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Frances Armistead Burwell


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At a Glance

Frances Armistead Burwell, always called Fanny or Fan, was born on May 17, 1838, the fourth child of the Burwells. She followed the same pattern of education as her older sisters, Mary Susan Burwell  and Anna Robertson Burwell . Fanny finished training at the Burwell School when she was sixteen, and traveled to New York, NY with Richard and Mary Jane Robertson to take piano and guitar lessons. Presumably, Fanny's plan was to complete her education in New York, NY under the guardianship of her uncle and aunt, and return home to teach in the Burwell School and to help her parents educate her brothers [1].


Like her sisters, she depended heavily on Mary Jane Robertson's common sense, good taste, and sound advice. Mrs. Burwell (Margaret Anna Robertson) recommended the judgment of  "Aunt Mary." 

"She has most excellent judgment--as I've proved often."

Long, painful debates ensued between Fanny and her parents over the family's ability to afford a guitar for their daughter, to purchase one quarter's guitar lessons, and whether Fanny should look about for a new piano in a  "plain case."  These letters make clear that the Burwells and their twelve children lived near what modern sociologists would call the poverty line.

Mrs. Burwell's letters to Fanny are sprinkled with little lectures and advice:

"Get all the  "good"  you can from New York City; be cheerful and actively cultivate daily fullness, especially with Mary Jane; go to musical concerts, even operas, and improve your musical taste; never succumb to  "the blues"; learn to be affectionate and show affection--it sweetens life--and so on."

Both the Reverend Robert Burwell and Mrs. Burwell hastened to New York, NY when the Robertsons alerted them of Fanny's serious illness. She contracted erysipelas, a disease which often proved deadly. The Burwells' brought her home by way of boat. Fanny died at dawn on April 12, 1856 aboard a little steamer named the 'Thames' in Norfolk, VA. Her body was brought to Hillsborough, NC and she was buried in the Strudwick plot in the Old Town Cemetery in Hillsborough, NC. She was the only Burwell to be buried in Hillsborough, NC. Years later, her brother John Bott Burwell placed a modest tombstone (now eroded and covered with moss) over her grave [1].

Biographical Data

Frances was called Fanny.

Important Dates

Frances Armistead Burwell was born on May 17, 1838, in Hillsborough, NC. She died on April 12, 1856, of disease, and was buried in Hillsborough, NC.

Places of Residence

  • Hillsborough, NC, between May 17, 1838 and 1855 [1].
  • New York, NY, between 1855 and 1857. Fanny stayed in New York, NY with Richard and Mary Jane Robertson to take piano and guitar lessons. However, when she became ill with erysipelas, often a fatal disease, both Reverend Robert Burwell and Mrs. Burwell hastened to New York, NY to bring her home [1].

Schools Attended



  1. Mary Claire Engstrom. The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South. (Hillsborough: Hillsborough Historic Commission, 2007).