Patrick Henry’s Red Hill includes Patrick Henry’s grave and Law Office, his reconstructed house and other outbuildings, rare family artifacts in the E. Stuart James Grant Museum Room, the Museum Shop, and a growing network of interpretive scenic trails.
In many ways, the beauty of Red Hill and the landscape surrounding it has not changed substantially from the days when Patrick Henry himself would stroll the grounds, seeking comfort in the woods and gardens and sounds of nature. The serenity that he found here, in the place he called the “garden spot of the world” has been preserved.
History of Red Hill
Red Hill (the plantation) was first owned by 11 men who were granted 30,000 acres of land “beginning at the mouth of Falling River on the North fork of the Roanoke River in Brunswick County from thence on both sides of the River for Compliment in one or more surveys.”
Three of the owners were John Tyler of Williamsburg, John Palmer, a lawyer and bursar of William & Mary College, and Richard Booker of Amelia County. John Tyler’s son Louis and Richard Booker’s son Richard Marot married daughters of John Palmer, and thus began the tangle which any historian must sort through to find out who owned what land at Red Hill.
Richard Marot Booker inherited the land (700 acres) in 1772. At that time, Richard Marot Booker was listed as a resident of Halifax County, probably living at “ Seven Islands,” directly across the river from Red Hill. During 1772, Richard Marot’s name begins appearing on Charlotte County records, so it is assumed that he moved to Red Hill sometime that year, while Louis Tyler moved further downstream. Later, Tyler would die during the Revolution, and Booker would buy his land.
Richard Marot Booker speculated in land, and by 1789 was heavily in debt. He began selling off property, and in March of 1794, Patrick Henry purchased the 700-acre tract from him. He then began adding to the parcel, including the Tyler land, eventually owning 2,930 acres in Campbell and Charlotte Counties. Henry also purchased Booker’s “ Seven Islands” plantation in Halifax County.
The house itself remained quite modest during Henry’s life. When Patrick Henry died, the Red Hill house and half the plantation went to his two sons John Henry and Edward Winston Henry. The two moved back to Red Hill in 1815. Edward Winston married in 1817, after which he and his wife resided at Red Hill for a time. John Henry then married in 1826 and brought his new wife Elvira McClelland to Red Hill, where the couples both lived. During the time they were all living there, Edward and his wife had seven children, and John and Elvira had three. This family growth began to cramp the space of the two families, and, feeling the need for more living space, they divided the property in 1832.
It was John and Elvira who then added the first two-story addition to the house and began beautifying the grounds. The gardens were Elvira’s project—she built an orangery to plant orange and lemon trees, planted a D-shaped boxwood garden in the pattern of her grandmother’s, and brought many exotic plants and shrubs to be planted on the grounds. She was so enthusiastic in her landscaping that one of John’s older siblings had cause to complain that “ that young wife of John is ruining Red Hill.” When John Henry died in 1868, he left the estate to his wife and children, and Elvira remained there until her death in 1875.
Red Hill in Henry’s Day
In the two centuries since Patrick Henry’s day at Red Hill, some things have changed a great deal while others have remained relatively unchanged. Read on to learn more about what life would have been like here in the days when the Henry family roamed the grounds!
Compared to the fine mansion estates of Jefferson or Washington, Red Hill stands out remarkably for its modesty. It is not the palatial estate of an American aristocrat, but rather a humble family dwelling in which Patrick Henry’s large brood lived, worked, and played.
One of the things that guests often find most striking when they visit Red Hill is the small size of Patrick Henry’s home and the number of people who managed to live there. What is even more amazing is that Henry’s home was only about half the size of what you can see on the grounds today! According to a builder’s contract made between John Henry and Jesse Staples in 1832, the two side additions to the east and west were built during the enlargement of the house, well after Henry’s death. So how did so many people live in such a small home?
The fact that Patrick Henry had an impressive 17 children is well known. However, it’s easy to forget that not all were living with him by the time he moved to Red Hill. Of the 17, four of the six children from Henry’s first marriage were already grown and out of the household by the time he moved his residence permanently to Charlotte County in 1796. Two others were deceased.
Of his children from his second marriage, Dorothea Spotswood, his eldest by his second wife, was married at Red Hill in 1795. Richard, his 14th child, had sadly died in 1793. Therefore including his son John, who was born at Red Hill, there would have been eight children living at Red Hill by the end of 1795. In addition to his eight children, Patrick Henry also took in his nephew Johnny Christian following the death of Patrick’s sister Anne in 1792, bringing the total to nine.
The ages of these children living at Red Hill in 1795 ranged from infant to 17 years, and included:
- Dorothea Spotswood—17 years old
- Sarah Butler—15 years old
- Johnny Christian—15 years old
- Martha Catharina—14 years old
- Patrick Jr.—12 years old
- Fayette—10 years old
- Alexander—7 years old
- Nathaniel—5 years old
- Edward—1 year old
Over the intervening years before Henry’s death, the number of his children living at Red Hill changed. Two of his daughters married and moved to begin their own households, and Johnny Christian likely left the household as well. By the time Patrick Henry passed away in 1799, there were likely still six Henry children residing there with Dorothea—including Edward and John, the two youngest, who were at that time only 5 and 4 years old, respectively.
This meant that with Patrick and Dorothea, there were 11 people in the house at the time the family moved to Red Hill. In the inventory taken at Red Hill in 1799, eight beds and one cradle were listed on the property. One was a canopy bed used by Patrick and Dorothea. The other seven feather beds used by the children were most likely located on the second floor and in the law office.
Patrick Henry’s Law Office is one of the few original buildings that survived the fire of 1919. The structure was built in 1792 and was used as a private study by Henry after he retired from the strenuous public life he had been leading and returned to law. Here he drew up legal opinions and briefs and planned arguments to be used in court on behalf of his clients. It was his retreat from the main house, which was filled with the daily comings and goings of 14 cohabitants.
Henry also used this set of rooms to tutor his children in both moral and natural philosophy. His library, which was kept in this building, consisted of over 230 volumes on a variety of subjects covering mathematics, geography, literature, language, and religion, along with numerous legal and political tomes. According to his grandson, P.H. Fontaine, it was “Patrick Henry’s habit, each day around sunset, to retire to his law office for an hour of prayer and meditation. During this sacred hour, none of his family intruded upon his privacy.”
However, with space in the main house being scarce, Henry’s law office was sometimes used as additional sleeping quarters. It was common at that time for the older boys on a plantation to sleep in one of the outbuildings, as well as any tutors or visiting overnight guests. Johnny Christian likely slept here, as well as being tutored during the day by his uncle in the practice of law.
Most kitchens in the colonial south were not located in the main house but rather occupied their own outbuilding to keep the heat and smell isolated. It was also a safety precaution which helped prevent fires in the main house since most cooking was done on a brick hearth in front of the fire. The kitchen building would likely also have doubled as sleeping quarters for domestic enslaved people.
In Henry’s day, the kitchen was run and inhabited by Critty, the enslaved cook on the plantation. Critty and her children Jack, Harrison, and Coleman slept in the loft on the second floor. Critty’s job was one of the most difficult because it was a 24-hour per day job. She would have to tend the fire throughout the day and night to ensure it would never go out. Her day would usually begin before sunrise to prepare the coals for cooking the midday dinner (lunch). Preparation for dinner took up most of the morning hours, and then the cook’s day would begin to slow after two 0’clock or so in the afternoon.
The menu at the Henry house would have been dictated partly by Dorothea Henry, partly by the seasonal availability of ingredients, and by the church calendar. As a devout Episcopalian, Patrick Henry had his household follow strict guidelines around fast days, such as Fridays and the 40 days of Lent, during which meat would not be eaten. Patrick Henry himself was even known to fast before taking communion. During times of fasting, Critty would be directed to serve the family soups. During the rest of the time, most of the fruits, vegetables, and meats served at Red Hill were supplied by the plantation itself, or else bought at the market at Charlotte Court House, or caught on the occasional hunting trip. This meant that the table was heavily influenced by the growing seasons at and around Red Hill.
Patrick Henry’s well-known remark about Red Hill was to call it “ the garden spot of the world,” which makes the gardens and grounds particularly special to us today, as we can appreciate the beauty Patrick Henry loved there.
The herb garden was a major feature of any colonial household. Herbs at the time were used for a variety of purposes, including cooking, medicine, and decoration. For example, lavender would have been used as a strewing herb to freshen the house. Feverfew and yarrow, among many others, may have been grown to use as medicines to treat various ailments. And the cooks would have made use of thyme, rosemary, and other herbs to flavor their meals.
The Osage orange tree, which stands at an imposing 60 feet in height, is over 350 years old. It currently holds the title as the largest of its species in the nation.
Another garden at the time covered the eastern part of the Red Hill grounds. This garden supposedly covered close to four acres and provided the family with apples, pears, figs, and olives for their table. The gardens would generally have been the responsibility of Dorothea Henry, as the mistress of the house was expected to participate in the care of their gardens. At Red Hill, she might have directed the planting of carrots, beans, peas, and cauliflower for use in the kitchen. Patrick Henry was particularly fond of rhubarb, which he claimed helped clear his throat before a speech.
Henry loved nature all his life, and Red Hill was his comfort and solace. He would often stroll through the grounds among the trees, seeking the quiet of the woods and time to spend with his thoughts in seclusion.
The isolated nature of Red Hill was one of its great attractions for Henry and a feature that has helped it to stay so preserved and intact all these many decades since his death. Today you may walk the grounds and still be able to catch a glimpse of the same horizon Henry would have surveyed, listen to the sounds of the same rushing river, and hear the birds chirping in the same woods.
Slavery at Red Hill
In the woods, about half a mile west of the Visitor Center at Red Hill is an isolated cemetery that holds the remains of at least three generations of African Americans. It is a silent but powerful reminder that Red Hill, like the homes of other Founding Fathers at Mount Vernon and Monticello, was a plantation dependent on the work of enslaved persons. Visitors to Red Hill can visit this sacred site by walking down the Quarter Place Trail.
Patrick Henry, like many of his compatriots in the pursuit of liberty for the colonies, had a deeply complicated relationship with slavery. As the Voice of the Revolution, Henry campaigned eloquently for liberty above all else—devotion to liberty is the legacy that we attribute to him even today. And yet as a slave owner, he partook in a practice that to our 21st-century eyes seems to be the height of hypocrisy.
While there is no way to gloss over Henry’s ownership of enslaved people, his fraught relationship with the practice provides an intriguing insight into his character. Henry became a slave owner at the age of 18, as a part of his wife Sarah’s dowry. And though we may wish that his troubled conscience had led him to take a stronger decisive stance against slavery in the early days of forming the nation and his own life, the efforts he did make on behalf of enslaved individuals—including support for legislation that made the manumissions legal for the first time in Virginia—is noteworthy.
His thoughts on the topic are an instructive glimpse into the debate that would continue to brew within the states for almost 100 more years before finally coming to a breaking point in the Civil War. In the letter transcribed below, he signs off with a chilling prediction that the issue of slavery gave a gloomy perspective to future times, something that would come true on the battlefields across the South a century later.
Below you will find the details of the juxtaposing reality of slavery and enslaved life at Red Hill with the troubling thoughts Henry expressed about his ownership of them.
Red Hill as a Plantation
Most of the details we know of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Red Hill comes from an estate inventory, taken at the plantation in July 1799 just one month after Patrick Henry’s death. At the time, there were 67 enslaved people on the property. 32 of these men and women were listed as being over the age of 16 and physically healthy. The rest of those listed would have been children or adults too old or infirm to work.
Red Hill produced on average some 20,000 pounds of tobacco per year during his ownership. The cultivation of tobacco was tedious and labor-intensive. The process included preparation of the seedbeds, fertilizing, planting, transplanting, topping, suckering, priming, weeding, worming, cutting, bulking, curing, stripping, and prizing. A yield of 20,000 pounds of leaf would have required a minimum of 20 enslaved people tending 50 acres of tobacco at Red Hill. The wheat and corn growing along the slope and lowlands below the plantation house also required attention. On average, one enslaved person could tend 4 or 5 acres of corn, while four or five enslaved people were needed to reap the same acreage of wheat.
Other work done by the enslaved population, as indicated in the estate inventory, would have been caring for the livestock, which included 156 cattle, 155 hogs, 60 sheep, and 22 horses. Livestock duties included fencing in fields, building and repairing pens, heaping and hauling manure, as well as castrating lambs, shearing sheep, milking cows, and fattening and slaughtering hogs.
Any enslaved people who weren’t working in the fields or with the livestock at the plantation at Red Hill would have been considered “domestic servants,” assigned to work in the main house, kitchen, scullery, and the laundry, under the supervision of the mistress of the house. Enslaved people also were expected to operate the tannery and distillery, as well as the plantation store and blacksmith shop.
Who Were They?
Thanks to the 1799 estate inventory, we know the names and specific details about a few of the enslaved people who resided at Red Hill. One was a man named Jessee, who was named as a skilled worker—possibly a blacksmith.
Someone else who had been with Henry for most of his adult life was a man named Pedro, who worked as a trusted messenger and coachman, and who passed away shortly before Patrick Henry himself.
Another estate inventory taken three years later in 1802 gives a bit more detail into the names and work of several individuals. Two of the women named in that inventory are Dinah, “an old woman,” and Beck, who it states was in “the decline of life.” These two were remarkable for having been with Henry since his very early days at Roundabout Plantation back in 1768 and had likely been given to him upon his marriage in 1754.
A boy by the name of Shadrack, who would have been between 12 and 16, was listed in the 1802 inventory as the family’s coachman at the time.
That position was later taken up by Harrison, who had lived with the family since his childhood when he had attended to Mrs. Henry—carrying her key basket and yarn for her. (Harrison’s mother was Critty, the family’s enslaved cook—she and Harrison, along with his two brothers, Jack and Coleman, had lived in the kitchen.) Living past the age of 102, Harrison worked for four generations of Henrys at Red Hill. Harrison continued to live on the property after he was freed. The Coachman’s Cabin, which can still be visited at Red Hill, was given to him by William Wirt Henry to reward his years of service to the family.
Besides the 67 enslaved people at Red Hill, Patrick Henry was also a slave owner at his Long Island and Seven Islands properties, totaling 112 in all at the time of his death.
After Henry’s Death
As was usually the case, the death of Patrick Henry, as master of the plantation had a profound effect on the enslaved population at Red Hill. In his will, he gave his wife Dorothea his Red Hill estate along with 20 enslaved workers of her choosing. He also gave her permission to free one or two of them if she desired. By 1805, she had freed at least five. The other enslaved people at Red Hill were to be distributed among his children as part of their inheritance. After the estate was settled, more than 2/3 of the enslaved people had been moved from the plantation. Their departure had a devastating effect on the enslaved community at Red Hill, sending fathers, children, and grandchildren to live in different places apart from one another.
Henry’s Discussion of Slavery
We know by his actions that Henry was complicit in the practice of slavery. His feelings and philosophy on the matter are more complicated. Below is reprinted a letter, written by Henry to Robert Pleasants in 1773. Pleasants was a prominent Quaker, and would eventually found the Abolition Society of Richmond, and had sent Henry a book about the slave trade.
During his political career, Henry fought to end the importation of new enslaved people into Virginia beginning as early as 1772. He also supported legislation in 1782 that made it legal for the first time for Virginia slaveholders to free their enslaved workers. This granted slaveholders limited manumission. Henry had hoped that in allowing masters to free their enslaved people, and in ending importation, that the institution would eventually wither and die on its own in the following generation—another hope he expresses in the letter to Robert Pleasants.
Henry fell short of the aspirations he names in this letter regarding the end of the slave trade and his aversion to it. There are few contradictions in American history like the existence of slavery during the founding of a new nation based on the ideals of Liberty—and as the mouthpiece for those ideals, it is easy to judge that contradiction, specifically in Henry, harshly. What is interesting in this letter to modern eyes is Henry’s full acknowledgment of that contradiction. He makes no pretense of justifying the practice, by himself or the nation, nor does he try to dismiss how it is at odds with the other values he held so dear.
In that honest objectivity toward himself and the Founders, this letter remains as a testament to his conscience, his character, and his hope for the nation—hopes that, although unseen by himself or his contemporaries, would one day be realized by later generations.
DEAR SIR: I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that the professors of Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softening the human heart, and in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages. Times, that seem to have pretensions to boast of improvements in the arts and sciences, and refined morality, have brought into general use, and guarded by many laws, a species of violence and tyranny, which our rude and more barbarous, but more honest ancestors detested.
Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the rights of humanity are stated and understood with precision, in a country, above all others, fond of liberty, that in such an age, and in such a country, we find men professing a religion the most humane, mild, gentle, and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the bible, and destructive to morality? Every thinking, honest man rejects it in speculation, how few in practice from conscientious motives!
Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, and cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them.
I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence of slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity. It is the furthest advance we can make toward justice. It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.
I know not when to stop. I could say many things on the subject, a serious view of which gives a gloomy perspective to future times.
Patrick Henry, 1773
Historic Building Interpretation
Red Hill during Henry’s life was a modest set of buildings making up the living quarters for the family and workers living on the grounds.
After Henry’s death, his original house underwent a series of remodels and additions by those who inherited the property. Henry’s son John expanded to create more space for his large family. Then in 1912 Lucy Harrison greatly enlarged what was there into a spacious, 18-room mansion. That remodel was undertaken by a prominent architect from Philadelphia, Mr. Charles Barton Keen, and his young assistant Stanhope Johnson. The work required that Mr. Johnson make detailed sketches of the original Henry home and its adjoining kitchen with specifications for materials. It was these sketches to which the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation returned when they acquired the property and undertook the project to reconstruct the house in the original style.
Under the supervision of Stanhope Johnson, who by then was a well-known architect in his own right, the work of restoring the house and kitchen was completed in 1956 and dedicated in 1957. In 1960, work continued in an effort to restore the law office and other buildings to the way they would have looked in Henry’s day.
Today, docents interpret the buildings and grounds as close as they are able to show how they would have functioned during Patrick Henry’s lifetime. Our historians have pieced together information from different sources—including the Stanhope Johnson sketches and estate inventory taken following Henry’s death in 1799—to determine how the different buildings were utilized by the family.
The rooms in each building are staged taking into account that in a colonial household, every space would have been used for multiple purposes. For example, Henry’s law office, where he did his writing and work during the day, likely doubled as overflow sleeping space for the older boys or guests at night. The main room of the home would have served as space for entertaining visitors during the day, and then been used for sleeping space for the family at night.
If you are interested in how different buildings would have been used, ask your docent on your next trip to Red Hill. They will be happy to explain why things are staged as they are, and how else the spaces might have been used back in colonial times!