In 1783, Philadelphian Elizabeth House Trist left for Pittsburgh, beginning a journey that would take her down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers hoping -- after seven years of separation during the Revolutionary War -- to reunite with her husband in Natchez.
Trist's travel diary, created at the request of Thomas Jefferson, is the earliest known record of a Mississippi River expedition by a woman. A full 20 years before Lewis and Clark recorded their journey through the same waters, Trist filled her journal with natural history observations not only of the landscape, geography, weather, plants, and animals she encountered but with vivid descriptions of the people she met along the way. Trist's eventful journey was full of hardships and adventures -- including waist-high snow, muddy and icy roads, cramped living conditions, treacherous waters, a whirlpool, mosquitos, and a possible encounter with an alligator.
In this episode of In the Course of Human Events, Monticello Guides Lou Hatch, David Thorson, and Holly Haliniewski recount Trist's travels, why Jefferson considered her “amongst my best friends,” and share details of her adventures and the series of tragic deaths that led her to life as one of Monticello's long-term guests.
David Thorson: It's her granddaughter who describes Eliza House Trist, and says, "a woman of much ability."
Holly Haliniewski: Hmm. That's an understatement.
Lou Hatch: Hi, my name is Lou Hatch. I'm a guide at Monticello.
Holly Haliniewski: My name is Holly Haliniewski.
David Thorson: I'm David Thorson and this is "In the Course of Human Events."
Who was Eliza Trist?
Lou Hatch: Over the years, I've always wondered about who was living in the house with Thomas Jefferson during his retirement. We know that up to 24 people were there. Who the heck were they all? Well, one long-term guest was Elizabeth House Trist, known as Eliza to her friends. So, how did she come to live here off and on for nearly two decades?
This is the story of a plucky, determined, white, middle-class woman who found herself widowed with a child to raise, like many women of her day. She carved out a place for herself in Thomas Jefferson's home through entrepreneurship, perseverance, and, most definitely, her bold use of connections.
Thomas Jefferson first met Eliza Trist in 1782, while he was staying at her mother's boarding house in Philadelphia. Eliza had a young son about three years younger than Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha. Eliza had not seen her husband, Nicholas Trist, since their son was born seven years before. He was in Mississippi, trying to establish a property he'd purchased on the Mississippi River near Natchez. That essentially made Eliza a single parent, while Thomas Jefferson had just become one himself, and Thomas sought child-rearing advice from her during their budding friendship.
David Thorson: Hey Holly, I find it interesting, those challenges of being a single parent, I guess, are an awful lot like they are today.
Holly Haliniewski: Absolutely. And it's interesting to consider Thomas Jefferson as a single parent, particularly with all the types of associations made with single parenthood, right? All of the financial responsibility, emotional responsibility, and the literal day-to-day care and feeding of a child. But most of those types of responsibilities didn't actually apply to him. Enslaved people provided for all the needs of Jefferson's family. And after he was widowed, his own family members, they became caretakers of his children in his absences. Jefferson's daughters, they were left for years in the care of their Aunt and Uncle Eppes when Jefferson went to Paris as the American ambassador.
David Thorson: Yeah, the contrast between Eliza House Trist's situation and Jefferson's situation is what really strikes me, because you know, she's genuinely on her own. She doesn't have an entire enslaved community to see to her every need.
Journey to Pittsburgh
Lou Hatch: Eliza finally gave up on waiting for her husband to return to Philadelphia and decided to go to him. He asked her to bring several items for himself, and quote, "a looking glass to dress your hair, as I have but a pail of water to shave by." She left just days before Christmas on December 21st, 1783, commencing a sometimes harrowing six-month journey. She was traveling with her niece, Polly, and for the first part of her journey, her husband's good friend, Alexander Fowler. She left her son with her mother.
David Thorson: Of course, Nicholas Trist is down there in Natchez, and he's been trying to carve out his stake, his claim to the lands down there. So, you know, you wonder why doesn't he go up to Philadelphia? And it's really because he doesn't want to lose his land or have the possibility that he could come back and find that somebody else had jumped his claim.
When Eliza writes Thomas Jefferson in December of 1783 that she's going to make this journey, Jefferson immediately writes her back and says, don't do anything in the winter time, you got to wait until spring. But she doesn't get the letter from Jefferson until long after she started her journey in the depths of winter.
Holly Haliniewski: And I think she found out that Thomas Jefferson was right, but she found out the hard way, particularly on her journey to Pittsburgh.
Lou Hatch: It took 17 days to get to Pittsburgh, through snow up to the horses' bellies. The footing was so treacherous her horse fell at least twice, though she managed to stay on. She believed that she would have perished if she had had to get off and walk on the narrow path in the deep snow. She recalled, quote, "on one side of me was a thicket and on the other, a precipice."
Along much of the journey, they spent the night in shared single-room spaces, “some taverns, some simply homes. In one instance, she shared a room with 10 other people, including seven male travelers. She did write about a very pleasant stay at a log hut with no floor or windows, yet there was a partition along the bed for privacy, quote, "The neatness of the place and the attention to the man made us happy as if we had been in a palace."
Her worst stay was actually a two-room house owned by a magistrate. The family occupied one room, while the other, which also served as hall, kitchen, and cellar, had two dirty beds. Quote, "The one occupied by Polly and myself was up in a dark corner, surrounded by pickling tubs, which did not yield the most agreeable smell in the world." Two male travelers slept in the other bed, and on the floor was a hog driver, his son and daughter, an enslaved woman, and two to three children. The bedding was so dirty Eliza kept her clothes on during the night. She wrote, quote, "neither could I sleep for the crying of the children and the novelty of the situation."
David Thorson: Holly, in Eliza Trist's diary, she talks about having to share quarters with strange men, with other women. Do you think she was scandalized by that?
Holly Haliniewski: The notion of privacy, as we experience it and even expect it today, it really does not exist in this time period. When we read Elizabeth's diary, she says, "It is so customary for men and women to sleep in the same room that some of the women look upon a woman as affected that makes any objection to it," meaning that if a woman kicks up a fuss that she has to share a space with a lot of strangers, even men, she's the one that has the problem. One woman said to Eliza, "A woman who is afraid to sleep in a room with a strange man must be very insecure in herself."
Down the Mississippi River
Lou Hatch: She stayed in Pittsburgh the rest of the winter, waiting for a boat to be built to travel down the Ohio, then Mississippi rivers. The river journey took three weeks and was just as dangerous and difficult as the journey over land, or even more so. Huge timbers bobbed along the water, threatening to capsize their boat. The boat's roof rammed into a large tree and had to be partially cut off. Eliza lost her dog Fauness whom she believed was devoured by an alligator. A giant whirlpool threatened to sink them. It sounds absurd, but the whirlpool had sucked in 600 barrels of flour, just the year before. Then there were swarms of mosquitoes. She wrote that she was, quote, "so stung, I look like I was in the height of smallpox."
David Thorson: You know, Holly, everything we take for granted about traveling today, it's not there when she's making her journey, and she's really on the edge of Western European settlement and exploration of America. It's really a risky adventure and there's no guarantee of success.
Holly Haliniewski: Yeah, it's a wonder that people were able to get anywhere at all when you think about the lack of information about what they were getting into.
Eliza Trist’s Journal
Lou Hatch: It was apparently due to a request of her ever-inquisitive friend, Thomas Jefferson, that she kept a journal of her travels, filled with references to the landscape, including soil, climate, waterways, natural resources, as well as the trials of traveling through Pennsylvania in winter and the mosquito-infested areas of the Mississippi South. This is the earliest known record of a woman traveling down the Mississippi River, and it was years before the Lewis and Clark expedition.
David Thorson: It was really common for men and for women to keep a diary in Eliza Trist's time, but her writings go far beyond just a recounting of the day's events. I think she's capturing every aspect of her journey for one single audience, and that's Thomas Jefferson. You can see, if you actually read the original, she circles back on entries and then makes changes to her observations. So it's not just a stream of consciousness, she's really writing very carefully and correcting her observations. And when you look at Jefferson's directions to Lewis and Clark to document their journey, 20 years later, it's almost as though he's telling them to follow Eliza Trist's example.
Holly Haliniewski: David, I agree. And I would say probably 90% of this diary is focused in that direction, but every now and again, you see Eliza's words talking about what she's thinking and feeling I think one of the sentences that jumped out to me the most was when she talks about how this difficult travel has broadened her perspective.
Elizabeth writes, "Everyone thinks their trouble’s the greatest. But I've seen so many poor creatures since I've left home, whose situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider myself as a favored child of fortune." And I think that's fascinating that her own worldview, her perspective, is altered forever by this type of travel.
David Thorson: And what I'm struck by, as she's traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi River, the tone of the diary entries changes a little bit, and by the last stretch of the journey, I think she's actually transformed. She is now fearless. She'll do anything. She'll travel anywhere to go see a site. She's really become self-confident and totally independent as a person.
As Eliza's traveling down the Mississippi River, she's been warned by everybody she encounters to be fearful of Native American, quote-unquote "savages," and yet she has a face-to-face encounter with a chief of the Delaware Nation and his family.
Holly Haliniewski: At first, when the boats of native people approached, they weren't sure what the intentions would be. Would they be hostile or would they be friendly? But it was decided that intentions were friendly and Chief Dickison and his family were invited to come on board. Prior to this encounter, everything that Eliza Trist knows about Native American people has been told to her. They're not her personal experiences. So it's fascinating to see how, when she has the opportunity to meet Native American people face-to-face, she writes that, "My curiosity led me to visit them as they had all the appearance of friendship."
Trist says that when they met, they ate and drank together, that they smoked together with her group, and that the Delaware chief's family honored her group with their company. And when they finally said goodbye, that the native people, quote, "wished us well and left us in great good humor."
But for all that, when you read Trist's words, there's still a question about whether or not all her preconceived notions are still permeating this special encounter, because in her diary, Eliza writes, quote, "As it is good to have friends at court, I carried the woman some bread, and as her infant was exposed to the sun, I gave her my handkerchief to shade it." As it is good to have friends in court? I keep turning that phrase over and over again in my mind. What does Eliza mean here? Is Trist genuinely offering this woman bread and offering the baby shade from the sun as a gesture of kindness? Or does that turn of phrase mean that Trist's motives for being generous are more about her own self-preservation on her own journey?
David Thorson: It's really a fascinating journal entry. It took me right back to Philadelphia, because she has “friends at court” in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. So I think it's working on two levels -- that she really does understand that Chief Dickison is the person in power where they are at that time and is courting their friendship, just as she's courting the friendship of the people in power in Philadelphia, Jefferson and Madison.
Nicholas Trist Dies
Lou Hatch: After eight years of separation from her husband, after months of grueling travel, Eliza Trist was just about to reach Natchez when she learned that her husband Nicholas had died of yellow fever four months earlier, when she was wintering in Pittsburgh.
Holly Haliniewski: What we're waiting for for this whole journey is the culmination of that trip, where they're finally reunited. And what we end up with is a journal entry that cuts off mid-sentence, and then that's the end. In some of her very last sentences in her diary, she imagines their happiness as they're finally reunited for the first time after all these years.
Her great-granddaughter, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke, gave a detailed account of what she knew of the moments when her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Trist, learned of her husband's death. Burke wrote, "After weeks of peril and suffering, they reached Natchez, where my poor great-grandmother heard of the death of her husband three weeks before. The shock was so great that she fainted and was so long unconscious that they almost despaired of her recovery, but the brave woman rallied."
David Thorson: She spends about six months in Natchez, kind of trying to make a go of it on her husband's lands before I think she gives up, and she's also lonely. She writes letters where she just says, you know, I can't do this anymore. I want to go home.
Lou Hatch: With her husband's death, Eliza struggled financially. She spent years soliciting Jefferson, James Madison, and others to help her secure her husband's lands and English inheritance of 1000 pounds sterling. Her son Hore Browse Trist married Mary Brown, and Eliza moved with them to Albemarle county in 1800. In 1803, President Jefferson appointed him as customs collector for the Port of New Orleans. Trist arrived in late spring of 1804. His wife, sons, and mother Eliza arrived soon after. Then yellow fever struck Eliza's family again. She'd already lost her husband and mother to the disease. Now her only child succumbed to it just a few months after his arrival to the Natchez area. He was 28. Eliza stayed in Louisiana for a few years until her daughter-in-law remarried.
David Thorson: I'm struck by just the sheer number of people that Eliza Trist loses from her circle. And then I have to remind myself, you know, life expectancy back during her lifetime is about 40 years in the United States. And you've got infectious diseases that are accounting for a lot of deaths. Her family has, I guess I'd say, the misfortune of living in Philadelphia and living in the New Orleans area, which are really hot zones for the yellow fever epidemics that repeatedly broke out in the 18th and 19th centuries. So yeah, I mean, she loses her husband, she loses her mom, she loses her son, all to yellow fever.
An Itinerant Life
Lou Hatch: From 1808 until her death 20 years later, Eliza bounced around from one friend's home to another. Her niece, Mary, had married into the Gilmer family of Virginia. Eliza would sometimes live with them. She began to stay at several other homes in Albemarle County, including Monticello, usually weeks or even months at a time. James Monroe called her "one of my best friends." Thomas Jefferson considered her "among my best friends." Her other dear companions included James and Dolley Madison and her own grandson, Nicholas Trist, married Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Randolph.
Money became scarce. In 1819, while staying in Albemarle, she wrote that she didn't know how she was going to hire a carriage to get to her niece's estate 90 miles away in Bedford County.
On several occasions, she complained about having to tip the enslaved servants. She wrote, quote, "Trifling donations to the servants runs away with a sum in the course of the year that is considerable to my purse." She also lamented about "wearing out my welcome" at her various relatives' and friends', leading her to depression at times.
Holly Haliniewski: David, it's interesting to think of a vibrant woman such as Elizabeth to end up having been, you know, bounced from relative to relative so that she could survive.
David Thorson: You know, I think it really comes down to circumstances, Holly. For a person like Eliza Trist, who didn't inherit wealth, she chose not to remarry, her options are really limited to living with relatives, to living on the kindness of friends, or being forced to try to survive through manual labor.
Holly Haliniewski: But Elizabeth in particular, she was such close friends with important people like Jefferson and Madison. So why wasn't she able to access some more help from them? I mean, could they have given her money or a more permanent residence?
David Thorson: Her circle of friends or relatives in the Albemarle County area, they've got land and labor, but they themselves were perpetually short of cash.
End of a Fascinating Life
Lou Hatch: We're fortunate she was a guest at Monticello, as she left us quite a detailed version of the nearly deadly fight between Thomas Jefferson's grandson-in-law, Charles Bankhead, and grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph. She also recorded the attempted murder of a Poplar Forest overseer by some of the enslaved workers there.
Eliza was at Monticello until just before Jefferson died, but she was starting to have delusions and show signs of dementia, so she was placed in the custody of Reverend Frederick Hatch. Soon after Jefferson's death, Hatch wrote to Eliza's grandson, Nicholas, that he and his wife could not continue to care for her. So she returned to Monticello and died December 10th, 1828.
Nicholas wrote that he had to bury her quote, "without the outward symbols of mourning, because he believed it would be unjustifiable in me, circumstance as I am, to run 50 or $60 more in debt."
David Thorson: So where is Eliza Trist buried?
Holly Haliniewski: David, Eliza House Trist is buried in the Jefferson family cemetery. But there's no headstone to mark her grave, so we actually do not know what part of the graveyard she was laid to rest.
David Thorson: Visiting Monticello today, there are reminders of Eliza Trist. One of the things I'm thinking of is the dresser that got the nickname the "Grandma Trist" that's in Martha Jefferson Randolph's room.
Lou Hatch: So for those of you who are listening today, do any of you have a desire to return to the good old days? Through Eliza's journal and the scant collections of correspondence which remains, we can get intriguing insight into the trials of 19th century widowhood and the threat of property loss. Not shy to ask for help, she managed to improve not only her life, but the lives of family and friends through her dogged determination and her rich relationships.
Perhaps her most enduring legacy is her observations of her life's journey noted through her diary and letters. Today, they show us that though certain daily activities were quite different 200 years ago, people have very similar worries and desires as many of us do today.
David Thorson: Hey, I want to thank Lou Hatch for sharing this story. And Holly, it was a great pleasure to talk about the life of Eliza House Trist with you. And I really want to thank our listeners for tuning in.
Holly Haliniewski: David, it was great to work with you on telling this story, and I want to thank Lou Hatch for also helping us bring the story together today.
Lou Hatch: If you’d like to find out more about Eliza House Trist, check out Gerard Gawalt’s book, Elizabeth House Trist. That was my initial inspiration for learning about her. And Karen Chase, who did a wonderful project for the Virginia Humanities. As well as the actual diary that is at the University of Virginia. We will put links to these on our website for you.
- "Elizabeth House Trist: An Undaunted Woman’s Journey Through Jefferson’s World" by Gerald Gawalt
- Author Karen Chase shares her work on Elizabeth House Trist
- Letters from Elizabeth House Trist to Thomas Jefferson in Founders Online
- Letters featuring Elizabeth House Trist in the Jefferson Family Letters collection
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Narrated by Lou Hatch
Hosted by David Thorson and Holly Haliniewski
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn