President Thomas Jefferson, Grandfather, Turns His Thoughts to Dedicating Portions of His Property to His Grandchildren

In a letter the existence of which was unknown until now, and which provides a rare glimpse into his human side, Jefferson requests that his assistant and former overseer Bowling Clark appraise the parcels

Jefferson also informs Clark that he is at last constructing his magnificent plantation house on his Poplar Forest estate

Poplar Forest was a plantation used by Thomas Jefferson as his personal retreat. It was first owned by John Wales, Jefferson’s father-in-law, who left it to his daughter Martha Jefferson upon his death in 1773. When Martha died in 1782, Thomas Jefferson became the owner. Poplar Forest was a working farm of 4,812 acres, one that eventually provided Jefferson with a significant portion of his cash income. He raised wheat, corn and tobacco, along with cattle, the work being done by nearly 100 slaves. During the summer of 1781, the Jefferson family retreated to Poplar Forest to avoid capture by the British during Tarleton's raid on Charlottesville and Monticello.

Poplar Forest also offered the perfect site for Jefferson’s most personal architectural achievement - a unique octagonal house constructed of brick, with pedimented porticoes on low arcades at the north and south facades, all within an elaborately designed landscape. He set the brick-makers to work in 1805, and began building the house in 1806. The frame was finished by 1809, and although the interior was not yet completed, Jefferson began to use the house that year. In this meticulously planned retreat, 90 miles from the noisy din of Monticello, he had the seclusion to pursue his passion for reading, writing, studying, and gardening.

"The time is now approaching when I shall wish to be parceling off some of my lands here to my grandchildren."

Bowling Clark was Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello in 1786–87. He lived in Bedford County by about 1788 and served as Jefferson’s overseer at Poplar Forest from 1789–1801. Jefferson described him as “an honest & judicious man.” In 1801 Clark moved to Campbell County, where he was a farmer and horse breeder, but correspondence between the two indicates that Clark was assisting Jefferson with projects or information for Poplar Forest until at least 1814. The Clarks and Jeffersons had known each other for decades, a relationship going back to Bowling’s grandfather Capt. Christopher Clark and Thomas’s father Peter Jefferson. Bowling’s father Micajah Clark was a close neighbor of Thomas Jefferson, had acted as Jefferson’s surveyor and laid out some of his land.

Jefferson gave his daughter Martha 1,000 acres of the Poplar Forest tract when she married Thomas Mann Randolph in 1790. In 1801, he wrote his other daughter Mary, wife of her cousin John W. Eppes, of his desire to involve Eppes at Poplar Forest. That same year, Jefferson wrote Bowling Clark asking him to lay out tracts for his daughters’ husbands to farm, and on which they might live, which Clark did. However, nothing appears to have come of this, and in any event no land was transferred. Instead, Jefferson began to concentrate on his own use of the plantation.

By 1805, Jefferson’s two daughters had given him eight grandchildren, the eldest being 14 years of age and the youngest 2. As with most grandparents, at some point their thoughts turn to how best to provide for them. Perhaps preparation for the commencement of work on Poplar Forest led him to ponder that very point.

In July 1805 Jefferson was at Poplar Forest for a short visit. He wrote to Clark to inform him that he was at last constructing a building there, and to ask him to help appraise the value of his land so that he could dedicate portions of the property to his grandchildren.

"...The building of a house here, which we begin this fall..."

Autograph letter signed, Poplar Forest, July 24, 1805, to Clark. “I had intended to have asked the favor of seeing you here on my present visit, but the account I received of your health was such that I could not ask or expect it. I defer for that satisfaction therefore to this time 12 month when the building of a house here, which we begin this fall, will call me here, & I shall hope your health will be reestablished. The time is now approaching when I shall wish to be parceling off some of my lands here to my grandchildren. This renders it necessary that I should understand the separate value of each portion of them distinctly. As no person is so well acquainted with them as yourself, I must ask a favor of you to consider the questions on the paper enclosed, and to write at the end of each the answer in figures, and to send me the same paper to Monticello, by the first post. Having asked the same favor of some others, as soon as I receive your answer I shall be able to conclude finally in one case which presses. I by no means mean to give you the trouble of re-inspecting the lands; you know them so well that your answer given on recollection of them & reflection will perfectly answer my purpose. It is of no consequence at the valuation be at what they might sell for at market; provided all are valued on the same scale, so as to know their comparative worth, it will be sufficient. Wishing you a speedy reestablishment of health, I offer my friendly salutations & assurances of great esteem, Thomas Jefferson.”

The Jefferson Papers informs us that the existence of this letter showing Jefferson’s interest in providing for his grandfather has been unknown until now, and that they consider it a significant find. It was not even listed in Jefferson’s calendar of letters.

At this time, Jefferson’s grandchildren were often on his mind. That very Christmas, as president, six of his grandchildren and 100 of their friends attended a party hosted by Dolley Madison, at which Jefferson himself played the violin for the dancing children.

The Jefferson Papers show that Clark responded on August 4, in a letter Jefferson received on August 16. In it, Clark said: “Your favors…of July 24, I received last evening, and agreeable to your request have set, to your list, what I supposed to be the value of each different track per acre. At the time I left the Forest, I can’t be so certain of the value of those three tracks of Callaways & the two of Robertsons as I never traced those lines all around. The lands in that neighborhood have raised in their value very considerable since I left that place. I should have been exceeding glad to have seen you when up…Should not have been able to have rode that distance at that time…”

As for Poplar Forest, Jefferson turned over the plantation to his grandson Francis Eppes at the time of the latter’s marriage in 1822. On learning of the magnitude of his grandfather’s financial difficulties, Eppes offered to return the property, but Jefferson refused. In 1828, two years after his grandfather’s death, Eppes sold Poplar Forest and moved his family to Florida, where he was a planter, a justice of the peace, and served several terms as intendant (mayor) of Tallahassee. To highlight the affection between grandfather and grandson, an 1811 letter from Eppes to Jefferson, and it starts out, “Dear Grandpapa, I wish to see you very much.”

There are additional papers in this Bowling Clark archive. The earliest is a letter of recommendation dated 1784 testifying to his good character. The next, from 1800, evidences a sizable land purchase by Clark and guarantees its title. The other two are ledger entries for payments made to Clark. One of these is a receipt for tobacco that Clark sold to the merchant firm of John Perkins Co. The second is a record of payments from the miller William Mitchell for wheat delivered by Clark. Since Mitchell is known to have ground wheat for Jefferson just about this very time, it is tempting to ponder whether any of the wheat accounted for on this ledger came from Poplar Forest.