Red Hill: A Piece of History In Our Backyard

In the 18th century when Patrick Henry lived at Red Hill, it was a 2,900-acre working tobacco plantation straddling the line between Charlotte and Campbell counties. In its prime, Red Hill supported more than 100 people but today occupies only few hundred acres of the original plantation. A substantial portion of the land is now occupied by the Patrick Henry Boys Plantation, a private non-denominational home for at-risk children.

Congress designated Red Hill as the National Memorial to Patrick Henry in 1986. In recent years, generous support from the Barksdale-Dabney-Henry Fund, established by a Henry descendant, has underwritten extensive improvements to the landscape and facilities at the Memorial. At the entrance, colorful flags of the six denote the six individual states that were created from the huge territory that Virginia embraced during the American Revolution. Buildings and roads that crowded the historic area have been removed. A reconstructed blacksmith shop demonstrates that aspect of plantation life. The Quarter Place Trail introduces visitors to the tobacco economy and the African-American laborers who raised crops at Red Hill both as slaves and as freedmen. Walking trails are also being extended to link the historic plantation with the Staunton River, supported by a TEA-21 grant through the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Red Hill is the home where Patrick Henry spent his final years and is the site of his family graveyard. He was born at Studley Plantation in Hanover County and lived in many places around Virginia during his political career. He grew up in Hanover, and later lived in Henry County (which was named for him), and also in Patrick County (also named for him) on the North Carolina border. He spent time in Prince Edward and Louisa counties, and in his late years, he lived at his beloved Red Hill.

Patrick Henry, unlike his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, died as a comfortably wealthy man. In fact, Red Hill was one of three southside plantations he owned. He farmed two other tobacco plantations: Seven Islands, in Halifax County, and Long Island Plantation located up the Staunton River, west of Gladys.

In Henry's day, Red Hill was much more of a village than as it stands now. On the grounds were a tannery, a blacksmith shop (now reconstructed), a distillery, and many tobacco barns that are no longer standing. Some evidence remains of the sites where the original cabins for the slaves were located and of the plantation's landing on the Staunton River. However, much of the evidence of the river landing was destroyed by flood waters prior to the construction of Smith Mountain Lake upriver.

Today's tranquil setting was a thriving plantation in the 18th century and was almost a village. Henry's house was quite modest, especially when compared to some of the grander home of some of Virginia's other Revolutionary patriots. George Washington's Mount Vernon, for example, was a plantation constructed in the grand style, as was George Mason's Gunston Hall, and certainly Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's magnificent manor.

In contrast, Patrick Henry's simple home tells us something of the character of the man. Even though he was one of the 100 wealthiest men in Virginia by the time he bought Red Hill, and he certainly could have built a much grander house, he chose instead to live modestly. Henry was a frugal man, and he wanted to make sure that each of his children had a good stake in life. Henry, a father of seventeen children, left each of his sons a plantation and set aside a dowry for each of his daughters. "He worried that luxury and softness would be bad for the nation," one historian observed. "So, in a sense, Henry lived in a kind of austere existence by choice because that's what he thought was important for the future of the republic."

Patrick Henry served as the first Governor to the Commonwealth of Virginia. He traveled to Williamsburg, the seat of government in his day, a trip that took at least three days to complete on horseback. He was elected Governor six times and served five of those terms. After the last election, he was in poor health and declined to serve. He had contracted a strain of malaria during his years spent in the Tidewater region and was concerned about his children, at home at Red Hill.

He returned to Red Hill to practice law and to care for his family. Written recollections of the time show that Henry was visited by a steady stream of visitors, friends, and passers-by. He was a convivial man. People reported him to be good company and a man who did not hold a grudge. Young men often came to read law with the great patriot, which was a common practice for aspiring young lawyers in those days. President George Washington offered him several appointments as Ambassador to France and Spain and even a seat on the Supreme Court, but Henry said no to all offers. Instead, he chose the bustling plantation life at Red Hill and spent his final years as a lawyer working between the two courts that were located in the area at the time.

Thomas Jefferson once said of Patrick Henry that he was the greatest orator Jefferson had ever known. At the Visitor's Center at Red Hill, a famous oil painting depicts Patrick Henry at his finest moment, delivering a rousing patriotic speech. The artist, Peter Rothermel, painted the scene, which symbolizes a turning point in American History and lead to the American Revolution. Artist Rothermel was a contemporary of Emanuel Leutze, who painted Washington crossing the Delaware. They were the two leading American painters who recorded the great events in American history in heroic portrait style, and this painting is a major acquisition for Red Hill.

Patrick Henry was one of the most important people in the Revolutionary era, yet he is the only one who did not hold a national office. His heart was in Virginia. Henry was a staunch ally of George Washington and supported the American troops by sending provisions including food and clothing, lead for the soldiers' bullets, blankets for the soldiers, and even horses. The two men developed a profound respect for one another that endured through their lifetimes. Even when people attempted to pound wedges between them in order to advance their own causes, these leaders saw through the political hatreds of the day and remained admirers until their deaths. They died within a few months of each other.

Henry was a contemporary of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and of Thomas Jefferson. While the two were allies during the Revolutionary period, near the end of the war there was a tragic misunderstanding between them, and they were never really friends afterwards. Henry often argued on the same side as fellow Virginian, George Mason. Though they lived hundreds of miles apart, in a time when travel was not easy, they found themselves political allies in the fight for independence. Henry and Mason worked together to write the Virginia Declaration of Rights and in 1787, as the two foremost critics of the U.S. Constitution became the leading Virginia opponents. Their opposition led directly to the writing of the Bill of Rights.

Walking through the grounds of Red Hill, you can easily imagine life on a bustling tobacco plantation of the 18the century. Incredibly, several trees have survived two centuries, including an Osage Orange, the largest of its kind in the world. Its branches, propped up and cabled and even protected with lightening rods, stand sentinel over the front lawn. Each year the Lynchburg Bird Club conducts a bird count on the grounds of Red Hill, and The Virginia Bird Watcher's Guide has singled out Red Hill as a site of forest and open field environment that are especially good for bird watching. Fourth of July is a favorite event at Red Hill, with speeches by "Patrick Henry" and fireworks at dusk. This past May, Red Hill played host to its first Naturalization Ceremony, an event that promises to become an annual part of the Memorial Day celebrations.

Many of Patrick Henry's personal possessions have been donated to the museum by some of his 4,200 descendants. His violin and flute are displayed, as is Henry's telescope, a recent gift from a family member to the museum. You will see the ivory letter opener that he held in his hand and used it as a dagger when giving his "Liberty of Death" speech in St. John's Church in Richmond in 1775. His desk, a tall desk popular at the time, allowed him to walk around the room and work while standing.

Red Hill plantation, home of one of Virginia's most prominent historical figures, is located just 45 minutes from Lynchburg, five miles beyond the town of Brookneal, Virginia. This is a quiet corner of Campbell County, and a visit to Patrick Henry's home and gravesite is definitely worth the drive through some lovely Virginia countryside.

Because of Patrick Henry's prominence in early Virginia history, the American Revolution, and his role in the writing of the Bill of Rights, Red Hill is a popular site for school visits and special programs. Red Hill is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except for Christmas, New Year's Day, and Thanksgiving, and Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00. From November through March, the plantation operates on a winter schedule and closes at 4:00 p.m.