Clio Logo

One of the best-documented merchants in Virginia and early member of the town of New London, John Hook demonstrated how consumerism worked in Colonial and Post-Colonial Virginia. He squabbled with rivals, complained to the firm's partners in Scotland, and grew discouraged that he had not achieved the dream of great wealth. Yet in only a quarter-century, Hook went from doing menial tasks in an established Tidewater store, to managing a store in Piedmont, to imagining expanding business as the line of European settlement roared westward.(1)


  • One of John Hook's papers with a drawing of one of his stores. Image courtesy of John Hook Collection,  Rubenstein Library, Duke University
  • A transaction documented between John Hook and Thomas Jefferson. John Hook Collection,  Rubenstein Library, Duke University

Early years and move to New London

Born in Scotland, John Hook (1745-1808) arrived in America, as an apprentice, at the age of 13 in 1758. He began his training as a shopkeeper and clerk learning the tobacco trade under the training of the Donald family, a Scottish family that dealt in tobacco in the Chesapeake area.(2) In 1764 Hook Traveled from Chesapeake to New London. Shortly after arriving in New London Hook began a partnership with William Donald and James Donald, setting up a store in New London.

By 1768 Hook was doing well in New London and wrote to his partner in Scotland stating, “this and the adjacent Frontier counties is settling unaccountable fast from people below (the fall line of the James River) and from the Northward”.(2) These settlers were likely coming through the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road.

In 1770 John Hook Married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Colonel John Smith of Goochland.(2) John and Elizabeth had six children.

Hook the Loyalist

Starting in June of 1775, word was given to the Committee for Bedford County that John Hook had been heard making remarks and handing out pamphlets against the upcoming Revolutionary War. John Hook wrote back to the committee asking for the charges in writing. Once the charges were presented to him Hook proceeded to profess his innocence. Finally, after letters back and forth, on June 18, 1777, a mob led by Colonel William Mead dragged Hook from his house. Hook had written to the committee twice to defend himself and to request that he not have to appear. Hook was then threatened that if he didn't come out and go with them, they would "burn down & cut my house to peaces over my head.... Zac Callaway, which I am informed that they intended tarring & feathering me".(3) After everything, John Hook was required to sign a Certificate of Fidelity for Captain George Hancock at the Green Bryor Court on October 10, 1777 and witnessed by Samuel Hairston.

Hook Trial

During the latter part of the Revolutionary War Army Commissary John Venable took two of Hook's cows for the troops in 1781. In 1783, after the war was over, Hook brought a case against Venable for the "theft" of the two cows. The case lingered on the docket until 1789. John Hook retained the services of a Mr. Cowan, Venable acquired the services of Patrick Henry. During the trial Henry gave his famous "Beef" speech. Hook thought he was going to win a case of trespassing but after Patrick Henry was done, Mr. Cowan couldn't come up with anything to say, and Henry had the entire court rolling with laughter. The resulting verdict was for Hook for one cent.

  1. Smart Martin, Ann (2008). Buying into the World of Goods - Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 11.
  2. Hook, John. "John Hook Papers." David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Edited by February 2011 Encoded by Meghan Lyon. Duke University, Processed by Rubenstein Library Staff, 1950s.
  3. Holland, Maggie (June 1925). "John Hook* as a Loyalist". Virginia Council Journals: 399–403 – via Maggie Holland of Moneta, Franklin County, Virginia, a great, great granddaughter of John Hook.
Image Sources(Click to expand)

John Hook Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University

John Hook Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University