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21 Feb 2015

Charlottesville, VA, Keeper of the Legacy (part one)

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February 21, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Monticello

By Renée S. Gordon

“On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.” 

–Thomas Jefferson

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area begins at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia and winds 180-miles north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The route encompasses sites pertinent to all wars on United States soil, nine presidential homes and numerous locations that interpret the African American experience. An amazing amount of America’s story occurred in Virginia and Charlottesville has more than its share of that tale to tell.

Charlottesville is situated in the Piedmont Region, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The earliest documented settlement was an Indian village, Monasukapanough, near the Rivanna River. Settlers soon discovered an Indian path that allowed them to travel from Richmond to the West through Wood’s Gap, a mountain pass. By the beginning of the 18th-century the road was well used and referred to as Three Notch’d Road because travelers cut three notches in the trees that lined the route as directional signals.

Nicholas Meriwether and Abraham Lewis obtained deeds in 1735 for land in the region and two years later William Taylor received a deed for what is now Charlottesville. In 1762, Charlottesville was established as a 50-acre planned, 28-square, village with two acres designated for a public square and Three Notch’d Road as the main thoroughfare. Land was divided into 2.5 lots per square and in 1763 the first 14 lots were sold to seven purchasers. It was named after the wife of King George III, Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

The town grew slowly because of a lack of transportation and in 1779, when the area was used to billet British and Hessian soldiers there were only 12 residences. Eleven of the houses are gone but the Butler-Norris House, 410 E. Jefferson St., remains.

A 36-year old Thomas Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779. In May of 1781, aware that Gen. Charles Cornwallis was in route to capture Gov. Jefferson and Patrick Henry, the Virginia General Assembly abandoned Richmond for Charlottesville. On June 3, 1781, Cornwallis dispatched Gen. Tarleton and more than 200 troops to Charlottesville to capture the fugitives. Jack Jouett rode 45-miles, arriving on the 4th, to warn them. When Tarleton arrived and learned of their escape, he torched the courthouse. Jouette was honored as a hero and a marker was erected in 1998.

The Federal Albemarle County Courthouse was constructed in 1803 with a Roman Revival addition in 1859 and a later addition in 1865. The two-story brick wing in the rear is part of the original structure. It was used as a “common temple” in the 1820s and Jefferson. Madison and Monroe all attended services there. Four denominations used the church for services on a rotating basis, one Sunday each month. The Albemarle Courthouse District consists of 22 buildings.

Thomas Jefferson was born on Shadwell Plantation, near Charlottesville in 1743, the third of 10 children. Jefferson was educated in local private schools and by private tutors until he left home for the College of William and Mary in 1760. Jefferson “read law” under one of the most noted colonial lawyers, John Wythe, for five years and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. In 1772, he wed one of the wealthiest women in the state, Martha Skelton, and they had six children. Only two survived to adulthood.

Jefferson took up the cause of independence from Britain with relish and his 1774 work, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” drew attention to his erudition, eloquence and ability to express broad concepts tersely on paper. In 1775, he attended the Second Continental Congress and a year later he was part of a five-man committee tasked with writing a Declaration of Independence. He was selected to write the initial draft. Over 17 days he completed the first draft at the Graff House on Market Street in Philadelphia. The document was edited and several of his ideas were removed. The excised clause of most significance is what is today known as the “anti-slavery” clause.

In 1800, Jefferson was elected the third President of the United States after a varied history of political positions including Vice President and Minister to France. After serving two terms, he retired from public life in 1809. He died on July 4, 1826.

Education was always important to Jefferson. He was a prolific letter writer, spoke five languages, and founded the first nonsectarian university in the nation in 1819. He believed that a lack of education was antithetical to sustaining good government and personal freedom. He was instrumental in the creation of all aspects of his “academic village.” He designed the campus, selected the faculty, planned the curriculum and chose books for the library, making the University of Virginia the first university to offer electives. UVA opened for classes in 1825 with a total of 68 students.

His campus design served as a template for many subsequent colleges and universities. Jefferson visually expresses his overarching philosophy through the universities architectural plan. While the chosen site is typical of the United States Piedmont Region, with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the use of European architectural styles reflects both his studies and his belief in the need to fuse a classical education with American concepts.

A terraced lawn is the centerpiece of the original campus, flanked by rows of buildings on either side that include 54 lawn rooms and two-story pavilions. Students were housed in the lawn rooms while teachers lived on the second level of the pavilions and taught classes on the ground level. The Ranges were located behind the East and West Gardens. Originally these buildings were dining halls where a different language was spoken at each table.

Jefferson’s crowning achievement was the library housed in the villages’ most iconic structure, The Rotunda. It was patterned after the Roman Pantheon and is one-half the size, 77-feet in both height and diameter. The three-story building was designed with two oval rooms on each of the first two floors and a domed third floor room that housed the library. After an 1895 fire, Stanford White was hired to remake the interior. In the 1970s the interior was restored to its original Jeffersonian appearance.

Edgar Allan Poe enrolled in UVA in February 1826 and was housed in the West Range Room # 13. He was expelled in December 1827 for failure to pay his gambling debts. His room is furnished with period furniture and Poe’s childhood bed, a donation from the Allan home in Richmond. The room has been restored several times and remains a draw for fans of the poet. The room can be visited for free and there is a taped narration.

Jefferson created Monticello, one of the most visited historic homes in the nation, over 50 percent of his life, on land he inherited at the age of 14 when his father died. He began construction at the age of 26. The house was actually constructed twice because after Jefferson’s five years in France. He tore parts of the mansion down and redesigned it. The existing residence, as seen on the back of the nickel, is a three-story Palladian-style structure with French interior, 13 skylights and the first dome on a private home in the nation. There are 21 rooms in the mansion and 23 below it.

The general tour includes eleven downstairs rooms and begins in the two-story entrance hall. All items in cases are original. Objects from the expedition of Lewis and Clark, Indian artifacts from 40 tribes, mastodon bones, and the working Great Clock designed by Jefferson adorn the room. Originally, the clock sounded the hour by means of a Chinese gong that could be heard by the field slaves as far as three miles away. The clock, designed for another house was to long for the entryway so Jefferson had a hole cut so that the weights could descend into the cellar. The clock has two faces, four hands and has the seven days of the week on it.

Jefferson’s bedroom is a favorite of visitors. He designed it so that his bed is in an alcove in the center of the room. If Jefferson got out of bed on one side he was in his dressing room, and if he got out on the other side he was in his study. His Book room containing 6,700 volumes was a short distance away.

On display is a portrait that King Louis XVI gave to Jefferson with a jeweled frame. Jefferson sold the jewels to pay for shipping the furnishings he purchased in France back to America.

The dependencies, service rooms, are hidden by the hillside and connected to the cellar by a covered passageway. The roof of the two pavilions functioned as terraces on the level of the first floor of the house.  A self-guided tour, complete with information plaques and interpretive displays, walks visitors through the areas where the day-to-day work was performed, the icehouse, stables, kitchen, cook’s room, wine cellar and quarters for domestic slaves. The kitchen is exceptional for its time. The “stew” stove is a showpiece with eight burners that allowed complete control of the heat so important in the French-style cooking he loved.     

Mulberry Row, named after the trees that grew there, consisted of more than 20 structures. Here slaves, indentures and free artisans and skilled workers both black and white lived and worked there.

On the southeast slope of the grounds is Jefferson’s Vegetable Garden. He grew food for the plantation and experimented on more than 330 varieties of 99 species of vegetables. In 1808, Jefferson designed 20 oval island flowerbeds at the four corners of the mansion.

Jefferson died there on July 4, 1809. He is interred in the family cemetery in a grave marked with an obelisk designed by Jefferson. On it he lists the three achievements of which he was most proud, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” He does not mention the presidency.

Monticello, or “little hill,” is open daily and visitors should begin in the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center with a 15-minute orientation film. The Robert and Clarice Smith Gallery houses several state-of-the-art exhibits. Visitors can see photographs of the enslaved workers and learn about their roles and station on the plantation. A highlight of the artifacts on display is a bell, bequeathed to Sally Hemings after the death of Jefferson’s wife, Sally’s half-sister.

Shuttles leave from the center every five minutes and make regular stops at the house and Jefferson’s gravesite.  Several tours are offered with emphasis on various aspects of the plantation including the “Slavery at Monticello” and Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello” tours.” Monticello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

DNA tests in 1998 proved that Sally Heming’s children had a genetic link to the Jeffersons. Additional scientific and statistical research and oral history has led to a general consensus that Jefferson fathered all four of Sally’s children. Jefferson, at best appears ambivalent on the subject of slavery.

In his lifetime he owned more than 600 slaves, most inherited, with only 20 purchased by him. He sold more than 100, usually for financial reasons, or by the request of the enslaved and transferred ownership as gifts of 85. While living he freed only two men, five were freed by his will and three others, all Sally’s children, were allowed to self-emancipate without pursuit. It is interesting to note that all the slaves freed were family members. One, Harriet Hemings, was provided train fare to Philadelphia.

Members of the Hemings family held a special position. They made up the entire household staff. In 1796, a visitor, Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, remarked that the slaves he observed at Monticello were “remarkably light-skinned.”

William Michie was recalled from Valley Forge in 1777 due to the death of his father. William’s inheritance included a plot of land in the Blue Ridge foothills, a perfect place to establish a tavern. The two-story building included an upstairs Assembly Room that was used as a public space. The tavern operated until the mid-1800s and became a residence. In 1927 it was purchased by Mrs. Henderson to house her antique collection. She quickly decided to move the building to benefit from the tourists visiting Monticello. It was taken apart and moved 17 miles to its current location at the foot of Carter’s Mountain. It opened as a museum in 1928.

Michie Tavern offers 18th-century cuisine, themed shops and self-guided tours of the historic section of the tavern.  Highlights of the tour are the Gentlemen’s Parlor, Assembly Room and public and private accommodations. On display in each area are artifacts from the late 1700s. This is a great place to dine after a visit to Monticello.

Jefferson wished to establish a community of like-minded individuals and he was joined in Charlottesville by two other presidents. We will explore their homes in part two. Additional information on the places in the article and planning a trip to Charlottesville are available online.


The National Constitution Center debuted “Creating Camelot,” an exhibition of 70 Kennedy family photographs, some that have never been seen before. This is just one of the NCC’s outstanding exhibits commemorating the legacy of the 13th Amendment.

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