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Lavinia Ellis Cole


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At a Glance

Lavinia Cole was a woman of many accomplishments. As a young woman she was known for her lovely singing voice. She wrote a family genealogy and sketches of local history, pained many lovely botanical watercolors, and was known for her extensive garden in New Bern. She is credited, with her brother-in-law William Roberts, with introducing a favorite garden bulb, the spider lily, to American gardens.


Lavinia or  "Venie"  Cole was one of five young women of prosperous and prominent families to attend the Burwell School from the thriving and lovely port city of New Bern, NC. Her older sister Harriotte Middleton Gillespie Cole  also attended the school. Lavinia and Harriotte were among six children born to merchant and businessman James Carney Cole and his wife Mary Catharine Cole. Venie was the youngest daughter, the fifth of six children, and was named for an aunt, Lavinia Ellis.

Venie seems to have been a gifted girl who thrived under Mrs. Burwell's tutelage. Lavinia was apparently gifted in many ways -- languages (she spoke French, Italian and Spanish), music (she had a singing voice  "compared to that of Jenny Lind,"  a famous singer of the day); writing, painting and horticulture. The New Bern, NC garden she nurtured was the creation of an avid botanist. She appears to have been a woman of talent, determination and enthusiasm throughout her life.

After her time at the Burwell School, Lavinia traveled to Boston to take additional instruction in language and voice at  "Mme Gerard's School"The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South [1] and subsequently at Mme. Picot's academy where only French was spoken. She returned to New Bern an educated and accomplished young woman who was soon to be tested in ways she could never have imagined.

On January 19, 1858, she married the young lawyer Frederick Cox Roberts of New Bern, the son of John M. Roberts and Mary Eliza Jones, in a marriage service performed by  "S.C Roberts,"  the brother of the groom. Frederick was a graduate of the University of North Carolina and of  "The College of New Jersey"  (now Princeton University). Frederick embarked on a career in law in his home community. The couple lived on Pollack Street in New Bern.

By the onset of the Civil War the Roberts had two daughters, Mary C. Roberts and Lucretia L. Roberts. Sons James and John, and daughter Lavinia, were born during the war and, and a sixth child, Annie, was born several years later. Five of the six Roberts children grew to adulthood.

Frederick Cox Roberts joined the Confederate Army as a first lieutenant, achieving the rank of Captain in Company B of the North Carolina Fifth CavalryU.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line] [2]. New Bern, NC and the Roberts family suffered terribly during the war, and Lavinia later wrote an account entitled  "Historical Incidents: 'What our Women in the War' Did and Suffered."  This account documents poverty, illness, hunger and danger during the family's movements to avoid the conflict, living on very little and occasionally depending on the kindness of friends and neighbors, as well as on the help of formerly enslaved servants who remained to work for the family.

When Frederick Roberts ended his service and joined his family  "to die"  from  "consumption"  (tuberculosis) at their small and dilapidated farm in Warren County, he was almost too weak to walk. Lavinia nursed him back to health.

Lavinia had taken on the running of the little farm, having brought with her small family all the servants (slaves) that she could, fearing for their safety in New Bern, NC. All inhabitants of the property shared and shared alike, and Lavinia worked hard on the farm, later recounting how much she enjoyed the work. Hunger was ever present: she remembered eating only berries for six weeks running.

When Gen. Johnston's surrender came, the enslaved servants were told they were free. Some chose to remain on the farm to work. Union soldiers from Sherman's Army overran the property in hordes, taking all they could and terrifying the population.

In her account of the family's time on the Warren County farm, Lavinia refers to the death of a young child,  "Jack."  This was her own son John, who died in 1865.

The family returned to New Bern to begin life again after the war, finding their home destroyed, all possessions gone and the garden nothing but a  "puddle of mud."  Clearly they persevered to rebuild their lives, as in the 1870 US Census Frederick's profession is listed as  "Attorney at Law"  with real estate valued at $45,000 and a personal estate of $1,000. The family at that time included five children: Mary, Lucretia, James, Lavinia, and Annie.

By 1880 Fred identified himself on the census as  "R.R. Treasurer"United States Census of 1880 for New Bern, Craven County, NC [3]. In 1910, in his early 70's, he was still working - listing himself on the census as a bookkeeper for an ice factoryUnited States Census of 1910 for New Bern, Craven County, NC [4]. His professional accomplishments also included serving for many years as a director and Treasurer of the New Bern Bank of Commerce and a trustee of the New Bern AcademyCyclopedia of Eminent and Representative Men of the Carolinas of the Nineteenth Century [5].

Lavinia continued her devotion to art, flowers, writing, and history as well as to the nurturing of her family. She wrote a comprehensive family history of the Coles in her elegant handwriting and participated in the Daughters of the American Revolution after its founding in 1890.

Her large garden included at one time 500 rose plants representing about 300 varieties, and thousands of bulbs and flowers of every sort. In 1885 she painstakingly wrote a comprehensive plant list cataloging her garden, her  "List of Flowers;"  unfortunately today we have only a list of the roses from that compilation.

She painted exquisite watercolors of her own arrangements of flowers, birds, and insects. In her later years she was photographed in her garden by a New Bern, NC native, the noted photographer Bayard Wooten. One of Wooten's photographs was featured in the 1957 article on Lavinia in the magazine Popular Gardening, whose cover featured one of Lavinia's watercolors.

Lavinia is credited with introducing the  "spider lily,"  or Lycoris radiata, to American gardening. In the late 1850's her brother-in-law, William Willis Roberts, a captain in the US Navy, returned from a voyage with Commodore Perry which opened up trade and interaction with  "the Orient."  Capt. Roberts brought some bulbs of the Lycoris radiata, native to Japan, which were, according to one descendant, a gift from the Emperor. He gave the bulbs to Lavinia, she planted them and in turn shared some with others as hers multiplied. This unusual bulb, which sends up spiky, airy blossoms of red in early fall, is now a favorite  "pass-along plant"  of old-fashioned gardens, especially in the South, where it can be found springing up in venerable cemeteries and forgotten homesteads.

In honor of the Roberts' contribution to American gardens, in 2011 New Bern, NC installed on its waterfront a large metal sculpture of Lycoris radiata by artist Susan Pascal Beran, donated by a local citizen, Dr. Jim Congleton.

Frederick Roberts died at the age of 75 in 1911; Lavinia, three years his senior, lived until 1923. Frederick, Lavinia, and several of their children are buried under a fine obelisk in New Bern, NC's historic Old Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern, NC. Lavinia's sister Harriotte Middleton Gillespie Cole  is buried in a nearby plot, close to their sister Sarah Ann Cole Taylor.

In 2011, the Historic Hillsborough Commission acquired Lavinia Cole Robert's black lacquer sewing box; this well-used box, still containing a small silver thimble and two of her calling cards, bears the initials  "LER"  (Lavinia Ellis Roberts) in brass. But this box is not the only treasure of the past connected to Lavinia in the possession of the Burwell School. To quote from Mary Claire Engstrom's  "The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South"The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South [1]:

"Venie Cole Roberts admired Mrs. M.A. Burwell greatly and never ceased to do so. She wrote to her at intervals and visited her after leaving the school. It is Venie's catalog of the Burwell School which the Historic Hillsborough Commission uses today as well as an 1848 list of students in Venie's handwriting. Venie also left the following sketch of the Burwell School and Mrs. Burwell in her own handwriting, the original of which a descendant preserves and treasures today:

The Burwell School

By Lavinia (Venie) Cole Roberts"

Miss Sarah Kollock taught French and Drawing in Mrs. Burwell's School in Hillsboro. I was her pupil for two years 1848 and 1849. It was a most excellent school. The teachers were all conscientious and faithful. I feel deeply indebted to them for their careful training. Mrs. Burwell was a wonderful woman. She neglected no duty, kept the house beautifully, had the personal supervision of the thirty boarders, attended to their manners and morals, saw that their beds were properly made - was particular about their health-kept house, made her own bread, washed the dishes, with our assistance - taught six hours a day - was the mother of twelve beautifully clean, healthy attractive children, dressed well always and entertained as much company as any other lady in the village.

Mrs. Burwell told me they had traced out the families of over 3,000 pupils [sic] that had been under their care during the many years they taught, and that with few exceptions, the girls they sent out into the world had become useful wives and mothers and had become a power in the land. After such a life of labor, trials came where they looked for joys. Three of their four young daughters died - all grown - one, Mrs. Strudwick, married. Five sons were in the army - two were killed. I think a third one died - one daughter, the only remaining one married W. Snow of Raleigh - she too is dead. The other sons have been successful men. Many of her favorite sayings come back to me. When she opened the school room door, and found us not doing our duty, her only reproof was to say,  "Oh constancy, thou art a jewel."  She said we studied Rhetoric in the school room and she taught Logic in the dining room and so our definition of Logic was  "washing dishes."

Biographical Data

Lavinia was called Venie.

Important Dates

Lavinia Ellis Cole was born on March 14, 1833. She died on June 23, 1923, of pneumonia.

Places of Residence




  1. Mary Claire Engstrom. The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South. (Hillsborough: Hillsborough Historic Commission, 2007).
  2. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009.
  3. United States Census of 1880 for New Bern, Craven County, NC
  4. United States Census of 1910 for New Bern, Craven County, NC
  5. Ashe, Samuel A'Court: Cyclopedia of Eminent and Representative Men of the Carolinas of the Nineteenth Century, Volume 2. 1892, Brant and Fuller publishers, page 127, accessed 8-21-2011.