Presidential Sites: John Tyler’s presidency filled with controversy

Published 9:56 am Thursday, February 17, 2022

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By Betty Etchison West
For the Enterprise

The home of the 10th President of the United States, John Tyler, is just 11.3 miles from Berkeley Plantation, the birthplace of the ninth President, William Henry Harrison.
Tyler, who was Vice President when William Henry Harrison was President, was at his home in Virginia when a man on horseback brought the message that President Harrison was dead.
Vice President Tyler left immediately for Washington. He was the first Vice President to move into the role of President.
That transition did not occur without controversy. Some members of the Congress thought that John Tyler should be called acting president or some other title, not president. Tyler disagreed and declared that he was the President of the United States with all the powers associated with that office. Thus, a precedent was set—if the President of the United States is not able to serve, then the Vice President becomes President. That became known as the Tyler Precedent.
In this article, we are not as much interested in Mr. Tyler as President as we are in Mr. Tyler, landowner. While he was President, John Tyler paid $10,000 for a 1,200 acre plantation. Tyler named his plantation Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest was the home of John Tyler until his death in 1862.
During the Civil War, Tyler’s second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, and her children had to flee from the Sherwood Forest property. The Union troops under General McClellan planned to set fire to the Sherwood Forest Mansion, but the plan was foiled by McClellan because he was once Julia Gardner’s beau. (History can be stranger than fiction.) After the war Julia Gardiner Tyler and her family returned to Sherwood Forest. Mrs. Tyler surveyed the damage, hired immigrant laborers to make repairs, and made Sherwood Forest a working plantation again.
The Tylers’ son, Dr. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, who for 31 years was President of the College of William and Mary, inherited the property. The Sherwood Forest Plantation is now owned by Dr. Lyon Gardiner Tyler’s son, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, who is President John Tyler’s youngest grandson, and is now 91 years old.
Sherwood Forest Mansion is open to the public by reservation only. The grounds are open to visitors daily for self-guided tours. Visitors park their cars in a large parking lot and then walk up a long walk toward the mansion. Suddenly, the Sherwood Forest Mansion comes into view. It is a beautiful house indeed. Visitors can explore the grounds which includes the Tyler Family Pet Graveyard. The Pet Graveyard has many small gravestones for dogs and other pets. A larger stone marks the grave of President Tyler’s favorite horse. The price of admission to the grounds is $10 and to the Mansion is $35, with children being admitted free.
The Sherwood Forest House is said to be the longest frame house in the United States. It is over 300 feet long. The book, Cabins, “Cottages and Mansions” by Nancy and Christopher Benbow says: “The house’s central portion is connected to the former kitchen building by a long hallway, and to President Tyler’s law office on the other side by a private ballroom which is 68 feet in length. The room was designed by John and Julia Tyler for dancing the Virginia Reel. The house has 24 rooms, 7 sets of stairs, and 18 fireplaces. One third of the furniture is original. President Tyler’s porcelain, china, silver, mirrors, and girondoles are still in use at the plantation. All of the hardware in the home including an 1845 heat register is original.” A scar on the front door at Sherwood Forest was made by a Union Soldier’s sword and is evidence that the Union Army was once there.
The Sherwood Forest Plantation Mansion is longer than any other of the early American mansions because the dependencies, which were in separate buildings at other plantations, are part of the Sherwood Forest Mansion itself. The attached dependencies include the overseer’s office, the laundry, the weaving room, etc. A separate building on the property houses the creamery.
John and Julia Gardiner Tyler had seven children. John Tyler and his first wife, Letitia had seven or eight children. Different sources give different numbers, but the total of Tyler children was either 14 or 15. John Tyler was the father of the most children of any President. It seems special that descendants of President and Mrs. Tyler have cared enough about the family’s history to maintain and restore their ancestral property.
People who plan to visit the James River Plantations will want to include both William Henry Harrison’s birthplace, Berkeley Plantation, and John and Julia Tyler’s, Sherwood Forest, on their tour. Another plantation which is near-by is the Shirley Plantation, the birthplace of General Robert E. Lee’s mother. It is a beautiful mansion. The questions about slavery arise concerning the plantations, but if a person is just interested in architecture and antiques, the James River Plantations are worth trip to that section of Virginia.
Call 804-829-5377 for information about Sherwood Forest. I tried to get reservations to tour the Sherwood Forest a number of times to no avail. Once while walking around the grounds, my friend, Jane Testerman, and I saw a caretaker. He asked us if we would like to tour the house.
He unlocked the front door, and we entered the beautiful foyer. He then took us to the huge ballroom. It is indeed long which is understandable since it was designed for the Virginia reel which was the dance craze of the day when the Tylers lived at Sherwood Forest. We did not see the rest of the house, but we appreciated the caretaker giving us a glimpse inside of the Sherwood Forest Mansion.
I doubt that such a situation will arise again so visitors to Sherwood Forest may have to be satisfied with a self-guided tour of the grounds if they can’t schedule a tour.