Today, the Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the third president’s birthday and shares stories of his younger days.
In the 1887 book, Thomas Jefferson’s Home, John George Nicolay and Frank Richard Stockton summarized Jefferson and his family’s early days:
Peter Jefferson, the father of the author of our Declaration, married into the Dungeness branch of the Randolph family, and he and young William Randolph of Tuckahoe, in the year 1735, feeling that they had their fortunes to make, concluded to “go West”; that is, they left the old tidewater settlements on the James River, and went to join two or three other pioneers as first settlers in the country now forming the county of Albemarle, Virginia.
It would not be considered much of a “move” in our day, as it was less than a hundred miles of a bee-line, and took them only to the first outlying chain of the Alleghanies, known at that point as the Southwest Mountains, some twenty odd miles eastward of the Blue Ridge.
Nevertheless, they found here a comparative wilderness, and what was essential, plenty of unoccupied land.
Of this circumstance they took immediate advantage; their natural highway had led them up the Rivanna, an affluent of the James River flowing from the Northwest; and probably hesitating to put the barrier of even a low mountain chain permanently between themselves and the old settlements, they determined to locate on the eastern slope of this chain.
Young Randolph “patented” a tract of 2400 acres lying on the Rivanna; and young Peter Jefferson, a few days later, like him “patented” a tract of about 1000 acres, lying just west of his friend’s.
Both tradition and documents record that when Peter Jefferson came to examine his new estate he failed to find a situation to his liking whereon to build his cabin, which should, according to his hopes and the fashion of the period, in due time grow into a manorial hall of baronial amplitude and aspect.
He mentioned his difficulty to his friend Randolph, who furnished a ready expedient to cure it. Land being abundant, building sites ought not to be scarce; so reasoning, he quickly supplied the want by giving Peter a deed to four hundred acres of his own tract, the purchase-money, or consideration, being “Henry Weatherbourne’s biggest bowl of arrack punch.”
This additional four-hundred-acre tract seems to have furnished the coveted building lot; though, looking at the landscape from an elevation, the spot finally chosen has nothing specially to recommend it over a dozen other points of ridges which run down toward the river.
On one of these points he built a story- and-a-half weather-boarded house, with central hall, four square rooms, garret chambers above them, and huge outside chimneys at each end.
As the custom of that day required that every ambitious homestead should have a distinctive name, Peter Jefferson christened his estate ” Shadwell,” after Shadwell street, London, where his wife’s mother was born.
On this place and in this house was born, one of a family of eight children, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third President of the United States.
Here he lived as a child, boy, and man, with but temporary interruptions, twenty-seven years.
When he left it, it was to move to Monticello, the home of his own special choice, preparation, and care, within an evening stroll of his birthplace, where, with occasional absence, for more than half a century, as congressman, author, governor, diplomat, cabinet minister, politician, Vice-President, President, philosopher, and octogenarian, he found his highest delight in that most engrossing of human occupations, the ever-beginning and never- ending task of creating an ideal home.
For a boy born in a wilderness, Jefferson enjoyed remarkable advantages in early youth, growing out of the fact that the frontier was as yet so near the parent colony.
Good English tuition at five, Latin, Greek, and French at nine, regular classical studies at fourteen, and a college course at seventeen, fall to the lot of few American backwoods boys.
Trapping quails and shooting wild turkeys, deer stalking, fox-hunting, and horse-racing, do not figure to any extent as his biographical exploits.
Jefferson, the boy, is a book-worm — Jefferson, the youth, is the petted member of an exclusive coterie, social, aristocratic, and literary.
The accomplishments and courtly habits of the town efface all the strong characteristics of the country lad, or rather, soften them down and leave them but two in number, — the keen zest of horsemanship and a true love of nature — the pure and passionate admiration of plant and blossom, of rock and stream, of fresh air and blue sky.
These are the legacy of the forest; all else he learns from books and the social traditions which drift from the Old World to the New.
Yet such is the strength of Nature’s influences that by these two slender threads she held this nursling of society and made him the apostle and bulwark of that primitive equality he abandoned, against the pretensions and claims of caste and privilege to the favors of which he largely owed the development, if not the awakening, of his genius.
But if Jefferson enjoyed early advantages he was also burdened with early cares. The death of his father, when he was but fourteen, left him head of the family.
Out of the practical needs of the home at Shadwell probably grew the dream, no less than the actual realization, of the future home on Monticello.
It is, of course, impossible to guess how and where his plans began; we only know that their gradual development covered a period of some seventeen years, and note the circumstances which rendered their accomplishment possible.
At his father’s death Jefferson inherited the home farm of Shadwell, and so much of the other farms and lands originally patented by Peter Jefferson, — and now respectively named “Monticello, Tufton, Pantops, Pouncey’s,” etc., — as amounted in the aggregate to about nineteen hundred acres.
He also inherited about thirty slaves, as a working force to till such portion of these lands as were under cultivation.
Aristocratic families and manorial estates were the fashion and the pride of the Virginia gentry.
But, fashion aside, the care of the family, the lands, and especially the slaves, of itself necessarily required some considerable “homestead” establishment.
The old, square, weather-boarded house at Shadwell, though quite sufficient for Peter Jefferson and his bride of nineteen, with perhaps a neighborhood of a dozen settlers, was probably deemed both too small and too antiquated for a large family, comprising marriageable sons and daughters, among a greatly increased population of neighbors.
Shadwell stood on a hill or point rising from the north bank of the Rivanna.
Some two miles beyond the stream to the southwest lay the “Little Mountain,” Italianized by Jefferson into “Monticello,” with probably his earliest studies in that language.
Seeing this Little Mountain so constantly the chief object in the homestead landscape, it is no wonder that it became to him successively, first the boy’s wonderland of exploration, then the youth’s haunt of recreation and study, and lastly the inviting and propitious locality of early manhood’s domestic ambitions.
It must be remembered of Jefferson, that though he stood six feet two inches high, and possessed a strong physical vitality, yet he was cast in the feminine rather than in the masculine mold.
Instead of the athletic sports of hunting and horse-racing, the harsh excitement of cards and personal broils, he shrank away to the more solitary and quiet pursuits of books and music, the writing of rhymes and dancing with village belles.
The poetic and artistic temperament dominated not only his youth, but his entire life.
The Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows against a background of a map drawn by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson in 1751 of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, published by Thos. Jefferys, London, 1755.