Letter: A Difficult Trip to Natural Bridge
Thomas Jefferson often had little to say about personal matters, even in letters home. As a result, correspondence exchanged by other members of his family can provide a rich supplement to his own papers and is now being made accessible to the public by the Retirement Series as part of its online Digital Archive. In describing the trip he made to Natural Bridge with his granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia, Jefferson's only comment to his daughter Martha in a letter dated 18 August 1817 was that "Ellen writes to you and of course will give the news of this place if she can muster up any. The history of our expedition to the Natural bridge she will write you of course." In the letter below to her sister Virginia, Cornelia provides a far more complete and colorful description of the journey, which "was attended with disasters & accidents from the time we set off untill we return'd again." In a subsequent letter of 30 August also available in the Digital Archive, Cornelia eloquently condemned the filthy accommodations they endured at Greenlee's Tavern, described the beauties of the Natural Bridge, and wrote of Jefferson's plans for improving his property there.
Jefferson first saw the Natural Bridge in 1767 and acquired it seven years later as part of a 157-acre tract. Early in his retirement he considered selling the property, which is located in southwest Virginia in Rockbridge County, approximately 20 miles from his Poplar Forest retreat and about 120 miles from Monticello. Recognizing the possession of this geological marvel as a public trust, however, Jefferson retained ownership until his death (MB, 1:38; Notes, ed. Peden, 24-5; TJ to William Caruthers, 7 Sept. 1809, 9 Oct. 1810, 15 Mar. 1815). For a map showing the locations, click here; for an 1808 engraving of Natural Bridge by J. C. Stadler, click here.
My Dear Virginia
We are return'd from the natural bridge more anxious to see it again than we were at first, because in the first place it far surpass'd our expectations, & in the second we saw it under many disadvantages, which will be removed when we go again, & grandpapa has promis'd that we shall; our trip was attended with disasters & accidents from the time we set off untill we return'd again, the morning we were to go when we got up we found it was a damp cloudy day, but Grandpapa decided at breakfast that it would not rain & sister Ellen and myself rejoic'd that the sun did not shine & that we should have a cool day for our journey we set off accordingly after Gil & Israel had made us wait two hours but we had not proceeded many miles before it clear'd up the sun shone out & we had one of the hottest most disagreable days for traveling that could be, then came our first misfortune in going over a high bridge one of the wheel horses broke through & sank up in the nearly half way in the hole we all got out as quick as we could & found that the bridge was entirely gone to decay & not only several of the logs but one of the sleepers had broken through down & that we had been in great danger of going down carriage & horses & all, the horses were all loosened & poor Bremo pull'd out by main strength, for he seem'd so overcome with fright that he was incapable assisting himself & lay quite passive & let them do what they would with him, he was hurt in no other way than being much skin'd & bruis'd, but as it was we were oblig'd now to walk up a long tedious red hill & then pursued our journey in the carriage without any other accident, over abominable roads; about one o clock we came to a very wild looking part of the country just at the foot of the rigge ridge here we met a man with a gun on his shoulder and a squirrel which he had just kill'd, [. . .] grandpapa ask'd him some questions and found out he was the man at whose house we were to leave the carriage and that we were a very little distance from it, it was a log house in the woods, which were clear'd away [. . .] immediately around it, a large family liv'd in it tho it had but one room, these people were the first of that half civiliz'd race who live beyond the ridge that we had seen. the man who before had not deign'd to take any notice of us & not even to go out of the road that we might pass, as soon as he heard where we were going & what we wanted, was very polite, promis'd to take care of the carriage & to have the horses fed imediately, for he was one of those who tho they do not keep a tavern will accomodate you with what ever they can & take pay for it, while the horses were eating he ask'd us in to his house, where were his wife two old men, one his father, & a large family of children all the young ones being in their shifts & shirts; none of the men wore coats tho' they none of them apparently had been at work. [. . .] I do not think I saw more than one coat while we were gone & not more than two or three pair of shoes. the people in the house were as perfectly at their ease as if they had known us all their lives; the two old men enter'd into conversation with grandpapa at once, and one of them said he had been forty three years living there (within twelve miles of the bridge) & had never seen it; now he said he was too old to go being 84, he was the most unciviliz'd savage looking man of the three two tho they both were uncivilis'd, both in manners and apearance the other going with his hairy breast expos'd & both speaking of us and our family before our faces just as if we were had been absent. the oldest scarcely waited for grandpapa to go out, he before he wonder'd where that old genllman was going to & the other having great surprise answer'd it was Colonel Jefferson "then" said the first "I know where lives, he lives near parson Clay's in Bedford" but the other one said no, he did not live there he lived away down in Albemarle & only visited his place in Bedford call'd poplar Forest, sometimes, that he had possessions in both these counties, & that Randal used to have land in Bedford too. they said a good deal more about us [. . .] grandpapa & a great deal to us the first not even honouring us with the title of ladies, but calling us young women. how they knew so much about grandpapa I cant concieve for he never had seen either of them before. we left this place on horseback after having refresh'd ourselves with fresh ripe apples which they gave us & began to1 asend the mountain, we cross'd it at Petites gap which is near the place where James river passes the ridge, we rode three miles before we came to the top where we dined on cold bacon & chicken, & then descended three. three more we had to go before we got to the place where we spent that night & the succeeding, Greenlee's ferry. the mountain was the wildest most romantic looking place I ever saw the trees remarkably large & tall & no under-wood so that you could see for a great distance around you. I saw there oaks chesnuts & poplars, & spruce pine, whi which I never saw before it is a beautiful tree. I wish we had it at Monticello, & we found there a rasberry which is better even than the garden rasberry having a fine flavour & the seeds being so small that you scarcely percieve them, the bushes were quite full of fruit tho it was so late in the season, they are a bright scarlet & the bush has no thorns, the people in the neighbourhood call'd it the mountain rasberry, & grand papa remember'd that they had had them at Shadwell for many years under the name of the mountain strawberry, but they had never born there.
August 19 Grandpapa means to hurry Johny off so soon that I have not time to say any thing more of our trip to the Natural bridge particularly as I have written down three pages & have not got to the end of our first days journey, but if you are not tir'd already I will go on with our travels in the next letter, & will try to get a little better pen ink & paper that the reading them may not be such a task, at present I must answer the principle articles of your letter. I have not wanted Gonazolo but shall probably be ready for it by the time Johny comes again, I find [Perico?] much harder than it was at first. I do not come on very fast with any thing for I have not got over the fatigue of the journey traveling & am so drowsy & stupid that I can scarcely keep my eyes open, & when they are open it is with as much difficulty that I can understand what I am about as you must percieve from my letter. I wonder you do not persevere in attempting to draw human figures it is so much more agreable than flowers, since I have been here I have attempted several on Ariadne, which I spoilt after completing the figure by trying to draw the rocks & failing in the attempt, for landscapes are what I never could make any thing like in my life. I am now drawing a Ferdinand & Miranda but they both have a great deal of expression in their countenances & I have not succeeded very well in that either. you have not said a word of Aunt Randolph I suppose she has not arriv'd yet, tell Elizabeth I shall expect her certainly to render a faithful account of every thing she sees in her travels. Uncle & Mrs Eppes were not with us when we went to the natural bridge but we expect the former & Francis every day. Adieu My Dear Virginia I will write to [. . .] Mary & Harriet by the next trip of the cart if I get over my torpor, but I do not think I shall write another letter if I write it no better than this. Sister Ellen desires to be remembered to Aunt Marks & to Aunt Hackly & her family particularly to Cousin Jane, Also to Aunt Jane, I am delighted to hear she is recovering, give my love to all the above mention'd persons & kiss dear mama & my sweet little Tim for me once more adieu
Elizabeth I suppose will be at the springs when I write to the other girls.
RC (NcU: Southern Historical Collection, Nicholas Philip Trist Papers); one word illegible.
Posted July 2009. Reprinted from the online Digital Archive of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Charlottesville, Virginia.