Greenway And Sherwood Forest, Virginia


A little girl was responsible for the fact that John Tyler, who became the tenth president of the United States, was born, not at Marlie, but at Greenway. Marlie was the name chosen by Judge John Tyler for his James River estate, but his young daughter, Anne Contesse, as soon as she began to talk, insisted on calling it ” Greenway,” ” because the grass grows so green there.”

The fact that Anne’s name displaced that chosen by her father is an indication of his great love for children. Greenway was ” a bird’s nest full of young,” but at various times he added to his own flock one or another of twenty-one children, of whom he was made guardian, all of whom he guided through childhood to earnest manhood and womanhood.

These children must have enjoyed roaming about the estate, for, according to Judge Tyler’s description, it was a delightful place. He said of it :

” Greenway contains five hundred acres, well improved. On it is a genteel, well-furnished dwelling-house, containing six rooms, all wainscoted, chair-board high, with fine dry cellars the full length of the house, which is 56 feet; also every other building which a reasonable person could wish or desire, to wit : a hand-some study, storehouse, kitchen, laundry, dairy, meat-house, spring-house, and an ice-house within the curtelage; a barn 40 by 34 feet, two granaries, two carriage houses, 20 stalls for horses, a quarter for house servants; a handsome pigeon-house, well stocked; and several other houses for slaves ; a well of water (so excellent that I can drink with delight after returning from a mountain circuit), a large, fertile garden, abounding with a great variety of shrubs, herbs, and beautiful flowers, well enclosed. The buildings new and well covered with shingles.”

On this attractive estate John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790. He was a slender, delicate-looking lad, but he was not afraid to stand up for himself when he felt he was being abused. . His first schoolmaster, a Mr. McMurdo, who taught across the road from Greenway, thought that it was impossible to teach well unless the rod was in daily use. ” It was a wonder that he did not whip all the sense out of his scholars,” John said once, years later. But one day the boys rebelled. ” John and some of the larger boys tripped him up, and began to tie his hands and feet,” the Tyler family biographer tells the story. ” McMurdo scuffled bravely, but upon little William Tyler, the smallest boy in school, throwing himself upon him, he exclaimed, in imitation of the great Roman, ‘ Et tu, Brute!’ and ceased to resist. The boys firmly secured him, locked him up in the schoolhouse, and left with cheers of triumph and derision.”

Hours later the schoolmaster was released by a passing traveller, who heard his cries. At once the enraged man hastened to Judge Tyler and told his story. ” But the Judge, born and bred in the Revolutionary school, hated tyranny in any shape, and as he drew himself up to his full stature, he . . replied, in the language of Virginia’s motto, ` Sic Semper Tyrannis.”

At the age of twelve John entered the grammar school of William and Mary College at Williamsburg. There he had a good time, and he made a creditable showing in his classes. Yet that he did not advance in at least one study is evident from a letter written by his father in 1807. He said :

” I can’t help telling you how much I am mortified to find no improvement in your handwriting; neither do you construct your lines straight, which makes your letters look too abominable. It is an easy thing to correct this fault, and unless you do so, how can you be fit for law business? ”

Some years later, when Judge Tyler was Governor of Virginia, he announced impressively to John that Thomas Jefferson would be among the dinner guests on a certain day. ” Be sure you have a good dinner,” the Governor added; for John was at the time in charge of the establishment. The future President asked himself, ” What is the best thing for dinner? ” ” Plum pudding ! ” was the answer.

The appointed time came. The company was seated at table. The first course was served. Then came a long wait.

” Suddenly a door flew open, and a negro. servant appeared, bearing, with both hands raised high above his head, a smoking dish of plum pudding. Making a grand flourish, the servant deposited it before Governor Tyler. Scarcely had he withdrawn before another door flew open, and an attendant, dressed exactly like the first, was seen bringing another plum pudding, equally hot, which at a grave nod from John, he placed before Mr. Jefferson. The Governor, who expected a little more variety, turned to his son, who sat surveying the puddings with tender interest, and exclaimed, in accents of astonishment, ‘ Two plum puddings, John, two plum puddings ! Why, this is rather extraordinary ! ‘ ‘ Yes, sir,’ said the enterprising major domo, ‘ it is extraordinary; but’ (and here he rose and bowed deferentially to Mr. Jefferson) ‘ it is an extraordinary occasion.’ ”

In 1813, John Tyler married Letitia Christian. They did not make their home at Greenway, however. On the death of Judge Tyler the old house was sold, but it became the property of John Tyler in 1821. There he retired for the season of rest which he sorely needed after his strenuous years as a member of the House of Delegates, and Representative in Congress. During the intervals of his service as Governor and United States Senator he resided at the old home, but in 1829 he sold the property, and removed to Gloucester County, to an estate which he took for debt. Eighteen years later, at the close of his presidential term, he returned, with his bride, the second Mrs. Tyler, to the county where he was born, having bought an estate of twelve hundred acres, three miles from Greenway, on the north side of the James, opposite Brandon. He tore down the old house on the estate, and built a house on the same plan, which, with its connected out-buildings, was more than two hundred feet long. He called his place ” Sherwood Forest,” with grim humor ; for was he not an outlaw, in the opinion of the Whigs, just as really as was Robin Hood?

Not long after the beginning of life at Sherwood Forest he was appointed overseer of the road on which his estate was located. Some claimed that this appointment was secured by the Whigs to humiliate him. But he refused to be humiliated. Instead he determined to be a good overseer and make the road the best in the State. All the men in the township were called, and they were kept at work day after day, as, according to law, he had a right to keep them. But it was harvest time, and the wheat was dead ripe. ” The smiles that lately illuminated the countenances of the Whigs turned to dismay. The august justice who had made the appointment repaired to Mr. Tyler’s house, and represented to him the state of things. Mr. Tyler replied that the law made it his duty to put the road in good order, and to keep it so. The Whigs expostulated. Mr. Tyler was firm. Then the justice begged him to resign, and let the hands go home. The ex-President said, ‘ Offices are hard to obtain in these times, and having no assurance that I can ever get another, I cannot think, under the circumstances, of resigning.'”

One of the statesman’s valued companions during these early years at Sherwood Forest was ” General,” the old horse which he had owned for many years. At length the horse died, and was buried in the grave at Sherwood Forest. On a wooden slab at the head of the grave the owner wrote :

” Here lieth the bones of my old horse, General, who served his master faithfully for twenty-seven years, and never blundered but once—would that his master could say the same ! ”

The last years of John Tyler’s life witnessed the re-turn of his popularity. Enemies became friends, and all rejoiced to do him honor. He was called to a number of honorable posts, and he was about to take his seat as a member of the House of Representatives of the Confederate Congress when he died, in Richmond, on January 18, 1862.