“Patrick Henry: His Life and Times in This Area”
By Dr. Barry M. Dorsey
An oil portrait of Patrick Henry hangs in the courtroom of the Old Courthouse in uptown Martinsville. The picture is a reminder not only of Henry’s importance to the American Revolution but to this area, where he lived for approximately five years (1779-1784) between the two periods that he served as Governor of Virginia (July 6, 1776-June 1, 1779 and November 30, 1784-November 30, 1786).
Patrick Henry was a fiery patriot, laying the groundwork for the colonies’ revolt against the British. Although Henry is often cited for his early opposition to the Stamp Act, he is perhaps best known for his memorable speech to the House of Burgesses at St. John’s Church in Richmond (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) in 1775.
Having completed a term of one year in the middle of 1777 as the first elected Governor of Virginia (governors at the time were elected by the legislature), Henry was subsequently chosen for two more terms–the most he could serve. In 1779, he moved his family to Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County. (He owned the 10,000-acre plantation jointly with his first cousin, Ann Wilson Carr and her husband, George Waller.)
Henry and his family came to this area during the heart of the American Revolution. Two of his children were born here, as were other members of the family. According to one source, Henry saw the Leatherwood Plantation as far removed from the combat in eastern Virginia and thought his family safer from British forces here. He was also a friend of Joseph Martin, for whom Martinsville is named. As Governor, Henry had appointed Martin as the state agent to the Cherokee Nation.
The American Revolution made all areas of the colonies unsafe from both the British troops and those persons who opposed independence from Great Britain. When he moved to the area in 1779, Henry might not have known about the 1000-strong British and Loyalist force under the command of Maj. Patrick Ferguson which was sweeping up from the south. Fortunately for Henry and the American Revolution, some 900 frontiersmen from throughout the south, including a group from the Abingdon area of Virginia, went to Kings Mountain in western South Carolina (near the North Carolina border) to stop the British. In heavy fighting, the Americans killed Maj. Ferguson. The entire British force surrendered; all of them were killed, wounded, or captured. The battle occurred in 1780.
Also in 1780, the residents of this area sent Patrick Henry back to the capital as their representative to the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1784, Henry was again elected Governor by the legislature, which re-elected him to the position in 1785. He moved his family to Chesterfield County shortly after the 1784 election.
Patrick Henry declined to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, saying he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy,” but was a representative to the Virginia Convention of 1788, which ratified the U.S. Constitution over his objections. He was a leading advocate for adding a Bill of Rights to protect individuals; he was particularly interested in guaranteeing a person’s right to trial by jury. He was chosen a presidential elector for the 1789 election along with nine other men from the Campbell District, which covered the area between Danville and Lynchburg. All 10 of them supported George Washington for President.
In 1794, Henry and his wife retired to Red Hill near Brookneal (in what is today the Lynchburg metropolitan statistical area), but he became alarmed at the policies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and campaigned for Federalist John Marshall for Congress. (Marshall, although related to Jefferson, disagreed with Jefferson’s strong states’ rights position and thought there should be a strengthened central government, a view he later translated into action in re-making the Supreme Court as its Chief Justice.)
Because of changing views, his support for Marshall, or other reasons, Henry became a Federalist late in his life, denouncing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions calling for states to nullify federal laws which they considered unconstitutional. He warned that civil war threatened. At the urging of Washington, Henry stood for and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a Federalist but died of stomach cancer three months before taking his seat. He gave away his slaves to his relatives, giving his wife the power to free some of them if she so chose. He had earlier denounced slavery as morally wrong, allegedly expressing a desire that it would someday be abolished.
Henry County was first established in 1777 when it was carved from Pittsylvania County and named for Governor Patrick Henry. In 1785, the northern part of Patrick Henry County was combined with part of Bedford County to form Franklin County. In 1790, the western part of the County became Patrick County and the remainder was known as Henry County, an arrangement which continues today.
Leatherwood Plantation contains several monuments designating the site as one of Patrick Henry’s homes. A large ten-foot tall granite marker was erected in 1922 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. (It’s approximately three miles down Old Liberty Dr.—State Route 620—and past the entrance to Chatmoss Village and the turn-off to Carlisle School.) More recently, a state historical marker was placed on Highway 58 near the site.
After passing through several of Henry’s heirs, the locally prominent Hairston family eventually owned Leatherwood Plantation. It has since been broken into a number of tracts of land.
Sources reviewed in writing this paper:
Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1986 Edition. 3 volumes consulted.
Wikipedia, a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Original references are shown in the materials for all citations in the article. Various dates consulted.
The Two-Party System in the U.S., William Goodman, Third Edition, 1964.
List of Virginia’s Governors with Dates They Served. Encyclopedia Virginia, “Governors of Virginia,” a publication of the Virginia Foundation of Humanities in partnership with the Library of Virginia, 2012.