Richard Bennehan was born in Richmond County on the Northern Neck of Virginia in 1743. Around 1762, Bennehan moved to Petersburg, Virginia after finishing an apprenticeship with a local merchant. Here, he worked for the merchant Edward Stabler, and it was also here that he most likely met William Johnston, who soon offered him a 1/3 partnership in his North Carolina store.
In 1768, at the age of 25, Richard Bennehan moved to North Carolina to seek his fortune as a partner and manager in William Johnston’s Little River Store at Snow Hill Plantation, located several miles west of Stagville. The nearest town of Hillsborough was 18 miles away and was just beginning to attract a number of professional men, merchants, and summer gentry. Neither Raleigh nor Durham had been founded.
In 1776, Bennehan invested in 1,213 acres of land, which became the core of the plantation lands his family would hold for nearly 200 years. During a period spanning almost 60 years, Richard Bennehan’s keen business sense and attention to detail at his store and on the plantation made him one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina.
Richard Bennehan’s community involvement included serving on the committee that laid out the Capital City of Raleigh. An old friend, General William R. Davie, enlisted Bennehan’s support for the establishment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bennehan began a family tradition of generosity and service to the university when he served as trustee and as a member of the Board of Visitors. Among his friends and acquaintances were such noteworthy individuals as Congressman and neighbor Willie P. Mangum, Governors Thomas Burke and David Swain, Judge Archibald Murphey, Justice James Iredell, chief Justice Thomas Ruffin (who became father-in-law to Bennehan’s grandson), and Bishop John Ravenscroft (who consecrated the Cameron’s chapel at Fairntosh in 1827).
At the time of his death in 1825, Richard Bennehan left all of his lands to his son, Thomas. His holdings included Stagville, the land known as Horton Grove, and many other plantations encompassing more than 3,900 acres in three counties: Granville, Wake, and Orange (part of which became Durham County in 1881). His estate also included a city block in Raleigh.
Little is known of Mary Amis Bennehan, besides the fact that she was the daughter of Thomas Amis, and she was born in Northampton County, North Carolina in 1756. Upon her father’s death in 1764, she inherited a modest fortune in land and slaves.
In 1776, Mary Amis married Richard Bennehan. The couple had two children, Rebecca, born in 1778, and Thomas, born in 1782. Surviving letters reveal that Mary Bennehan endured periods of extreme loneliness and a sense of isolation on the plantation. She died in 1812 after suffering a series of strokes which left her paralyzed.
Thomas never married, but devoted his life to his family and the operation of the plantations. He lived at Stagville his entire life. The two siblings (Thomas and Rebecca) maintained a very close relationship throughout their lives.
In addition to a short-lived career as a justice of the peace, Thomas served on the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he had graduated with the class of 1801.
Aside from the few years that Bennehan Cameron lived at Stagville, Thomas was the last of his family to make the Bennehan House a permanent home. After his father’s death, he enjoyed refurbishing the house with the latest fashions. Toward the end of his life, Thomas would seal himself up in his “winter cell” (the dining room) where it was worm and comfortable, to read his papers.
Upon his death in 1847, Thomas left all of his lands between the Flat and Little Rivers, including Little River Plantation and Stagville, to his nephew Paul Cameron, Rebecca and Duncan Cameron’s son.