John Tyler 10th President, 1841-1845

Birthplace, Greenway, Charles City, Virginia
John Tyler’s rise to the highest office in the nation signaled the last gasp of old Virginia aristocracy in the White House. Born at Greenway a few years after the American Revolution on March 29, 1790 to a family that traced its roots to the 1650s in the Old Dominion, he would be the last president of the 19th century raised there. The man to whom his fate would be tied, William Henry Harrison, was born in the same county; both their fathers served as governor of Virginia.

John and Mary Armistead Tyler raised each of their eight children to be part of the region’s elite gentry, and their boys received the best education available. The senior John Tyler, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, owned a tobacco plantation of over a thousand acres, tended by dozens of slaves. He also served as a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond. A fervent advocate of states’ rights that would preserve his power, he vigorously opposed the Constitution and the rights it might give to commoners.

When young John was seven, his mother died from a stroke. Tyler attended local schools, then at age twelve the preparatory branch of the nearby College of William and Mary. Three years later he entered the collegiate program of the prestigious college, graduating at age seventeen in 1807. The young man began studying law under his father and an attorney cousin, and gained admission to the Virginia bar in 1809. That year, John’s father became governor of Virginia. Father and son moved to the capital city of Richmond.

Home, Sherwood Forest, Charles City, Virginia
Sherwood Forest, contained in a 1616 land grant, was known originally as Smith’s Hundred. Sherwood Forest has the distinction of being owned by two US. Presidents; William Henry Harrison, 9th President, inherited the plantation in the late 18th century. The plantation had several other owners until President John Tyler purchased it and its 1600 acres in 1842. Since then, it has been continuously owned by his direct descendants. In the mid-1970s, the residence was restored by President Tyler’s grandson and his wife, the current owners.

The House, circa l730, is Virginia Tidewater in architectural design, and is the longest frame dwelling in America. It was expanded to its present length, 300 feet, by President Tyler in 1845, when he added the 68-foot ballroom designed for dancing the Virginia Reel. Sherwood Forest survived the Civil War in 1864 when Union soldiers damaged the house and its furnishings, as testified by marks on woodwork and doors, and scars on a French Empire table used by President Tyler in the White House. Also unique to the house is the legend of a ghost, known as the Gray Lady, who has been heard rocking in the Gray Room for more than 200 years.

The home contains furnishings, heirlooms, silver and paintings which belonged to President Tyler and his family. Greek Revival features, added by the President and his young bride, Julia Gardiner, are evidenced by lattice, columns, and pilasters on the porches while cornices, mantles and carved medallions grace the formal rooms of the house.

The Grounds comprise twenty-five acres of terraced gardens, serene woodlands, and lawn by the designs of mid-19th century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The formal garden was partially destroyed by Civil War troops and still contains the bird bath placed in the garden by Julia Gardiner Tyler. There are over eighty varieties of centuries old trees, including a gingko tree given to Tyler by Captain Matthew Perry when he returned from the Orient in the 1850s. The original 17th century tobacco barn, garden house, milk house, smoke house, law office and kitchen/laundry comprise one of the few complete plantation yards in America.

Gravesite, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia
Just hours after Polk’s inauguration in March of 1844, John and Julia Tyler were on their way home to Virginia. They retired to the former president’s plantation and the rapidly vanishing world of Old Dominion aristocracy. While money was often tight, they lived comfortably and the family grew larger.

In 1860, with the Civil War looming, Tyler tried in vain to avert the conflict by chairing a “Peace Convention” between representatives of both northern and southern states. Unfortunately, no agreement could be reached between Tyler and President-elect Abraham Lincoln, however, and the Richmond Convention collapsed in failure. Tyler then became a leading proponent of southern secession, and in late 1861 he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. Days before the first meeting, however, John Tyler died, denounced in the North as a traitor. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

According to a handout from the Library of Virginia “Hollywood Cemetery was formally dedicated June 25, 1849. Designed by architect and landscape designer John Notman, Hollywood was modeled after the rural cemeteries popular during the mid 19th century. In addition to providing a place for burials, these cemeteries were designed for the living to enjoy a natural, park-like setting. When James Monroe was reinterred there on July 5, 1858, the prestige of Hollywood was established. More than 18,000 Civil War soldiers and officers were buried there, solidifying Hollywood’s place of importance in the hearts of Virginians. Hollywood continues as an active cemetery, visited frequently by tourists and locals who come to visit ancestral and notable gravesites, to admire the extensive examples of mortuary art and decorative cast iron, and to enjoy the lovely grounds and picturesque views.”