Written by Patrick N. Washington
Last weekend, I drove down John Tyler Memorial Highway to visit the home of its namesake, the 10th president of the United States, John Tyler, Jr.
John Tyler, Jr., was a lifelong resident of Charles City County and was the son of John Tyler, Sr. (1747-1813). The elder John served as a circuit judge and as governor of Virginia from 1808 to 1811.
The younger John followed in his father’s footsteps pursuing a political career himself. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates, US Representative, Governor of Virginia, US Senator from Virginia, and vice-president of the United States before succeeding to the presidency after William Henry Harrison died in office. Although he was elected vice-president as a member of the Whig Party, Tyler as president broke away from the Whigs and left office in 1845. After the presidency, he purchased Walnut Grove Plantation and renamed it Sherwood Forest, where he would reside until his death in 1862. When he died, he was a member of the Confederate Congress.
Sherwood Forest is nestled in the woods on Route 5 and I have been driving down that road all my life never knowing that it was there. I definitely did not know that it was the home of our 10th president. Since Tyler is not one of our most famous presidents, there is no fanfare around Sherwood Forest. If you do not look out for the sign, you would definitely miss its entrance.
Today when I arrived, I pulled up in the parking lot and mine was the only car there. You see a fence outlining the property and right before it, there is a wooden post that describes Sherwood Forest Plantation and then there is a box in which you are asked to drop $10.00 for an admission fee.
I put my $10.00 in the box for admission and then opened the wooden gate. The very first thing that I noticed was a burial ground. Each of the graves had markers. Those graves were for the family pets of the Tyler family. Seeing the graves reminded me that domesticated animals (mainly dogs) have been man’s companions since the beginning of civilization.
After I passed the animal cemetery, I approached the dirt path which faced that led to the “Big House.” Suddenly, I got chills as I approached the large habitation of a former president.
However, it was even more surreal to me because the house and the property were magnificently preserved as if I was walking back in time. You could definitely tell that this was a plantation house.
The awesomeness of the moment conflicted with my realization that only a hundred sixty years ago, my ancestors would have been trying to leave this place. Also instead of me admiring the magnificence, they would have thought of it with fear and dread as their place of bondage.
However, that does not take away from the fact that I was enthralled by seeing the “Big House” and it was indeed beautiful. I could vividly picture a horse-driven carriage rolling up and taking the Tylers to and from town.
Not too far from the “Big House” was the house of the overseer. Right then, fear and dread came over me. Overseers were the people that disciplined the slaves. Some did that job mercilessly. Of course, I have no idea of how the person or persons that dwelt in that house treated the slaves on Sherwood Forest. Therefore, all I have is the stories about overseers that I have read in slave narratives.
The last thing I saw before I left was the plot that President Tyler had planned to be his burial spot. He died during the Civil War in 1862 as a member of the Confederate Congress. There was a marker stating that the Confederate government honored him with a burial at Hollywood Cemetary in Richmond.
As I left Sherwood Forest, I realized how far that our country has come since the day that Tyler died. Since that time, his plantation has been wondrously preserved and almost resembles what it was back when John Tyler walked the land himself. The property has been passed down through multiple generations of the Tyler family and they must be commended for that preservation because Sherwood Forest is like an oasis of time surrounded by a modern world.
Written by Patrick N. Washington