You are here

Route to Washington, D.C.

On his many journeys from Monticello to Washington, D.C. and back, Thomas Jefferson usually traveled the same route, although he did not always patronize the same taverns and ordinaries along the way. The journey usually took four days and three nights.


Monticello to Washington

Going northward from Charlottesville, travelers normally followed the "Fredericksburg Great Road." The first stop on the road was Nathaniel Gordon's tavern in Gordonsville, which Jefferson described simply as "Gordon's." In an 1802 letter to Martha Jefferson, Jefferson noted that Gordon's was "a good tavern."[1] Gordon had purchased a plantation of 1350 acres in 1787 and in 1794 he applied for a tavern license. His tavern stood at the junction of the Fredericksburg and Richmond Roads. Of frame construction, it comprised one and a half stories until 1802 when Gordon added a two-story frame residence with a large brick chimney[2]

The second major stop on Jefferson's itinerary to Washington was Orange Courthouse, which was located approximately ten miles from Gordonsville. He stayed either at Montpelier, James Madison's plantation, or at a tavern. Jefferson described the tavern here as "good" in his letter to his daughter.[3] It was conducted by Paul Verdier and was the site for a celebration staged in Lafayette's honor by James Madison and local dignitaries in 1824.[4] Jefferson warned his daughter that upon leaving Orange she should "be very attentive to the roads, as they begin to be difficult to find."[5] After crossing the Rapid River he followed what had once been a Susquehannock Indian trail. It extended from the Germanna ford of the Rapidan to the Rappahannock, through Fauquier County to Bull Run, and from there to the Potomac.[6]

Jefferson's third major stop was eleven miles beyond the Rapidan. This was the town of Stevensburg, in Culpeper County. The local tavern was conducted by Reuben Zimmerman, who was a substantial landholder.[7] In his 1802 letter, Jefferson described it to his daughter as "an indifferent house," however; and he advised her to plan to bring something to eat rather than to stop there for a meal.[8]

The next major stop was John Strode's house, which was located in Culpeper County approximately five miles beyond Stevensburg. Jefferson often stopped there for the night while journeying to Washington, and he and Strode were on such friendly terms that they corresponded intermittently. Located "2 or 300 yard further [sic] on the road," as Jefferson stated to his daughter, was Herin's where he lodged his servants and maintained his horses for the night.[9] This establishment was operated by Isaac Herin who leased approximately 134 acres from Strode at an annual fee of £3-6-8.[10] On some of his later trips, Jefferson traveled to the west of Strode's and stopped at Culpeper Courthouse. Benjamin Shackelford's ordinary was located in this town which was also known as Fairfax. On 15 June 1805, the town's trustees sold two town lots to him at auction for $85. The lots comprised 1/2 acre each. One was a "front lot on main street," while the other was "a back lot adjoining it."[11] After passing through either Strode's or Culpeper Courthouse, Jefferson crossed the Rappahannock River. He usually traversed the river's North fork which was called Hedgman's River after Nathaniel Hedgman who patented land in this area in 1715. The specific crossing was called Norman's Ford after Isaac Norman, who took up a grant there in 1726. He later sold his rights to Charles Carter of Cleve who established a ferry service at the ford in 1736.[12]

Jefferson's next major stop was Elk Run Church which lay approximately thirteen miles Northeast of Strode's. The ordinary there was conducted by a Mr. Bronough and was mentioned by Jefferson in his June 3, 1802 letter to his daughter. Jefferson next crossed into Prince William County and usually stopped at Brown's ordinary which was located approximately twenty-one miles from Elk Run Church. Jefferson wrote that "here you will have to dine & lodge."[13] Occasionally, Jefferson journeyed northward to Red House, known presently as Haymarket, which was also located in Prince William County.[14]

From either of these points in Prince William County Jefferson then usually proceeded into Fairfax County and often stopped at Centreville.[15] The ordinary there was called Mitchell's and was probably conducted by Adam Mitchell.[16] After passing through Centreville, Jefferson often stopped at Fairfax Courthouse, which was located approximately eighteen miles from Brown's tavern. During Jefferson's first term in office, the ordinary there was probably conducted by George Newman[17] In later years a tavern was operated in this vicinity by James Songster, and Jefferson stopped there often. Also located in Fairfax County, eight miles beyond the Courthouse, was Wren's ordinary. Jefferson described it to his daughter as "a very decent house and respectable people."[18] It was conducted by Col. James Wren who also paid the requisite fee for a merchant's license in 1807.[19] From here Jefferson usually proceeded to the ferry at Georgetown, a distance of six miles.

Washington to Monticello

Jefferson made a major variation in this itinerary in July 1802 when he passed westward through Loudoun County on his way to Monticello from Washington. He crossed the Potomac at Noland's Ferry, near Great Falls. Established in the mid-eighteenth century, Noland's attracted such a stream of travelers that it supported a small village, which included a country store and a blacksmith's shop.[20] Jefferson then crossed Goose Creek, which flows four miles East of Leesburg[21] after stopping at an ordinary which was probably conducted by William Williams.[22] He made another stop in Loudoun County at an ordinary conducted by Israel Lacey. Lacey also paid the requisite fee for a merchant's license in 1802.[23] Jefferson then journeyed southward into Fauquier County. He stopped at ordinaries run by Elizabeth Wycoff and Ambrose Barnett, one of which was probably located in present-day Warrenton, before crossing the Rappahannock and proceeding to John Strode's house in Culpeper County.[24]

In a letter to William Short in April 1813, Jefferson described the route from Washington to Monticello (in the context of an upcoming visit by the Abbé Correia da Serra):

If he comes in the stage, his rout is of course fixed; but if otherwise, the road from Washington by Fauquier court House, Culpeper C.H. and Orange C.H. at this season of the year is far the driest and least frequented & cut by waggons.[25]

Primary Source References

1801 April 30. (Jefferson to James Madison). "I hasten the return of the bearer that he may meet you at Brown's and convey you information as to the road. From Songster's I tried the road by Ravensworth...There are about 2 miles of it which I think cannot be passed by your carriage without oversetting; and consulting with Colo. Wren who knows both roads, he says there is no comparison; that you must absolutely come by Fairfax courthouse, all that road being practicable till you come to Little lane, which you have to encounter whatever way you come. I passed it yesterday, a waggon being then stuck fast in it, nor di I suppose any fourwheeled carriage could then have got through the spot where the waggon was without stalling. But two days of wind and sun will by tomorrow make immense odds in it; so that I hope you will be able to pass it...I spoke 9to Gaines and Brawner] of the difficulty of your getting up the Bull run hill. They agreed together to take each a horse and draw your carriage up. Accept their offer by all means: as however steady your horses, they will be in the utmost peril of baulking; and should they once begin there are other bad hills sufficient to make them give you a great deal of vexation. The bull run hill is really the worst I ever saw on a public road. Still let nothing tempt you to go by Centerville as on that rout the whole is cut by waggons into Mudholes. From Brown's to Fairfax court house you have 14. miles of very firm road, only hilly in the beginning. You had better start as soon as you can see to drive, breakfast at Colo. Wren's, and come on here to dinner."[26]

1801 November 4. (Jefferson to Henry Rose). "Altho' I have long been sensible how advantageous and desireable for the public would be a direct road Southwardly through Virginia, and that the only part where there is now a difficulty is that portion of it over which we passed yesterday yet I would not wish it to be supposed that I mean to take any part personally in obtaining it, much less to institute measures for forcing it. I have certainly no idea of disturbing the quiet of any one on the subject of roads. I shall only for myself and my family ask from the Mr. Fitzhugh's the indulgence which I observe they extend to others generally, of passing three or four times a year along their private road, leaving gates and fences exactly open or shut as we find them."[27]

1802 June 3. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I arrived here on Sunday breakfast without having experienced any accident on the road other than being twice taken in soaking rains: but my waterproof coat was a perfect protection...I will send John with them [the horses] as the driver will not be acquainted with the road, and it is a difficult one to find. It is generally a good and a safe one expect the last day's journey which is very hilly, and will require you to get out of the carriage in several places on the Alexandria road between Fairfax court house and Colo. Wren's...Gordon's...a good tavern, but cold victuals on the road will be better than any thing which any of the country taverns will give you...on leaving Orange courthouse be very attentive to the roads, as they begin to be difficult to find...Zimmerman's [tavern] is an indifferent house...Brown's tavern is a poor house but obliging people...Wren's tavern a very decent house and respectable people."[28]

1802 October 7. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I arrived here [Washington] on the fourth day of our journey without accident. Travelling early one or two mornings through fog brought on some degree of indisposition, which I felt strongly on the day and day after my arrival, but it is wearing off slowly. It has been chiefly an excessive soreness all over and a deafness and ringing in the head...I must press on you to let me send horsed to meet you, as I am convinced that no horses after the three first days journey, can encounter the 4th. which is hilly beyond any thing you have ever seen below the mountains."[29]

1803 April 23. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "It is now time for you to let me know when you expect to be able to set out for Washington, and whether your own carriage can bring you half way. I think my Chickasaws, if drove moderately, will bring you well that far. Mr. Lilly knows you will want them, and can add a fourth. I think that by changing horses half way, you will come with more comfort."[30]

1803 October 9. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I left at Orange C.H. one of my Turkish pistols, in it's holster, locked. I shall be glad if either yourself or Mr. Eppes can let a servant take it on to this place [Washington]."[31]

1804 May 14. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I arrived here last night after the most fatiguing journey I have experienced for a great many hears. I got well enough to Orange C.H. the first day. The 2d. there was a constant heavy drizzle through the whole day sufficient to soak my outer great coat twice, and the roads very dirty and in places deep. The third the roads became as deep as at any season, and as laborious to the horse. Castor got into ill temper and refused to draw, and we had a vast deal of trouble and fatigue with him and obliged to give him up at last. I was from day light to sunset getting from Fauquier C.H. to Colo. Wren's where I left John with the carriage, mounted my horse and arrived here at 9. oclock in the night more sore and fatigued than I ever remember to have been with a journey. With the circuitous route I was obliged to take it made about 55. miles of as deep and laborious road as could be travelled. A night's sleep has little rested me, but I am yet extremely the worse for my labour. I hope a day or two will entirely relieve me, certainly I shall never again so far forget my age as to undertake such another day of fatigue."[32]

1804 October 7. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I arrived here [Washington] this day week, having travelled through the rain of that day rather than stay in disagreeable quarters. I experienced no inconvenience from it."[33]

1805 October 13. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I performed my journey to this place [Washington] without any accident or disagreeable circumstance except travelling half a day in a pretty steady rain, which I thought preferable to staying at Brown's. I experienced no inconvenience from it."[34]

1806 June 16. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I arrived here [Washington] breakfast, on the Saturday morning before the last, without accident, and without wetting from the various showers which fell."[35]

1807 May 24. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I arrived here [Washington] this day sennight without any accident other than travelling on the second day through light drizzle and occasionally small showers, not sufficient to wet me. I found the road good enough till I got into the foggy country near Ewell's mill where it was very bad."[36]

1807 October 12. [[Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "My journey to this place [Washington] was not as free from accident as usual. I was near losing Castor in the Rapidan, by his lying down in the river, where waste deep, and being so embarrassed by the shafts of the carriage and harness that he was nearly drowned before the servants, jumping into the water, could lift his head out and cut him loose from the carriage. This was followed by the loss of my travelling money, I imagine as happened on the Sopha in the morning I left Monticello, when it was given me again by one of the children. Two days after my arrival here I was taken with the Influenza, but it was very slight, without either fever or pain and is now nearly passed off."[37]

1808 June 4. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "I am completely satisfied with my horse from Major Eggleston. A better one in harness I never drove. He brought me in my single phaeton from Washington, without ever appearing fatigued, altho the roads were bad, and the weather rainy. He is fine tempered and manageable, th' high spirited."[38]

1808 June 21. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "We got in good time to dinner at Montpelier the day I left you, and the next two days being cool, we reached this place [Washington] a little in the night, having come a little over 100. miles in the two days without inconvenience to ourselves or horses."[39]

1808 September 30. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "We were delayed here [Montpelier] by the rain yesterday, but start this morning...My new horse is perfectly gentle, but so fractious and ill-tempered in difficult roads that I fear he will not answer."[40]


  1. Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 3, 1802. In Family Letters, 227.
  2. William H. Thomas, Gordonsville, Virginia: Historic Crossroads Town, (Verona VA: McClure Press, 1971,) 3-5.
  3. Family Letters, 227.
  4. William H.B. Thomas, Orange, Virginia: Story of a Courthouse Town, (Verona, VA: McClure Press, 1972), 18-19.
  5. Family Letters, 227.
  6. H.C. Groome, Fauquier During the Proprietorship: A Chronicle of the Colonization and Organization of the Northern Neck, (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1927), 85.
  7. Culpeper County Deed Book, M:428, p:137, R:56
  8. Family Letters, 227.
  9. Ibid, 228.
  10. Culpeper County Deed Book, 0:99
  11. Culpeper County Deed Book, AA:30
  12. Groome, Fauquier, 85, 200.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Fairfax Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William, (Chesapeake Book Company, 1964), 1:457.
  15. This is the modern spelling of the town; Jefferson spelled it "Centerville."
  16. Fairfax County Personal Property Lists, 1803.
  17. Ibid, 1800.
  18. Family Letters, 228.
  19. Fairfax County Personal Property Lists, 1807.
  20. Harrison Williams, Legends of Loudoun, (Garrett and Massie, 1938,) 62, 120-121.
  21. James W. Head, History and Comprehensive Description of Leesburg, Virginia, 7.
  23. Loudoun County Personal Property Lists, 1802.
  24. Loudoun County Personal Property Lists, 1800, 1802.
  25. Fauquier County Personal Property Lists, 1800.
  26. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 25 April 1813. Recipient copy at College of William and Mary.
  27. The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986), 1:126-127.
  28. College of William and Mary.
  29. Family Letters, 226-227.
  30. Ibid, 236.
  31. Ibid, 244.
  32. Library of Congress.
  33. Family Letters, 259-260.
  34. Ibid, 262.
  35. Ibid, 279.
  36. Ibid, 284.
  37. Massachusetts Historical Society.
  38. Family Letters, 311.
  39. University of Virginia.
  40. Family Letters, 344.
  41. ibid, 350.


Login or register to participate in our online community.