After writing about the Virginia Capital Trail last week, I’ll be reviewing many of the stops along the trail in the coming months. Several battlefields and historic homes are along the route, including the home of our nation’s 10th President, John Tyler. In my quest to visit all of the Presidential and First Lady historic sites, I knew I had to see it in conjunction with the Capital Trail. His home, named Sherwood Forest, is a peaceful place for your family to take a break while on a bike trip.
John Tyler is nicknamed the “accidental President.” He became President in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died, after serving just 32 days as President. It is hard to believe that a political ticket would include a President and Vice President that were born within a few miles of each other. Harrison was born at Berkeley Plantation and Tyler was born at Greenway, both in Charles City County along historic Route 5. Greenway still stands a few miles west of Sherwood Forest but is privately owned.
Tyler served as a US Representative, Governor of Virginia, and Senator before being chosen as Harrison’s running mate. You may have heard of the popular slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” which references a song that was used in the 1840 Presidential election to show support for Harrison’s candidacy. Harrison had been a military hero in the early 1800s in battles against the Native Americans near the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. As you can tell from the slogan itself, Tyler was added as an afterthought even then!
No one thought Tyler would become President as no President had ever died in office. However, when Harrison died just one month into his term, Tyler assumed the role, even though it was unclear from the Constitution at the time that this is what should happen. He quickly took the oath and moved into the White House with his wife, Letitia. It wasn’t until 1967 that the 25th amendment codified this succession practice!
Tyler wasn’t a very popular President, even within his own party, and was the first President to have his veto overridden by Congress and the first one to have impeachment proceedings introduced in the House of Representatives. He experienced personal heartache while in the White House as well, with Letitia dying there in 1842, leaving him with eight children. She was the first First Lady to die while her husband was President.
The story of how Tyler married his second wife, the young and vivacious Julia Gardiner from New York, is told in a captivating style by the podcast, The Memory Palace. President Tyler had already asked Julia to marry him and she had turned him down. However, after a fatal accident on a boat in the Potomac, which killed her father and where she was comforted by President Tyler, Julia finally said yes. They married in 1844 and had seven children, making Tyler the President with the most children (15 in total). Tyler is the earliest former President with living grandchildren, one of whom still calls Sherwood Forest home.
Julia is the second youngest First Lady in our nation’s history at age 24, and she is credited with ritualizing the playing of “Hail to the Chief” when the President is introduced.
The Tylers retired to Sherwood Forest after his term ended in 1845 and made it home. They probably would have had a quiet retirement if the Civil War hadn’t occurred. Tyler was a slaveholder and sided with the Confederacy. He was a delegate to the peace talks that occurred before the war but when Virginia seceded, he returned to political life as a member of the Confederate Congress. He died in 1862, the second year of the war, in Richmond and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, the only former US President to be buried without the US flag. His legacy tarnished, he is largely forgotten by history.
Sherwood Forest is a quiet and tranquil place to visit with your family. With its location immediately adjacent to the Virginia Capital Trail, it makes a nice respite from biking. You can access its grounds using an honor box even though the home tour by appointment is currently unavailable due to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Be sure to pick up a garden tour brochure here (Note: the brochure contains outdated language, especially in regards to slavery, and hopefully will be updated soon).
You will begin your tour following the tour stops noted on the map. The first stop may be a little creepy for children – a pet cemetery! – so feel free to walk quickly by it!
Continue down the beautiful Carriage Drive, designed by Tyler in 1844.
You can walk up the home’s circular driveway to ponder the expansive reach of the home. It is the longest frame home in America at 301 feet long! You can see how the home expanded over the years, including additions that were built to connect the various dependencies. One of the additions houses a ballroom specifically built to dance the Virginia Reel!
Your kids will like to pet the cast iron dogs on the porch, which were a wedding gift for their marriage in 1844!
Continue to follow the tour numbers around the right side of the house to see an enslaved person’s home. It is estimated that 60-90 enslaved persons lived and worked here during Tyler’s time. The tour brochure does not explain much about the enslaved conditions here and uses outdated language to discuss the subject. Hopefully the brochure will be updated soon to reflect current scholarship.
The tour walk will take you past several dependencies, including a milk house and Tyler’s law office, as you make your way to the south yard.
While most Route 5 plantations overlook the James River, Sherwood Forest is 1 mile from the river and overlooks a marshy swamp. The terraced lawn makes a nice place for a family picnic or rest after a bike ride.
You can continue walking around the property to see several additional dependencies, including the shingle maker, smoke house, and wine house, which dates to 1660!
Your kids will get a laugh at the garden house which served as the family bathroom!
Before you leave, you can see where Tyler had wanted to be buried on the property. However, with the Civil War raging and the Union Army in Charles City County, Tyler was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. You can visit his grave there, near the President’s Circle.
While not as grand or well-known as Berkeley or Shirley Plantation, Sherwood Forest’s grounds are peaceful and allow you to have a rest from a bike ride on the Virginia Capital Trail. After visiting it, you can check off another Presidential site from this list!
- Cost: $10/person (15 and under free)
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 20-30 minutes
- No gift shop
- Transportation: Accessible by car only (or via bike on the Virginia Capital Trail)
- Dining options: Upper Shirley Vineyards and Indian Fields Tavern are two highly recommended restaurants that are a short drive away.
- Nearby hotels: I recommend staying in Richmond or Williamsburg, both of which have many family-friendly hotel options. If you want to stay in a local bed and breakfast, North Bend Plantation, is a nearby option.
- Nearby attractions include: Berkeley Plantation, Historic Westover, Shirley Plantation, Virginia Capital Trail, and Fort Pocahontas
- Other Tyler sites: Hollywood Cemetery
Books to Read:
See my Presidential book list at Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores. This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Other books include:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: