It’s easy to reach the home of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. Just follow the John Tyler Memorial Highway in Charles City County, VA.
The Sherwood Forest plantation, where members of the Tyler family have lived since the former president purchased it in 1842, doesn’t see the traffic of nearby attractions. It’s hard to stand out in a state with so much presidential history. Virginia offers the birthplaces and ancestral homes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, to name just a few. And Tyler, a one-termer whose biggest accomplishment was annexing the Republic of Texas, may not be our most memorable commander in chief.
But both the grounds of Sherwood Forest and the life of its owner are worth a closer look — for their role in history as well as their beauty.
Tyler was William Henry Harrison’s vice president. Their slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” marked what many historians consider the first modern political campaign. Harrison, an ambitious but sickly Virginian, became president in March 1840 and died a month later.
Tyler, in turn, became the first vice president to ascend to the presidency upon the death of a sitting president. He was also the first president whose first lady, Letitia Christian Tyler, died while he was in office. Before leaving the White House, Tyler would be wed again, to 23-year-old Julia Gardiner. Tyler had eight children with Letitia and seven with Julia, making him the most fertile president to date.
Tyler was also a president without a party. Elected nominally as a Whig, he clashed with the party’s powerful kingmaker and perennial presidential candidate, Henry Clay.
Tyler wanted a second term, but with Clay running as a Whig, the president bowed out. According to Tyler family lore, Clay then said, “We’re well rid of that old outlaw, and like Robin Hood he’ll return to his Sherwood Forest.” That, the story goes, is how the estate got its name.
Tyler did return to Virginia, where the gentleman wheat farmer and vintner took a job as commissioner of roads. That was the genesis of the John Tyler Memorial Highway, also known as Virginia Route 5. He lived among his beloved horses, dogs and family until his death in 1862.
Because of his second wife’s young age, John Tyler has two grandsons who are still alive. One of them, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, 87, lived in the Sherwood home until recently. His wife, Frances Payne Bouknight Tyler, 84, restored the house and opened it for tours.
The Tyler home is the longest frame house in the United States. That makes it perfect for doing the Virginia reel in its green ballroom. Throughout the house, visitors can see portraits of Tylers in military dress, equestrian boots and wedding gowns. The home has Greek Revival touches and two large porches, with 25 acres of terraced gardens. If you walk through the woods, you’ll hear the water from Mapsico Creek. The James River is not far, but you can’t see it from Sherwood Forest.
Though technically in Charles City, the Sherwood Forest plantation has a rural, pastoral feel. It makes a good stop for those traveling between Richmond and Williamsburg, particularly on the popular Capital to Capital bike trail. House tours are available by appointment, or guests can just roam the grounds, where they will see more than 80 varieties of centuries-old trees, a pet cemetery, boxwoods and beautiful magnolias.
Tim Coyne, a friend of the Tyler family, leads house tours and is a font of information on all matters Tyler. Throughout the house, he points out damage left by the Union Army when it tried to carry away expensive marble furnishings.
Less stressed during our visit was Tyler’s stance on slavery. Tyler, a staunch state’s rights advocate, was a slaveholder. “He thought it was economically unjust and would die under its own weight,” Coyne said.
Tyler joined the Confederacy and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, though he died before he could serve. Because of his Southern sympathies, Tyler is the only president who has not been officially mourned in Washington.
Historians are divided over the impact of Tyler’s accidental presidency — his most notable accomplishment may be the annexation of Texas. But a tour of his home and grounds is nonetheless worthwhile. You might even see a Tyler walking around the place.
Sherwood Forest is at 14501 John Tyler Memorial Highway. Charles City, VA; 804-829-5377; the house tour costs $35 per adult and $25 per school-age child. Tours are by appointment. The fee for the self-guided grounds tour is $10 per person, and children under 15 are free.