Probably the best-known (to date) of our 18th-century ancestors, he is the subject of an article by the Historical Society of Cartaret County, N.C., summarized more briefly on another genealogical site. He migrated to Beaufort, N.C. from Wales and built a salt works there. He had a plantation called Dinnant outside of town, and there he used a dam to power a grist mill. The Quaker minutes describe him as a "minister" (is that roughly equivalent to an "elder" in other protestant traditions?) but he was disciplined and even "disowned" for his "outgoings" (he traveled a lot) at about the time he married Ann. Five years later they were restored to membership by the Meeting, but only after being required to sit in silence and take no part in the business until the "meeting was satisfied." According to an account about the family's later life by his son John, Robert had financial setbacks toward the end of his life. He was buried in Carteret County, but apparently none of his properties have survived, and the family joined the western Quaker migration about ten years after his death.
John Williams writes of him:
My father is said to have
been wealthy, but several causes contributed to lessen his fortune,
at the time of his death, in 1790, a few weeks after my birth, his
was considerably embarrassed. A great storm at sea seemed, as I
heard, to put the first check to his success. Then the failure of
an extensive house in London, then the Revolutionary war, and the
of continental money. This he kept, in dependence on the
until it was nearly worthless. The breaking out of the Revolution
(1771), which was concluded in 1775, added to other considerations,
him to retire from mercantile pursuits, which he did, to a fine estate
in Carteret County, N.C., chosen with reference to its value for timber
and water power. He built a fine milling establishment, both
and sawing, breasting against a dam, which held an inexhaustible supply
of water in a pond of from six to ten miles in circuit. Scarcely
was this done till the whole dam and all went down stream into tide
which flowed up the mill-tail. The vast quantity of water which
through the breach in the alluvians of Carolina left a hole of 90 feet
in depth from the top of the dam. This it was necessary to repair
before water could again be accumulated.
He, my father, was not to be outdone in that way, but mills were built separate at each end of the dam, which are standing yet for all I know. His benevolence, a characteristic of his nation, grew upon him with age: and 'tis said he carried this very far. He also at one time set his whole plantation of slaves free, probably in or about 1780, when the Society of Friends (of which he was a member) manumitted theirs. Several of these stayed about us until we left Carolina, and two, an ancient man named Quam, lived in our house until his death in 1794: and a female named Jenney followed us to Ohio in 1802, and died in our house in 1804. From what was known of these native Africans, it was believed they were nearly, if not quite, 100 years of age at their deaths. If there is a Heaven for the good, which I doubt not, these two must be in it.
My father's estate, being somewhat embarrassed, and, as is understood, mismanaged by his executors, left my mother little except our homestead of 1100 acres of fine land and part of the personal property. She was still in comfortable, but not by any means in affluent circumstances. It may now be seen that we were neither born with a silver spoon in our mouths nor a very good prospect of having one placed there to remain, and until we shall be satisfied that such things are of real advantage to youth we shall not suffer regrets to arise on account of the darkening of our youthful sky.
Jean Varnum mentions some connection between Williams and Ruthin Castle in Wales, but I haven't yet been able to sort that out. The castle was dismantled by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War in 1647, and not rebuilt in any form until the twentieth century. The article linked above indicates a "wealthy family" (Williams traveled all over the world), but makes no mention of Ruthin Castle.