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.”
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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!”
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. P. 192
 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
 A Description of the Natural Bridge of Virginia and Its History. Philadelphia, Printed by Billstein & Son, 1887. P. 18-19
 “An Honest, Intelligent Man”. P. 314
 Ibid. P. 325
 Ibid. P 323
 Notes on the State of Virginia. P. 34