Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown (Virginia)

Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown

You know Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech, made at Richmond’s Historic St. John’s Church in 1775.  You may not know, however, that the home where he lived while crafting that historic speech is open for visitors and is celebrating its 300th year!  Nestled in the rolling hills of western Hanover County, just 30 minutes north of Richmond, his home, called Scotchtown, is an atmospheric place to visit, especially during the month of October.  This home contains both happy and tragic memories for the Henry family, as this was the also the site of Mrs. Henry’s mental breakdown.  Even with this sad history, it is still a site that families can enjoy.


History

The existing home at Scotchtown dates to 1720, when Charles Chiswell constructed a small home on the property.  He added to the home over the years to make it into one of the largest 18th century homes to survive to the present day.  At some point in its history, a young Dolley Madison is counted as one of its inhabitants!

The Henrys moved to Scotchtown in 1771 after his unsuccessful attempt at farming and his very successful pivot to the legal world.  Patrick Henry’s verbal skills and intellectual prowess was known far and wide by the mid-1760s.  

However, no one knew about the personal heartache that was affecting his ever-growing family.  At 18 years old, Patrick married 16 year old Sarah Shelton, and over the next several years, they added 6 children to their family.  After the birth of their sixth child, Edward, Sarah Henry succumbed to mental illness, now thought to be postpartum psychosis.  At the time, mental illness was treated through time spent in an asylum or jail.  Not wanting to send his wife to one of these horrid places, Patrick had an apartment built for her in the basement of Scotchtown where she lived for 4 years, attended by two enslaved women.  At times, she even had to be restrained with a straitjacket.  

Her death in February, 1775 occurred just one month before his famous “Liberty or Death” speech, and many historians have hypothesized if her untimely death led to his electrifying words.  The family, including Henry’s new wife, Dorothea, moved to the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg where he served as the first independent Governor of Virginia, serving 5 one-year terms over 10 years.  His family sold Scotchtown in 1778, and he retired to Red Hill in Charlotte County before his death in 1799. 


Visit

Scotchtown is in western Hanover, and its grounds are open every day of the year, dawn to dusk, with a cell phone walking tour available.  

Look for the signs and follow the directions to learn more about the home and the Henry family.

The cell phone tour starts near the house and moves towards its front entrance.

You can just imagine Patrick Henry riding his horse down the driveway, back to his family.

As you walk around the building, note the changes to the windows in the basement. This is where Sarah Henry spent her final years.

You can see the rebuilt kitchen house.

Your kids will love seeing the sheep!

The ice house and well are also available to see.

To learn even more about Patrick Henry and his time at Scotchtown, I encourage families with older kids (10 and up) to participate in the guided tour of the interior, available Fridays – Sundays during COVID.  Be sure to buy your tickets in advance, as only one family/group will be allowed on the tour. 

The guided tour lasts 45 minutes and takes you through the first floor rooms of the home.  The home fell into disrepair after the Henrys lived there (there were even goats and sheep living inside!) but it has been remodeled to look as it would have appeared in Henry’s day.

You will enter the house into the large foyer, which was added when the second half of the house was built.  It contains an imposing bust of Mr. Henry.

The large parlor and dining room contain period furniture and decor. 

The basement rooms where Sarah lived are just under the dining room and are not a part of the tour – although our guide did say that her straitjacket dress was still in the basement!  To see images of the basement rooms and her dress, be sure to read Plantations of Virginia (affiliate link).  The rooms and dress are displayed occasionally, including the recent haunted tour of Scotchtown (pictures can be found on its Facebook page).

The parlor also has some children’s toys from the time period.  Ask your children if they would have liked to grow up here – Henry had 6 children here with Sarah and went on to father 11 with Dorothea!  

The unique way the fireplaces were built, combining several fireplaces into one flue, is ingenious!

Henry’s office is also open on the tour and contains his original desk.  You can just imagine him sitting here, in his grief, writing the very words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”  

The bedrooms are outfitted with personal Henry items when possible, including the family cradle.  While it wasn’t used for his children, it was used for his grandchildren.  Our guide told us an amazing story about the cradle, which was being used for a horse’s trough when located!

The remaining rooms have been made into a small museum about the home and its history, the Henry family, and how Henry’s words have been made into a movement worldwide.  

Be on the lookout for a new Travel with Books video about Scotchtown soon!

If you’re looking for an atmospheric and evocative, but not scary, site to tour in October, Scotchtown is a great place to visit.  While it has some spooky elements in its past, its lovely gardens and grounds make for a beautiful place to to be outside with your family.


Helpful hints:

  • Cost: 
    • Grounds and gardens: free
    • Guided tour: $10/adults; $8/children; free/under 6 years old
  • Recommended for:
    • Grounds and gardens: all ages
    • Guided tour: 10 and up
  • Tour time: 1 – 1 ½ hours (guided tour is 45 minutes)
  • Gift shop located in ticket sales building
  • Transportation: Accessible by car only
  • Dining options: Bring a picnic to the site’s outdoor pavilion.  The unique and historic Hanover Tavern, also a former home to the Henrys, is fairly close by.  Check out the quaint town of Ashland, which has several restaurants, including the Iron Horse Restaurant and Homemades by Suzanne
  • Nearby hotels: See my Richmond page for recommendations.  The historic Henry Clay Inn is located in the nearby town of Ashland (currently closed due to COVID).
  • Nearby attractions include: Historic Hanover County, including the Henry-related buildings of Hanover Courthouse and Hanover Tavern and the historical marker at Studley, where Henry was born, Richmond National Battlefield Park (which includes the Shelton House where Patrick and Sarah married), Road to Revolution Trail, Ashland Berry Farm, Hanover Vegetable Farm, and the cute railroad town of Ashland (which hosts a train festival!)

Books to Read:

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