Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Thomas Doswell (27 February 1792–27 October 1870), horse breeder, was born in Hanover County and was the son of James Doswell, a major landowner and veteran of the American Revolution, and Jane Thilman Doswell. Educated privately, he served briefly in the field as a private in the militia during the War of 1812 and on 15 February 1816 married Susan B. Christian. They had two daughters and two sons.

In 1822 Doswell purchased for one dollar his father's half-interest in White Hall, the 204-acre estate where he probably then lived. When his father died in 1825 he inherited Bullfield, an adjacent 1,653-acre plantation, where he lived by the 1850s. Doswell became a major in the militia in July 1829, a county director of the Louisa Railroad Company (later the Virginia Central Railroad Company) in 1836, a justice of the peace in 1837, and a locally prominent member of the Whig Party.

When he was a young man, Doswell became known as a skilled rider, and in 1824 he joined the prestigious Richmond Jockey Club. His interest in breeding and racing built up over time. His horse Liberator won a Hanover County race in 1825, and during the 1830s Doswell generally entered at least one race each spring and fall season. He sent his horses to different venues in Virginia and in 1840 won races at Richmond, Winchester, Fredericksburg, and Warrenton, and the following year won nine events, including a three-race sweep of Winchester's fall races and three races in the District of Columbia. In 1841 Doswell purchased a half interest in the filly Sarah Washington for $1,000. By year's end she had won $1,300, and in 1842 she finished second in an Alexandria race that had been touted as the best three-mile race run in the country. In 1845 Doswell's horses won both events on the first day of Baltimore's fall races, and by 1849 he was racing his horses successfully as far away as South Carolina.

Doswell's younger son, Thomas Walker Doswell, who had become a prominent man in Richmond, joined him in expanding their racing and breeding. They had a well-kept track on their property and owned several dozen enslaved laborers. The Doswells raced horses in New York and Georgia, and in 1858 Doswell's son created the Doswell Stake, a major Richmond race that drew approximately three thousand spectators within the confines of Fairfield Race Course and also a large crowd outside. Their three-year old Planet won the race and $7,250 in prize money. Planet won about $33,000 in seventeen months, including a win in New Orleans in a field that included two undefeated competitors. On 25 September 1860 the colt won a $20,000 victory at a highly publicized race at Long Island's Fashion Course in front of an estimated 8,00010,000 spectators. Early in 1861 Planet lost a celebrated race in Charleston, South Carolina, that inspired a scene in DuBose Heyward's 1932 novel Peter Ashley, but during his career Planet won twenty-four of the twenty-eight races he entered and was inducted into the National Racing Museum's Hall of Fame in 2012. Planet's stablemates also won numerous races and the Red Stable, as Bullfield was known for its orange racing silks and many chestnut horses, gained a reputation as a "Nursery of Virginia Race-Horses."

Doswell took no part in the Civil War, but his younger son served in the Confederate army. In 1864 both armies occupied and marched across Bullfield and stripped it of provisions. During a battle near Doswell's house in May of that year fighting raged in the woods and United States regiments camped on the property. The Doswells returned to Bullfield soon after the battle to find a damaged house with Union soldiers' bodies in front of Confederate rifle pits. Doswell's wife died on 28 April 1865, reportedly of a stroke suffered as a consequence of the shocks of war.

With his wealth exceeding $20,000, Doswell had to apply for a presidential pardon after the war and received it on 26 July 1865. He and his son resumed racing and advertised Planet's stud services the following year, but Doswell soon retired, leaving management of the breeding and racing to his son. The Bullfield stable's Ecliptic finished second to Preakness in the first stakes race at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course on 25 October 1870. Thomas Doswell died two days later at Bullfield and was buried at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery. During the final decade of the nineteenth century the Hanover County community at the railroad junction near Bullfield became known as Doswell. A grandson retained a small portion of the estate, where he continued to train horses into the twentieth century and where the future owner of Secretariat, Christopher Tompkins Chenery, nurtured his love of horse racing and breeding while exercising thoroughbreds.

Sources Consulted:
Biography in [Thomas B. Thorpe], "Memoir of Maj. Thos. Doswell," Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage, 24 Dec. 1859; copy of will and family Bible records with birth, marriage, and death dates in Doswell Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society (VHS), Richmond, Va.; some racing and family history in "A Nursery of Virginia Race-Horses," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 15 June 1872 (quotation), and Sarah J. Wright, "The Doswells of Bullfield," Hanover Historical Society Bulletin 13 (Nov. 1975), 2–4 (portrait); racing career chronicled in Richmond Jockey Club Records, VHS, American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, and Spirit of the Times; Virginia Case Files for U.S. Pardons, 1865–1867, United States Office of the Adjutant General, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Kate Chenery Tweedy and Leeanne Ladin, Secretariat's Meadow: The Land, The Family, The Legend (2010), esp. 33–35; Death Register, Hanover Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; obituaries in Richmond Daily Dispatch and Richmond Daily Whig, both 29 Oct. 1870, and Richmond Whig and Advertiser (semi-weekly), 8 Nov. 1870.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Matthew S. Gottlieb.

How to cite this page:
Matthew S. Gottlieb,"Thomas Doswell (1792–1870)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Doswell_Thomas, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram view more