Thomas Jefferson bought the 57-acre tract of land including the Natural Bridge of Virginia in 1774—the year he produced his vitriolic Summary View of the Rights of British America—for a pittance. Except for the bridge, which Jefferson considered to be one of the natural wonders of the world, a mirabile visu, the land around the bridge was not much arable and the bridge was only accessed with large difficulty.

Though he bought the Natural Bridge to act as its guardian, Thomas Jefferson was not averse to some amount, a small amount, of building on the land on or around the bridge. In 1803, Jefferson built a small cottage near the bridge to function, inter alia, as a residence and small storage facility when he should come to see the wonder. Moreover, he leased out the land around the bridge to Dr. Philip Thornton for five years so Thornton could manufacture shot, on the condition that Thornton preserve the bridge in its natural splendor and integrity. There was to be no defacing or masking of it. Yet, and this is a most remarkable story, Jefferson also generously allowed a former slave, a certain Patrick Henry, to squat on the land and to farm it. This is the story of Jefferson’s largesse as it pertains to Patrick Henry.

On the land near the bridge, says J. Lee Davis, Jefferson allowed “one of his trusted slaves,”[1] Patrick Henry, to live and to farm, and to keep the cottage in readiness for his arrival. In that small cottage, a cabin of logs, Jefferson kept a record of the numerous persons, many distinguished, who would come over the decades to see the Natural Bridge. The book—containing the names of personages like Chief Justice John Marshall, Sam Houston, Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Boone, and Light Horse Harry Lee—would be maintained after Jefferson passed on July 4, 1826, though destroyed in some accident in 1845.

In 1815, it came to Jefferson’s attention that neighbors were encroaching on his land, acting as if it were theirs, and felling his timber for their twofold usage. First, the lumber was of use for building and burning, or selling. Second, as the boundaries of Jefferson’s land were not cleanly delineated, at least one neighbor was effacing those boundaries to his advantage—i.e., putting to use Jefferson’s property as his. Inability of Jefferson to visit frequently, or even infrequently the Natural Bridge—he would visit the bridge only a handful of times—left it vulnerable to predation.

After his two terms as president, Jefferson found that he had spent far more than he had earned from his presidential salary of 25,000 dollars per year. Deciding against selling his property to disburden himself of his weighty debt, he reconciled himself to leasing out the land to any trustworthy person, who wished to mine the land for its saltpeter or lead, so long as the miner left the Natural Bridge relatively undisturbed. Yet visits to the bridge in 1815 and 1817 showed that those mining the land were not leaving it relatively undisturbed. It would be much to his advantage to have a sort of overseer of the property, if he could do so without financially incommoding himself and if he could find one trustworthy and honest.

For some three decades, William Caruthers—who had mined the land for saltpeter, and later with Thornton, for lead—was the closest person Jefferson had over the years as an overseer of sorts, though Caruthers had proven himself to be not a person to be wholly trusted. And so, after nearly 35 years of not visiting the Natural Bridge—his last visit was 1781 when he and his family were forced to retreat to Poplar Forest upon encroachment of British dragoons in Charlottesville—Jefferson returned in 1815 to the bridge and would twice more (1817 and 1821) visit it prior to his passing.

On June 2, 1817, Caruthers wrote to Jefferson on behalf of a certain Patrick Henry, who wished to squat on the land. The ever-scheming Caruthers, playing on Jefferson’s worries about the land, wrote:

Patrick Henry a free Man of Coular requested me to Write You that he Will Rent What land is Cultivatable On the Bridge Tract—Which is perhaps about 10 Acres all of Which is to Clear off & Enclose & for Which he is Willing to pay a fair Value—Patrick is a Man of Good Behavior and as the Neighbours are Destroying Your Timber Verry much it Might not be Amiss to Authorise him—to Take care of it in Order to Which it Might be Well to have the lines Run by the Surveyor of the County.

Jefferson replied (11 June 1817) to Caruthers’ letter of inquiry, with a counterproposal that seemed much weighted to Henry’s advantage.

I readily consent that Patrick Henry, the freeman of colour whom you recommend, should live on my land at the Natural Bridge, and cultivate the cultivable lands on it, on the sole conditions of paying the taxes annually as they arise, and of preventing trespasses.

Jefferson added that he would likely visit the bridge in September and every September thereafter, so long as he, health permitting, would be able to retreat to Poplar Forest each year. He iterated that sentiment to José Corrêa de Serra (14 June 1817), with whom he had visited the bridge with Francis William Gilmer in 1815.

I will take the precaution of mentioning to you that I shall be at that place during the latter part of this, and the beginning of the next month, say to the 10th and again thro’ the months of August & September in the last of which I shall visit the Natural Bridge: for being but 28. miles from Poplar Forest, which may be rode in 8. hours, I think I shall be disposed to make it an annual visit while strength enough remains.

There would be no reply from Caruthers. He died on June 10, 1817.

Jefferson, however, got a response from Henry via a certain Andrew Alexander on August 4, 1817.

Your letter of the 11th June to Mr Caruther, (whose death we have to lament!) was recd after his death

Patrick Henry the free man of colour is very willing to accept of your land at the Natural Bridge on the terms you propose—but he does not know the boundery—and wishes you to send him a copy of the courses &c—as he supposes trespasses have been committed—

I enquired of the Sherif he informed me there are three years taxes due on your land—$2.91

For future trespasses if they should be made—perhaps it might be well to direct Patrick Henry how to proceed—.

Jefferson, through Philip Thornton, settled affairs with Henry so that the latter could squat on Jefferson’s land, as long as Henry covered the yearly taxes, which were, because of the relative lack of value of the land, relatively scant. It was a magnanimous gesture by Jefferson, driven by Henry’s concern about the boundaries of the land, given Caruthers’ statement about unscrupulous and rapacious neighbors.

Henry would show himself to be the overseer that Caruthers never was. Henry would faithfully watch over Jefferson’s land, inform Jefferson of the goings on, function as a cicerone, and do for Jefferson small favors, which for Jefferson were large due to the infirmities of Jefferson’s age and the distance of Monticello from the Natural Bridge. For instance, on August 14, Jefferson sent Henry six dollars—five to give to the Sheriff of Rockbridge County for taxes and one for Henry’s keeping. Jefferson it seems was so pleased to have a responsible caretaker of his tract that he was willing even to pay its taxes.

On March 10, 1818, Jefferson wrote to Philip Thornton about certain damages to the latter’s possessions at the Natural Bridge:

Patrick Henry, whom you employed, called on me in January and observed that the Canvas tube was entirely rotted and in rags, that the rope was still tolerably sound & of some value, and that some mischievous people had taken out the kettle, and had rolled it down the hill & broken it, of which he wished you to be informed.

Jefferson responded (8 Jan. 1818) to Thornton:

the object of the present [letter] is to renew the offer therein made and to add that Patrick Henry the freeman of colour living there, informs me that some mischeivous people lately threw your kettle over the bridge and destroyed it. he says the canvas tube is entirely rotten, but that the rope is worth something. he seems to be an honest, intelligent man, & I dare say would execute any trust you would repose in him with fidelity.

As the letter shows, there was the promise that Jefferson’s generosity would be equaled by Henry’s fidelity.

Who was Patrick Henry?

Henry (c. 1787–c. 1831) was a slave, described by granddaughter Cornelia Randolph as “a mulatto man,”[2] who purchased his freedom from John Tapscott in 1811 in Westmoreland County, situated far to the east in Virginia. He was not, as J. Lee Davis said, “one of [Jefferson’s] trusted slaves.” Henry was originally a slave to Martin Tapscott (1766–1804), older brother of John Tapscott.  According to David Coffey, Martin was likely to be Henry’s father through a female slave, Lavinia, whom he manumitted in 1794. The deed of manumission, not filed with the clerk of the County Court till his death, read:

To all whom it may concern, Know Ye that I, Martin Tapscott of Westmoreland County in the State of Virginia for and in consideration of the faithful Services, together with other conscientious motives, have forever, Emancipated, discharge and set free (whatever Law to the Contrary) one Negro named Lavinia, born in the year 1761, together with all her future posterity or increase forever.

Martin, said brother John, had intended to manumit Henry, but unexpectedly died and that left unresolved the matter of Henry’s manumission. John Shearman Tapscott (1778–1832) then purchased Henry from his brother’s heirs after Martin’s death, and retained his services for several years thereafter until such time that Henry could purchase his freedom for the same 300 dollars that John had paid.[3]

Henry eventually bought his freedom. The deed of manumission was as follows:

Whereas Patrick a Mulattoe man was in February 1806 sold for the sum of 300 dollars and was purchased for that sum by John Tapscott of the County of Westmoreland, who, when he made the purchase was well knowing that it had been the intention of his Brother Martin Tapscott to have Emancipated and set free the said Patrick but from doing which he the said Martin was prevented by sudden death in the month of November in the year 1804. He the said John Tapscott did promise the said Patrick that so soon as he could make up the said sum of 300 dollars and would pay the same to him, the said John Tapscott, that he the said Patrick shold [sic] be free, and whereas the said Patrick by his own exertions and from the liberality of others hath been able to make up the said sum of 300 dollars, which he hath paid to the said John Tapscott, the payment and receipt whereof he the said John Tapscott doth hereby acknowledge—now in consideration of the promises he the said John Tapscott hath EMANCIPATED and set FREE the said Patrick … giving hereby to the said Patrick all the Priviledges [sic] and Enjoyments of a free man according to the Laws of this Commonwealth.

It is strange that John Tapscott would buy Henry for 300 dollars and allow Henry to be disenthralled, once Henry could earn the same 300 dollars that Tapscott had spent to buy Henry. Of that transaction, Coffey was silent. Yet that strangeness disappears, however, if we assume that whoever, of John Tapscott’s heirs, had come into possession of Henry was disinclined to part with him without compensation. Consequently, Martin bought Henry just to allow Henry that opportunity for disenthrallment that his older brother had promised the slave. If that is the case, it was a noble gesture, one of supererogation, on behalf of Martin, even if Martin got sufficient work accomplished along the way from Henry till Henry could buy his freedom.

Once manumitted, Henry moved in 1815 to Lexington, Rockbridge County, where he worked for a spell under Philip Thornton to mine lead for shot.

Henry soon married a slave, Louisa, owned by Patrick Darst. Henry formally freed his wife around 1816. J. Lee Davis speaks of this “unheard of happening” on account of “a slave purchasing a slave,” but as we have seen, Henry was free in 1811 so that “unheard of happening” did not happen. That bit of fiction allowed Davis to express certain quixotic sentiments about their relationship, prior to her own emancipation. He noted that she doubtless found it insufferable to be ordered around by a black master, though likely would have found it sufferable to be ordered around by a white master.

The bitter element, as far as concerns Louisa, was that she became restless under the existing state of affairs; they may have been times when the lordly Patrick reminded her that she was bought and paid for; that he was in very truth her lord and master, as well as being merely her husband. Louisa probably did not so much mind being in slavery to a white master,—few of them found it particularly galling,—but to be ordered about by her own spouse was something altogether different. It was not one whit to her liking.[4]

In counter-remonstrance to Davis’ statements, I note merely that we know nothing of Louisa’s relationship to Patrick, and it is unfair to state that he bought her to be her master. Davis’ comments are ungrounded surmise. One, however, must make certain concessions to the year of publication: That year was 1949.

One must also acknowledge what E.P. Tompkins said in an earlier book, coauthored with Davis, which gave essentially the same account of Henry’s life. Tompkins confessed that some of what they have written on the Natural Bridge extended the limits of truthfulness.

As wonderful as is this mighty arch of stone, cut and erected by the hand of Nature, that which can be said about the structure itself is limited; and the emotions arising from viewing it being virtually the same in all individuals, though varying in degree, it follows that description of these sentiments cannot be boundless in extent. Therefore, it is obvious that if the history is to be at all entertaining it must go farther afield; and it has been the attempt of the writers to create or to reproduce something of the “atmosphere” of the locality, in the way of what newspaper men are accustomed to call “human interest stories.”[5]

It is an open and honest concession by Tompkins—“if the history is to be at all entertaining it must go farther afield”—and it invites caution when reading popular books on the Natural Bridge (and popular books on American history), especially books published by the proprietors of the bridge.

Henry then had for himself crafted a deed of manumission in 1816 for his wife-to-be Louisa.[6] It reads:

Be it know to all to whom these presents may come, that I, Patrick Henry, of the county of Rockbridge and Sates of Virginia, having in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifteen, purchased from Benjamin Darst of the Town of Lexington, a female slave known as Louisa, and since then known by the name of Louisa Henry:

Now, for and in consideration of her extraordinary Meritorious zeal in the prosecution of my interest, her constant probity and exemplary deportment subsequent to her being recognized as my wife, together with divers other good and substantial reason, I have this day in open court in the county aforesaid, by this my public Deed of Manumission determined to enfranchise, set fee and admit her to participation in all and every privilege, advantage, and immunity that free persons of color are capacitated, enabled or permitted to enjoy in conformity with the laws and provisions of the Commonwealth, in such cases made and provided.

And by these presents I do emancipate, manumit, set free, and disenthrall the said Louisa, alias Louisa Henry, from the shackles of slavery and bondage forever. For myself, and all persons whomsoever, I do renounce, resign, and henceforth disclaim all authority over her as or in the capacity of a slave. And for the true and earnest performance of each and every stipulation herein before mentioned, to the said Louisa, alias Louisa Henry, I bind myself, my heirs, administrators and executors forever.

In testimony were of [sic] I hereunto set my hand and affix my seal, this Second Day of December, in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixteen.

Patrick Henry

Jefferson, thus, granted Henry and his wife the privilege of squatting on his land near the bridge. Henry would build a cabin some 150 yards from the mirabile naturae. With the help of his wife, Henry would assist the aging Sage of Monticello with his lands and by preserving the Natural Bridge from desecration. He would also function as a cicerone to unexpected visitors. That Jefferson allowed Henry custody of the bridge and allotted him 10 acres of land to farm, while Jefferson himself largely paid the taxes that Henry was contractually obliged to pay, said Arthur Scherr, was “the most amazing part of the story,”[7] presumably because it showed that Jefferson’s charitableness and trust were color-blind.

That would be amazing were Jefferson color-sensitive. It is, instead, unamazing. Though he was likely illiterate—letters to Jefferson by Henry were always through a mediator—Henry was, unlike Caruthers, trustworthy and, as he was someone living close to the bridge, dependable. Henry and Louisa gave Jefferson, in return for his great largesse, something that he had not had in decades of ownership: peace of mind. In that regard, it must be considered an exchange that was equal, and so the amazement deliquesces.

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, Patrick, Louisa, and their children, Joseph and Eliza, were allowed by grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph to continue to live at the Natural Bridge. When Henry died in 1831, Randolph allowed Louisa and her children to remain on the property.

When the property passed from the hands of the Jeffersons—grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph sold it in 1835—and into the hands of Capt. J. Lackland, Lackland built a hotel, the Forest Inn, and that started the “masking” of the Natural Bridge that Jefferson so dreaded.

Louisa, however, was allowed, again, to remain. She would function as an attendant, cicerone, and most importantly, story-teller for Lackland. Visitors would often be delighted to be greeted and entertained by stories of an elderly woman who has lived for years on the property and who has met the great guardian of the Natural Bridge, Thomas Jefferson.[8]

There are, unsurprisingly, no pictures of Patrick or Louisa Henry. However, there is an engraving of the Natural Bridge (c. 1832) by Thomas Swann Woodcock (1805–1863), after a drawing of William Goodacre (1803–1883). The engraving shows two figures, likely African American, at the bottom and to the left of Cedar Creek. The standing figure is, thinks Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Patrick Henry. If so, then the seated or squatting figure is likely to be his wife, Louisa.[9]

It is strange that Thomas Jefferson (and his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph upon his grandfather’s death) should have been so kind to a black man and his family, given depictions today of Jefferson’s inveterate racism and execration of Blacks. One might remonstrate, of course, that Jefferson has been given a return much greater than he has given. That, I believe, is untenable. What he gave Henry was greater than what Henry could give in return. Jefferson could easily have put out an add that invited another, a white person, to squat on his land and farm it in return for keeping an eye on things on the land. He did not. He merely accepted Henry’s offer and did so with gratefulness—not the sort of deed of an inveterate racist.


[1] J. Lee Davis, Bits of History and Legends around and about the Natural Bridge from 1730 to 1950 (Lynchburg: The Natural Bridge of Virginia, Inc., 1949), 45.

[2] Cornelia J. Randolph to Virginia J. Randolph Trist, 30 Aug. 1817.

[3] David W. Coffey, “Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the Natural Bridge of Virginia,” Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society, Vol. 12, 141–43. See also, Editor, “Martin Tapscott,” Ancestry, and “John Shearman Tapscott,”, accessed 10 Sept. 2023.

[4] J. Lee Davis, Bits of History and Legends around and about the Natural Bridge from 1730 to 1950, 45–46.

[5] E.P. Tompkins, Preface, in Edmund Pendleton Tompkins and Joseph Lee Davis, The Natural Bridge and Its Historical Surroundings (The Natural Bridge, VA: The Natural Bridge of Virginia, Inc., 1939), iii–iv.

[6] Oren Frederic Morton, A History of Rockbridge County, Virginia (Staunton, VA: The McClure Co., Inc., 1920), 146.

[7] Arthur Scherr, “Jefferson’s Love Affair with the Natural Bridge,” The Journal of Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Times, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2017: 67.

[8] David W. Coffey, “Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the Natural Bridge of Virginia,” Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historic Society, Vol. 12 (Rockbridge Historical Society, 2002: 145.

[9] Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 175.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


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