Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry of Rockbridge County

Natural Bridge, Virginia by David Johnson

Brooks Romedy, Natural Bridge State Park’s VT intern this semester, has been researching the fascinating comings and goings of early American people through this special place. Here he focuses on Patrick Henry- but not the one you’re thinking of. Read more below!

Our Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, an accomplished man of many hats – author of the Declaration of Independence, 1st Secretary of State, 3rd President, university founder, among many other titles – infamously also bore the hat of plantation owner and slave master. This controversial position of a character so vital to the American story has led to a great deal of debate on his true opinions on the topic of race. Some cite his infamous words in his Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, as evidence of blatant racism, where he dedicates many pages to discussing the plight, accomplishments, and characteristics of African Americans. This portion of the text is characterized by language such as:

“comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they [blacks] are equal to whites; in reason much inferior… and in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”[1]

His personal interactions with a select few tell a different story: amicable business relationships between him and some free black families. This notion is expanded by Arthur Scherr in his essay “An Honest, Intelligent Man”: Thomas Jefferson, the Free Black Patrick Henry, and the Founder’s Racial Views in His Last Years, where he highlights the life of Patrick Henry, a free black man who lived in Rockbridge County.

Patrick Henry, born in 1787 on Martin Tapscott’s Westmoreland County plantation, was most likely the child of an ‘affair’ between Tapscott and his slave Lavinia. Martin initially freed his mistress Lavinia and Patrick’s three brothers upon his death. However, through a complicated series of events, Patrick found himself having to purchase his own freedom from Martin’s brother, when he did not honor the deed of manumission for Patrick upon inheritance of his brother’s estate. After 7 years of bondage to Martin’s brother, Patrick Henry was able to purchase his freedom for $300 and moved to meet the rest of his family in Rockbridge County at the age of 24.[2]

            Rockbridge County, which takes its name for the notable Natural Bridge rock formation, was a sparsely populated frontier county at the time. Thomas Jefferson took delight in this wilderness and the Natural Bridge, which he had purchased from King George himself in 1774.[3] However, as a chronic debtor, Jefferson resorted to leasing out this unprofitable property. With a string of irresponsible tenants who neglected to pay the property tax, Jefferson sought out one who would prove reliable. Jefferson found such a tenant in Patrick Henry, who he leased all arable land on the bridge, rent free, on the stipulation that he pay the property tax each year. Henry was probably settled into the property in 1817, and in time, Jefferson would in fact pay the taxes himself and even pay Henry a stipend.[4] Their relationship grew to be amicable and their correspondences show that they nominally acted as equals. Jefferson signing off his letters to him as “I salute you with my best wishes,” a designation he also used for the likes of William Duane, noted Democrat-Republican and husband to Benjamin Franklin’s granddaughter.[5] Jefferson visited Henry a few times in the latter years of his life, and Patrick him, Jefferson even bringing his granddaughters on a sightseeing trip to Natural Bridge and lodging with Henry.

            Why Jefferson chose Patrick Henry to be his representative and protector of his beloved Natural Bridge property is unknown. At the time of his leasing, Jefferson already completed his tenure as the President and could have picked any man to be the caretaker. After all, who would deny free lodging? Perhaps his choosing Henry spoke to his desire to disprove the disparaging remarks he had written against blacks some thirty years prior to his leasing to Henry. Thus, Patrick Henry found himself in the peculiar position of being the black, former slave, now paid caretaker of a President’s property deep in the wilderness, surrounded by rugged and somewhat hostile white frontiersmen, who trespassed, poached, and logged the President’s land.[6] Their disposition towards Henry might not have been friendly, out of resentment for the privilege Henry walked into. Yet, in a somewhat poetic gesture, Patrick Henry became the free-black caretaker, chosen from an infinite number of white men who would dutifully fulfill the same task, at a location that Jefferson had described in the same book as his disparaging words to blacks thirty years prior as:

“The Natural Bridge, the most sublime of nature’s works… it is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven! The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!”[7]

Patrick Henry would go on to live the rest of his days with his wife and two children underneath the most sublime of nature’s works, Natural Bridge.

A Description of the Natural Bridge of Virginia and Its History. Philadelphia, Printed by Billstein & Son, 1887.

Scherr, Arthur. ““An Honest, Intelligent Man”: Thomas Jefferson, the Free Black Patrick Henry, and the Founder’s Racial Views in His Last Years.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 127, no. 4 (2019): 300-39. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/26803243.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia, MA.: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825.

[1] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia, MA.: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825. P. 192

[2] Scherr, Arthur. ““An Honest, Intelligent Man”: Thomas Jefferson, the Free Black Patrick Henry, and the Founder’s Racial Views in His Last Years.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 127, no. 4 (2019): 300-39. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/26803243. P. 313

[3] A Description of the Natural Bridge of Virginia and Its History. Philadelphia, Printed by Billstein & Son, 1887. P. 18-19

[4] “An Honest, Intelligent Man”. P. 314

[5] Ibid. P. 325

[6] Ibid. P 323

[7] Notes on the State of Virginia. P. 34

The Commonwealth from the Couch

Sofa, Furniture Maker Adam S. Coe, Newport, Rhode Island, 1812. Winterthur Museum #1951.0033

EDIT: Some cool new resources!

The Virginia Beach History Museums has two of its locations (the Thoroughgood House and the Francis Land House) available as a virtual tour. So, although we are currently closed, like many other institutions across the Commonwealth, guests are able to join in from the comfort of their home. Once we reopen, we hope that guests will come visit and learn a little bit about life in the Tidewater area! I’m including the links to our virtual tours below:

Thoroughgood House (circa 1719):

Francis Land House (circa 1805):

The Tidewater Queer History Project

Wow, it’s tough out there right now! If you’re like us, you’re searching for content for students that will resonate with them across the distance. Some of us are parents with limited reserves of activity books and craft project in a kitchen drawer. Maybe you’re just looking for some low-key scrolling that takes your mind off of the news. Lucky for you, museums and nonprofits from around the region have some great stuff about Virginia and the South waiting! Here’s a roundup:

If you’re looking for anything related to eighteenth-century Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg already stuck it all in one place for you. That recipe for Chelsea Buns might put a dent in your stash of eggs!

For bite-sized learning opportunities (think personality quizzes and one-minute videos), stop in at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which interprets precolonial to Revolutionary War history. They have a war chest for all age groups.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has wildlife cams (in time for spring!) and live story time, with an environmental science focus. Check out their Facebook page, too!

Done reading? The Library of Virginia, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and the University of Virginia, along with a hundred other global institutions, made you some coloring books.

could take hours.

For the region’s precolonial history, it doesn’t get any better than UNC’s research labs in archaeology. Their virtual exhibit brings you that much closer to tens of thousands of years of life under our feet.

Most National Park Service sites have a distance learning program, and “The Spirit of the Mountain” from Shenandoah National Park is one gorgeous example. You can also use resources from nearby outfits like Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Parkway, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Appomattox National Battlefield, and more!

Settle down for a great story with one of our state’s amazing oral history collections that focus on social change. Narrators from The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, the Virginia Feminist Oral History Project, and the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) offer eyewitness perspectives on the state’s biggest moments.

It won’t replace that cancelled field trip, but Encyclopedia Virginia has dozens of virtual tours from old houses, churches, and factories, gardens, and museums. Scope out a potential summer excursion!

Detail from La Femme Animee en Fleur, Alphonse Mucha, 1898, VMFA/Google Arts and Culture

Google Arts and Culture has virtual tours of museums in Florence, Tokyo, Paris- and Richmond! See the Virginia Art Museum, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Valentine in stunning detail.

What did we miss? Let us know and stay well!

Virginia Tech in the 1960’s

Taught by our very own Dr. Mollin in the fall, the students taking Topics and Critical Issues in US History- specifically on America on the 1960’s turned their research into an exhibit that’s now on display on the fourth floor of Newman Library. Over the course of a semester, students used the student newspaper The Virginia Tech as an archival base to understand events and trends that defined the student experience. Entitled “Virginia Tech in the 1960’s” students explored dating and socializing, student government and student-faculty relations, to race relations and responses to the Vietnam War. The class places Virginia Tech’s history within the larger historical context backdrop they experienced during their undergraduate years at Virginia Tech. The exhibit reveals that although Virginia Tech was thought of as far from social, cultural, and political turmoil that dominated the historical landscape of the 1960’s they experienced the conflicts and changes of the decade.

Check out the exhibit on the fourth floor of Newman Library!

An American Refugee Crisis

Stereograph shows tent camp occupied by escaped slaves.
Boston : Published by John P. Soule, 199 Washington Street, 1862.
Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

This semester, VT graduate student Noah Crawford served up a great online history exhibit with contemporary relevance. “Refugees in the Civil War” applies ideas from the field of refugee studies to make sense of an unprecedented and often devastating movement of people across the country.

Check it out here!

Mapping the Holocaust in Eastern Europe

Undergraduate students of Dr. Nichols’ World War II class are working on a project that involves that mapping of some of the sites of Nazi killings during the Holocaust. Each site is researched by a student in the class, who then creates a multimedia exhibit on that site. The projects are then compiled in a StoryMap that allows the viewer to view a virtual tour of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Visitors to the site can view the sites in order, or they can select a specific site to learn more. 

Check it out here!

Moving a House in Wytheville

Members of the history, interior design, and architecture programs were invited to observe and participate in the deconstruction of the Martin Grubb cabin in Wytheville, Virginia. The owner of the cabin, who lived in the home as a child, is trying to take it apart so that it can be moved to a different location. His goal is to preserve as much of the structure as possible. The exact age of the cabin is unknown, but it has been estimated to originate in the 1840’s. The records that do exist regarding the cabin go back to 1873, when Martin Grubb purchased it from Simeon Umbarger. While students and faculty participated in removing interior finishes like the nineteenth-century fireplace mantel and 1970s carpet, the exterior walls will be deconstructed with a telescoping forklift.

The front side of the cabin. The metal piece attached to the logs was reportedly a pattern belonging to a saddler who lived in the home.

Veterans’ Transcribe-athon Goal REACHED!

Text and pictures by Jessica Brabble

To honor Veterans Day, Dr. Ed Gitre and dozens of volunteers transcribed around 2,500 pages of historical documents: World War II soldiers’ thoughts and feelings about their service.

Since the project’s May 2018 launch, citizen-archivists on the 1.9-million-member crowdsourcing platform have transcribed 46,000 pages in triplicate. The goal of this 72-hour event was to complete another 2,000 entries.

Students help each other decipher handwriting at Newman Library during the transcribathon.

“These wartime documents are unlike any others,” said Edward Gitre, the Virginia Tech assistant professor of history who directs The American Soldier in World War II project. “On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s Pearl Harbor assault, the U.S. Army embarked on a novel experiment of administering ‘attitude surveys’ to U.S. troops. The goal was to improve the army’s fighting efficiency and raise troop morale.”

During the conflict, more than half a million service personnel filled out opinion surveys, sometimes just off the frontlines. Tens of thousands went a step further. Promised anonymity and provided an extra, blank sheet of paper, soldiers wrote frankly about all facets of their experience, the war, and the U.S. Army, from the quality of rations, clothing, medical care, and leadership to the personal impact of service and the effects of battle.

For decades, their moving remarks could only be read on microfilm at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary team of Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and digital humanities experts has been collaborating with the National Archives Office of Innovation,, and University of Virginia data scientists to make these unexplored documents widely accessible for the first time using innovative human and artificial intelligence.

Support for the American Soldier in World War II project has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded the project a startup planning grant; the National Archives; and the Social Science Research Council.

“The American Soldier in World War II project is bringing to light 65,000 individual troops’ uncensored thoughts about their military service, thoughts that are sure to inform new angles on military history and our understanding of the Greatest Generation and American society during this defining conflict,” said Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “The Veterans Day transcribathon is a fitting tribute to our country’s armed forces, past and present, and one which NEH is proud to support.”

Volunteering a few minutes at a time is easy! Just go to the American Soldier website to get started.

Día de Muertos at VT

The ofrenda, created by Dr. Polanco and VT students.

By Ben Olex

On November 1st, VT students were invited to learn more about Día de Muertos. The event was sponsored by El Centro and led by Dr. Edward Polanco. El Centro is Virginia Tech’s Hispanic and Latinx Cultural and Community Center, which offers a safe space and a full calendar of events for those who identify as Hispanic or Latinx, and allies. Día de Muertos is a holiday celebrated primarily in Mexico. The holiday is a day for family members to remember and pray for those who have died. Traditionally, the celebration involves altars (ofrendas), where photos of loved ones, and other items special to the family members are placed. During Virginia Tech’s celebration, Dr. Polanco explained the history of the holiday. After that participants were invited to approach the alter to pray for their deceased family members. Hot cocoa and pan de Muertos, a traditional food baked in the days leading up to the celebration, was offered to participants.

Learn more about El Centro at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Polanco presents on Día de Muertos.