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Albemarle County DAR maps Thomas Jefferson's dramatic 1781 escape from Monticello

It’s a well-known story. In April of 1775, an American patriot receives intelligence communicated by lantern light and travels on horseback from Charlestown to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn his fellow revolutionaries that British forces are approaching.

“The British are coming! The British are coming!” the brave rider shouts as he flies through the New England countryside.

Paul Revere and his “midnight ride” are credited with saving Founding Fathers John Hancock and Samuel Adams and putting the American militia on high alert, tilting the balance of power in America’s favor ahead of the Battles of Lexington and Concord just days later.

And while the Revere that most Americans know today is more myth than man (He was not the only rider that night, he likely never shouted “The British are coming!” and he was actually arrested by British forces later that night), his story is considered a singular tale of the heroics Americans expect from their “Sons of Liberty.”

But many Virginians know Revere was far from singular.

Six years after Revere’s heroics, Jack Jouett, known as the “Paul Revere of the South,” managed his own midnight ride, saved his own Founding Fathers and changed the course of history.

The night of June 3, 1781, Jouett was at the Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County when he overheard British soldiers discuss confidential war strategies. With Richmond under threat, the Virginia government had relocated to Charlottesville. Jouett understood the British troops to be preparing for a march on Charlottesville, with plans to capture, or kill, members of the General Assembly and Thomas Jefferson, who had just finished his term as governor.

Jouett took his horse and rode the 40 miles between the tavern and Jefferson’s Monticello estate just south of Charlottesville, where he warned the author of the Declaration of Independence and the other assembled legislators that the British were coming. Jefferson and the General Assembly parted ways, fleeing the Charlottesville area — and avoiding arrest and, in some cases, perhaps death.

Jouett’s tale has become better known in recent years thanks to educational campaigns in the commonwealth, but it’s what happened next that many don’t know. Whereas Americans are brought up learning about the early American victory at Lexington and Concord, many don’t know about Jefferson’s flight from Monticello.

A group of six women are trying to change that.

“Plenty of people around here have heard of Jack Jouett, lots of kids growing up around here know about that,” Wendy Tackett told The Daily Progress. “But, most people haven’t heard of Jefferson’s route to escape the British.”

Tackett along with Charlotte Bailey, Nancy Bolton, Pamela Comberg, Wendy Smith and Yates Nobles are members of the Albemarle Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a nonprofit, lineage-based membership service organization for women who are directly descended from supporters of the American Revolution.

As part of a project for a Daughters of the American Revolution members course, the women dedicated the past year to researching and mapping out the path Jefferson and his family took from Monticello to Poplar Forest, their retreat outside of Lynchburg. They collected their findings in a brochure now available at both Monticello and Poplar Forest.

Following the brochure’s directions, people can almost exactly replicate the route taken by the Jeffersons — all while enjoying the modern conveniences of air conditioning and paved highways not afforded to the Founding Father who was fleeing down dirt roads in a horse-drawn carriage.

“The route up until Shipman is the route Jefferson took, it’s almost identical,” said Tackett. “Once you get to U.S. 29, it’s about what he took, because some of the roads just don’t exist anymore.”

By combing through primary sources in Jefferson’s library at Monticello and speaking with historians at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the University of Virginia and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the women pieced together the events that unfolded after Jouett raised the alarm at Monticello on the morning of June 4, 1781.

Right away, Jefferson sent his wife, Martha, and their daughters, Martha and Maria, ahead to a neighboring farm, Col. Edward Carter’s Blenheim, while he remained behind to collect documents. Jefferson then climbed to the top of Montalto, the peak neighboring his mountaintop home, from where he could view the advancing troops. Taking his fastest horse, Caractacus, Jefferson flew to his family and together they continued on to Poplar Forest.

The Jeffersons spent the night at several ordinaries, or inns, over the course of their 10-day trek south. Though these structures are no longer standing, the brochure points out some still-existing stops the family made along the way in addition to unrelated but still interesting attractions, including Michie Tavern, James Monroe’s Highland, the Monacan Indian National Museum, the Scottsville Museum and the Walton’s Mountain Museum. At the Scottsville Museum, visitors can learn about Enniscorthy, the estate where the Jeffersons stayed during their first night on the run.

“We thought that telling more of the story would, one, help get kids engaged because Jack Jouett is exciting,” said Tackett. “Two, there’s so much more history along the way which is why we provided other stops and, third, people can learn as a family while traveling throughout Virginia.”

Tackett said the Daughters of the American Revolution is considering installing markers at the sites where the Jefferson family stayed at ordinaries on their journey south.

The inspiration behind the brochure came from Jefferson himself, or rather Bill Barker, the longtime Jefferson interpreter at Monticello.

Barker attended the local DAR chapter’s meeting last March and brought up the escape route Jefferson and his family took after Jouett’s ride.

Surprised by how few people knew the story, the women decided it would be a worthwhile research topic project to tackle for their members course.

They uncovered plenty of obscure facts throughout the process. For instance, Jefferson composed the entirety of one of his more famous works, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” during the family’s five-week stay at Poplar Forest. Tackett said the group also was also fascinated to learn of the enslaved community’s efforts to preserve Monticello from British raids; two men in particular, Martin Hemings and Caesar, stayed behind at Monticello and hid all of the house’s silver under the floorboards.

“Our members had an opportunity to do primary research, and most of them hadn’t done that before,” said Tackett. “We got to see this from a concept to fruition and now we’re going to roll it out. It’s a way to give back to the community, and it’s created a lot of energy and excitement in the chapter, both within the state and nationally.”

The chapter received a grant that allowed them to print 25,000 editions of the brochure currently only in circulation at Monticello and Poplar Forest. However, they are seeking out additional funding for another round of printing, according to Tackett.

The group is also working on forming an educational outreach component to disseminate the brochure to visitor centers across the commonwealth as well as schools at all levels.


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