When passing through what is now Rockbridge County, Virginia, on August 23, 1767, Thomas Jefferson viewed the Natural Bridge, probably for the first time. On the inside back cover of his 1767 memorandum book, Jefferson made notes that became the basis for his famous description of the "most sublime of Nature's works" in Notes on the State of Virginia.1
By 1773, Jefferson had taken steps to become the owner of the rock bridge. On June 10, 1773, Jefferson recorded in his memorandum book: "Pd. at S. O. returng. my own 157. as. for Natural bridge £2–15–4."2 Jefferson paid at the Surveyor General's Office at Williamsburg (he was paying the Secretary of the Colony) for a survey warrant. Shortly thereafter Jefferson paid James Tremble £2-1s-8d "for making survey of my entry on Natural bridge."3 On July 5, 1774, a patent in the name of George III was issued to Jefferson for a 157-acre tract that included Natural Bridge.4
How much did Jefferson pay for the land? £1 equals 20s and 6s equals $1 (Spanish dollars). £2-15s-4d thus equals about 55s, or $9, and £2-1s-8d equals 41s, or $7. The grand total for the purchase is 96s, or $16, roughly $160 in today's money.
Jefferson often thought of building "a little hermitage" where he might spend part of every year.5 Although this project was never carried out, he did make at least three more recorded visits to the bridge, in 1815, 1817, and 1821, and possibly in 1781.
In 1809, a financially disastrous year, Jefferson tried to sell the tract, and he periodically leased it for saltpeter mining and for use as a shot tower. By 1815, however, he had "no idea of selling the land. I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or masked from public view."6 The Natural Bridge was sold in 1833 as part of Jefferson's estate.
- Rebecca Bowman, 3/97
Primary Source References
1817 June 2. (William Caruthers to Jefferson). "Patrick Henry a free Man of Coular requested me to Write You that he Will Rent What land is Cultivatable On the Bridge Tract—Which is perhaps about 10 Acres all of Which is to Clear off & Enclose & for Which he is Willing to pay a fair Value."7
1817 June 11. (Jefferson to William Caruthers). "I recieved yesterday your favor of the 2d inst. and I readily consent that Patrick Henry, the freeman of colour whom you recommend, should live on my land at the Natural bridge, and cultivate the cultivable lands on it, on the sole conditions of paying the taxes annually as they arise, and of preventing trespasses."8
1817 August 4. "Natural bridge. pd. to Patrick Henry 5.D. to be pd. to the Sher. of Rockbridge for taxes past & to come.—gave him 1.D."9
1821 November 14. "Patrick Henry. at Nat. br. entertt. services & laborers 10 D."10
4. Rockbridge County Land Patent Book, XLII: 657-68.
5. Jefferson to William Carmichael, December 26, 1786, in PTJ, 10:633. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. Jefferson to William Caruthers, September 7, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:506-07 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Caruthers, March 15, 1815, in PTJ:RS, 8:347 (transcription available at Founders Online).