the family graveyard.

Sources Consulted:
Bolling Family Genealogical Notes, Acc. 29121, Library of Virginia (LVA), give marriage date, variant birth dates of 23 Jan. 1737 and 23 June 1737, and death date of 28 Oct. 1814; Tabb genealogy in William and Mary Quarterly, 1st ser., 13 (1904): 126; father's will in Amelia Co. Will Book, 2X:309–310; husband's will in Bolling Family Records, 1653–1843, LVA; C[harles] C[ampbell], "Reminiscences of the British at Bollingbrook," Southern Literary Messenger 6 (1840): 85–88; François Jean, marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, trans. Howard C. Rice Jr. (1963), 2:422 (quotation); Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784–1860 (1984), 6–7, 81–82, 112–116, 176; will, dated 28 Sept. 1814 and proved 7 Nov. 1814, and estate inventory in Petersburg Will Book, 2:102–104, 122–128; Philip Slaughter, History of Bristol Parish (1846), 141–142, gives death date of 14 Oct. 1814; printed funeral invitation, 28 Oct. 1814, giving age at death of seventy-seven, in Harrison Henry Cocke Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Suzanne Lebsock.

How to cite this page:
Suzanne Lebsock,"Mary Marshall Tabb Bolling (ca. 1737–1814)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bolling_Mary_Marshall_Tabb, accessed [today's date]).

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