Major Events in the History of the Foundation

Home of Patrick Henry To Become National Shrine

Federal Government Will Preserve Historic Mansion and Grounds Which Have Been in Possession of the Henry Descendants
Since 1800
By Vera Palmer
[Sunday Magazine, Unidentified newspaper 1940s]

All those who love the Old Dominion and know something of its great estates are more or less familiar with this vast plantation where Patrick Henry lived, and where he breathed his last. It is there in the little graveyard that he rests. It is there, too, that his descendants carry on the tradition of friendliness and hospitality that has come down from his day.

Although it is pleasing to know that the old place remains in the Henry family, for few old homes have been so fortunate, yet it's even more satisfying to the country as a whole to realize that within a very few years it will probably be taken over by the Federal Government and become a national shrine. Under private ownership, it is impossible to forecast what the future might hold for the home of the immortal orator of Virginia. But with the guardianship of Uncle Sam, all his nephews and nieces for generations to come will be able to visit the shrine. Then they will see where and how one of the very greatest of that mighty group of eighteenth century statesmen lived and worked and entertained his friends.

Red Hill is now owned by Lucy Gray Henry Harrison, widow of Matthew Bland Harrison, and great-granddaughter of Patrick Henry.

When Patrick Henry secured it in 1791, after his retirement as Governor of Virginia, it contained no fewer than 15,000 acres. Only 1,000 are now included in the plantation. But there is still the same alluring view looking out over the flats to the Staunton River as attracted to this secluded spot in Charlotte County the Hanover-born lawyer and orator.

He was not permitted to enjoy it long, for in 1799 his earthly career terminated and he was taken to the near-by burial ground where his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge, has slept beside him through the years. There is a marker at his grave, placed by the Massachusetts Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution.

It is generally believed that there was more open land during the residence of Patrick Henry than there is today. When the place belonged to his grandson, William Wirt Henry, father of Mrs. Harrison, it was yet more open. Now there are woods on every side. They form a kind of verdant frame for the grounds and for the surrounding fields.

Nation to Purchase Estate

About 18 months ago a bill was passed by the Congress, and duly signed by President Roosevelt, empowering the Government to purchase Red Hill for the nation. Now, according to Mrs. Harrison, another bill is soon to be presented by Senator Carter Glass, asking for an appropriation for the reconstruction of the mansion, destroyed by fire about 16 years ago. This second bill also will ask an appropriation for maintenance of the entire estate.

Although the place is still the property of Mrs. Harrison, the National Park Service has sent workmen to Red Hill ever since the President signed the bill for its purchase. They care for the trees and look after the marvelous boxwood, and are heartily welcomed by the owner.

Since the house was burned with most of its contents, Mrs. Harrison has been living in what was Patrick Henry's office, just across the yard and close to the graveyard. Notwithstanding the fact that furniture and other valuables went up in the flames, she regrets most of all the loss of a very large package of her illustrious ancestor's papers. She feels that these, probably, were a veritable treasure-house of information regarding affairs of State, as well as relating to his personal life.

This great Virginian traveled far, financially speaking, from those days of his dreamy and dilatory youth in Hanover County when he was the husband of Sarah Shelton. That period was so vividly and dramatically portrayed by T. Beverly Champbell in his pageant, "Liberty or Death," presented last July at Hanover Courthouse. Mrs. Harrison told me that although there were 16 children, the majority of whom survived their famous father or left heirs, his estate was sufficient to make all of them rich.

Henry had land in various sections of the State and counted his acres in the tens of thousands. To give an idea of the comfortable little legacies that his vast progeny inherited, 10,000 acres in Henry County went to his daughter, Martha who was the wife of John Fontaine.

Red Hill was left to Patrick Henry's two youngest sons, Winston and John. When Winston reached his majority the larger part was cut off for him. John received the house and the remainder of the land, which was then a far more extensive property than it is today. Much has bee taken from it since that time. John Henry died in 1868 and the place went to his son, WIlliam Wirt Henry, who passed away at the beginning of the present century.

The house built by Patrick Henry was only a little more than half the size of what it destined to become, for additions were made by the grandson-owner. Where it once stood is now merely a hole in the ground, well covered with periwinkle and other vines--an excellent place for snakes. But the broad steps may yet be seen and the box-bordered walks must be far lovelier than when the great Patrick and his Dorothea dwelt there. As they strolled together up and down the paths he pondered, doubtless, on the grave problems then confronting the infant republic. . .she, also doubtless, on those of the infants in the house. The imposing front gate still stands, as does that at the other end of the garden, looking out toward the river in the distance.

While few things were saved when the mansion was destroyed, Mrs. Harrison showed me a pair of quaintly designed salt-cellars, the containers which fitted into the silver frames being of a rich royal blue glass. They are dated "1777." She also called my attention to a pair of money scales on the mantel in the livingroom which were used constantly by the master of the plantation.

Several years ago Mrs. Harrison gave to the Valentine Museum in this city a number of Henry relics, including here great-grandfather's law books and his fee book. The latter gives proof, she declared, that he had a good may very profitable cases long before that of the famous "Parson's Cause, " tried in Hanover Courthouse. This book convinces his descendant that there is no truth in the theory that he was a failure in his profession prior to that time.

Likeness Thought To Be From Life

Probably the most cherished possession relative to Patrick Henry now owned by this vivacious great-granddaughter is a photograph of the miniature which is thought to be the only likeness of the famous orator made from life. It is included in a picture of three mementos. The other two are a bracelet made of his hair and a plate etched with a picture of the Red Hill house. This miniature came to light only about 20 years ago and was unknown to William Wirt Henry when he wrote his biography of his grandmother.

The news of its existence came to Mrs. Harrison through the Anderson Galleries in New York, the curator of which asked her if she could guarantee the authenticity of a miniature of Henry which had been sent there by a Mrs. Johnson of Lexington, Ky.

Mrs. Harrison immediately wrote to Mrs. Johnson, asking its history. She replied by sending the photograph of the three mementoes, and said that she had inherited these three relics from her great-grandfather, Samuel Meredith II, son of Samuel Meredith I, who had married a sister of Patrick Henry, to whom they had been sent at Henry's death.

This miniature was the model used by Keck for his beautiful head of Patrick Henry in the Hall of Fame. Mrs. Harrison asserts that it is without doubt an authentic picture. She has no idea what has become of the original, but thinks it probable that the Anderson Galleries have a record of it. Close by is a photograph of the portrait by Sully done about 1810 from a miniature given by Mr. Henry to his half-brother, Syme. It is understood that the famous painter was aided by suggestions from contemporaries, especially in regard to coloring and dress. He never saw Patrick Henry.

"A few years ago a copy of this miniature was brought out in one of the Richmond papers," Mrs. Harrison said in commenting on it. "That is the only copy which I have ever seen, and I was horribly disappointed in it. It showed the kind of man that in Virginia is called a Ôclodhopper.' It lacked all grace and had no dramatic force nor fire of eloquence. I wondered how Sully could have made his fine portrait from such a model. This is the miniature which was supposed to have been painted by a French artist, who heard Henry debate the British war debt case. But I could see no trace of French art in it."

The proportions of the estate and of the grounds surrounding the old house indicate that life must have been easy and servants many at Red Hill when its distinguished master held away over the vast land. There is an old tale which declares that as the kitchen was a little farther from the house than customary with old Virginia places, a young Negro was put on a horse to carry, shuttle fashion, all the food to and from the table. Don't let the practical thought that he must have been something of an acrobat spoil a good story.

Whether or not the horse and shuttle yarn is true, it is safe to say that those waffles and that fried chicken and batter-bread were hot when they reached Marse Patrick's table. And how many chickens and how much hot bread must have been consumed by all those young Henrys, not to mention the guests!

Mrs. Harrison says that it is not an unmixed blessing to own a famous estate and live there. Tourists appear at all times and in all seasons from every side of the house. They come determined to see, and many just will not withdraw until that doubtful ambition has been realized. Not long ago a gentleman appeared, and not at the front door. When he was courteously informed that the house was not open to the public, he replied that general rules did not apply to him as he was a member of the Legislature in a distant State. Mrs. Harrison told her uninvited visitor that solons were shown no preference. So the would-be sightseer departed reluctantly and not very happily.

How long it will be before the Government takes over Red Hill is not known. But whenever that day comes, Mrs. Harrison will experience a keen feeling of regret in seeing the old place go out of the Henry family. But the certain knowledge that it will be kept in perfect condition for all time, and that it will become accessible to the entire nation will, of course, largely compensate for the loss. It will always be a quiet spot, undisturbed by the rush of modern traffic, for it is several miles off the highway and the birds and the whip-poor-wills will ever find a refuge there.