If one is fortunate one sometimes finds a very important place of information while searching for a prosaic bit of evidence in the old deed books in the Goochland Clerk’s Office.
It was finding a deed to a William H. Miller of “Elk-hill” that led to discovering a description of the house owned by Thomas Jefferson in Goochland County called Elk-hill. Prior to this no one seemed to have any idea what the house looked like, what it was built of and how may stories tall it was. All that was positively known was that it was on a high bluff overlooking Byrd Creek near its junction with the Little James, and that it was on the 307 acres which Jefferson purchased from his wife’s sister in 1778. Fortunately, bricks of the foundation and chimneys, as well as huge tree stumps, marked the spot where the house once stood.
The land on which Jefferson’s Elk-hill house was situated was part of a Royal Patent dated June 16, 1714, granting all of Elk Island and 248 acres of upland to Charles Fleming and John Woodson.
John Wayles, the father of Martha Wayles (Skelton) Jefferson, purchased the land in question from Richard Weatherford by deed dated 12 September 1746.
John Wayles married Elizabeth Skelton, widow of Ruben Skelton on October 19, 1748. From this union there were two daughters, Anne and Martha. Anne Wayles later married Henry Skipwith, while her sister Martha, at age 17 married the 22 year old Bathurst Skelton in November of 1766 and moved to Elk-hill. Their only child, John, was an infant when Bathurst Skelton died in 1768. John died in infancy the year his mother, the widow Martha Skelton, married Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day 1772 and moved from her father’s home at The Forest, just outside Williamsburg to Monticello. Martha’s father died in May 1773 leaving her a large estate and making Jefferson one of the richest me in Virginia.
On September 21, 1778, during our Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson purchased 307 acres of land “with appurtenances” from Henry Skipwith and Anne, his wife, of the County of Cumberland for 710 pounds Virginia money.
The Elk-hill house was certainly built before 1766, when Martha Wayles moved to Elk-hill in November with her first husband, Bathurst Skelton. It may have been built some years earlier by Ruben Skelton whose widow, Elizabeth married John Wayles in 1748.
Jefferson was visited in 1781 at Monticello by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton of the British Army under General Cornwallis. Jefferson escaped capture, and Monticello escaped pillage, but Elk-hill was thoroughly worked over by Cornwallis and his troops. In a letter to Dr. Gordon in Paris, dated July 16, 1788 Jefferson states: “Cornwallis encamped his army all along the main James River to a seat of mine called Elk-hill, opposite to Elk Island and at the mouth of Byrd Creek. He remained in this position ten days, his own headquarters being in my house. He destroyed all of my barns, containing all of the same articles of last year, having first taken what corn he wanted, as was to be expected, all of my stock of cattle, sheep and hogs for sustenance of his army and all of the horses capable of service.”
The theft of his property and the burning of his barns in 1781 did not discourage Thomas Jefferson from purchasing on January 21, 1782, a tract of 312 acres from Edward Smith and his wife Sally. Jefferson also purchased 50 more acres on May 19, 1783 from Judith Smith of Goochland and Ruben Smith of Cumberland County for 50 pounds. This tract adjoined the tract bought the year before by William Holman and William Bowman. The deed has a provision that Judith Smith shall have the right to occupy the house and land during her natural life with free use of water, wood, buildings and enclosures.
Jefferson did not keep his Elk-hill property very long. On August 5, 1799 he sold his 669 acres, all three tracts, to Thomas Augustus Taylor of Chesterfield County. The price was 1500 pounds current money of Virginia.
Thomas Augustus Taylor sold the 669 acre tract almost immediately to Hugh French. Hugh French soon died and his will was recorded on July 3, 1802, naming Robert French and Mason French as executors. By deed dated July 3, 1802, Robert French, acting as executor, sold at public auction the Elk-hill tract for 1701 pounds, 10 shillings to William H. Miller, “reserving one quarter part of an acre for a burying ground, where the said Hugh French is buried.”
William H. Miller took out a fire insurance policy on his dwelling, a kitchen and a barn at Elk-hill on January 28, 1806. This can be seen amongst the records of the Mutual Assurance Company of Virginia at the Virginia State Library. William Miller sold Elk-hill 10 years later to Thomas R. Harrison of Cumberland County who insured his house against fire on June 6, 1815. It is from the descriptions and dimensions given in the two Virginia Mutual Assurance Society policies that Mr. Calder Loth, Historical Architect with the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission has been able to sketch a “reconstructed” Jefferson’s Elk-hill.
The above is exerted from an article written by Elie Weeks in 1971 and was published in the Goochland County Historical Society Magazine issue Vol. 3, No. 1. The article is followed by historical Calder Loth’s “Explanation of the Conjectural Drawing” that explains his drawing of the house. This issue can be purchased in the Society store.