An Account of James Monroe's Land Holdings

© Copyright and All Rights Reserved
By Christopher Fennell

I. Ash Lawn-Highland, Albemarle County

James Monroe began this farm, which he called Highland or Highlands, with 1,000 acres, and eventually expanded it over time to encompass over 3,500 acres at the height of its size. The historic site of Ash Lawn-Highland is today a working farm of 535 1/2 acres, and provides space on its grounds for the performing and visual arts.

Highland was originally part of a large estate in Albemarle County called "Blenheim" and owned by Champe Carter and Maria Carter, his wife. The parcel comprising Highland was conveyed from the Carters to Monroe in a 1793 deed of purchase for 1,000 pounds purchase price. Highland was bounded on the north by Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation and Philip Mazzei's plantation called Colle, located along the Colle Branch. The Rivanna River (which is named after Queen Anne) runs just to the north of Monticello, and provided an important transportation source for goods and materials being shipped to and from Richmond and the Chesapeake. The small town of Milton, just to the east of Ash Lawn-Highland, was once a transport hub along the Rivanna.

Highland was bordered on the south by the Massey Creek and William Short's 1,334 acre farm called Indian Camp (now a property called Morven). The remaining portions of the Carter's Blenheim estate lay further to the south. Initially, the east side of Highland was bounded by the Duke plantation. The west boundary was the land of Menoah Clarkson and the top ridge of Carter's Mountain (also called the Southwest Mountains), which ran north toward Monticello.

After some delays, the Monroe family moved to Highland on November 23, 1799 (Nov. 22, 1789 Letter from Monroe to James Madison). They would treat Highland as the family home through 1823. Such a community of neighboring homes of Jefferson, Monroe, Mazzei and Short in Albemarle, and James Madison's Montpelier plantation to the north, had long been a desire of both Monroe and Jefferson. Among the many letters between them, for example, Jefferson wrote in 1788 that he much desired to see in Albemarle a "society forming there [of] yourself, Madison and Short" (August 9, 1788 Letter from Jefferson to Monroe).

Monroe's improvements to the Highland tract slowly took shape in the time he owned and resided on the property. His declaration in an insurance policy issued in 1800 described the existing improvements as follows:

[A] plantation occupied by my overseer Wm. Petty. Situated between the plantation of Wm. Short and that of Kemp Catlett of Albemarle County . . . One wooden dwelling house, the walls filled with brick. One storey high, 40 by 30 ft. Wooden Wing one storey high, 34 by 18 ft. Appraised at twelve hundred dollars (Aug. 15, 1800 Declaration No. 386).
By 1809, he would describe further improvements in another insurance policy declaration:
My one dwelling, now occupied by myself, on my tract of land . . . Situated between the land of Wm. Short on the South, the land of Manoah Claxton [Clarkson] West, the land of Thomas Jefferson on the North and that of Micajah Carr on the East, in the County of Albemarle. Wooden dwelling house covered with wood. One storey high. The garrett finished, and part stone cellar, 40 by 30 ft. Wing of wood, and stone kitchen cellar, 34 by 16 ft. Appraisal, $2,500. There is a small wooden house 47 ft. from the house and no other within 70 ft. of this house (July 13, 1809 Policy No. 1238).
Monroe further expanded the house at Highland in 1816, including the addition of an upper story (Nov. 9, 1816 Policy No. 2270).

Monroe would also substantially increase the size of his land holdings surrounding the Highland tract during this time period. For example, he purchased Kemp Catlett's neighboring 775 1/2 acre farm in 1802 (Deed Book 14, page 191), a tract previously owned by Mazzei. While Jefferson's plantation and William Short's plantation remained constant boundaries on the north and south sides of the Highland, Monroe expanded by purchasing tracts adjoining the other sides of his property (Rawlings 1952: 35).

View map images of the Highland tract location (large files)
Review details of original records of Ash Lawn-Highland over time

As Monroe's debts increased and his liquidity shrank over the years, he began efforts to sell off much of his property in Virginia to satisfy those debts. He described his difficulties and planned solution to Jefferson in 1814 as follows:

The present appearing to be a favorite time for the sale of land in our state, I advertised my tract in Loudoun some months past, in the hope of profiting. . . . In this I have not yet succeeded. . . . It was intimated to me that I might obtain a very advantageous price for my tract in Albemarle. . . . It is my intention to sell one of these estates, and to apply the money arising from the sale, to the payment of my debts, and the improv[ement] of the other. . . . I shall try the market for both [and] dispose of that which can be sold to greatest advantage, intending however, not to sell that in Albemarle unless the price be such, as to indemnify me for the sacrifice I shall make in relinquishing a residence of 26 years standing, as mine in Albemarle has been, and near old friends to whom I am greatly attached (July 25, 1814 Letter from Monroe to Thomas Jefferson).
Unfortunately, he did not succeed in obtaining offers to purchase either estate with prices he viewed as satisfactory. An economic downturn in 1819 would lead to the further recession of land values.

Monroe was forced to sell Highland in 1825 to pay off such debts that had accumulated over the years. He owed the Bank of the United States approximately $75,000 by that time, and that Bank held a mortgage lien on 3,500 acres of Monroe's land in Albemarle (Cunningham 1996: 181). He attempted to obtain reimbursement for much of these debts from the U.S. government, on the grounds that the expenditures were made in the course of his work for the government and on its behalf. Monroe and his family often resided overseas or in Washington, D.C., incurring debts related to those residences. In addition, he was forced to operate his plantations in Albemarle and Loudoun Counties as an "absentee" owner much of the time. This was often a detriment to the profitability of those farms (Gawalt 1993: 252-53).

After leaving the Office of President in 1825, Monroe began to petition for reimbursement of his debts by Congress (Cunningham 1996: 180). A November 8, 1828 letter to the editors of the Virginia Advocate by Monroe's supporters provides the following partial list of the financial sacrifices Monroe claimed to have incurred:

  • 950 acres of Land, the site of the University of Virginia, now worth $50 per acres. $47,500.
  • N.B. This land was sold, for the payment of debts contracted in the public service, at 5 and $6 per acres.
  • 3778 acres, his former residence above Milton, a portion of which, say 900 acres [which included Highland], has been sold at $20 per acre, and the residue transferred to the Bank [of the United States] in payment of debts contracted in the public service.
  • 705 acres below Milton on Lime Stone Creek. This Land cost Mr. M. $5912 and has been lately sold at a considerable loss in payment of debts contracted in the public service. His slaves, stock, farming utensils, household furniture, on his late residence sold for the same purpose.
  • The loss of his house in Paris, the sacrifice of his Western lands amounting to nearly 100,000 acres for which he had obtained grants. All were sacrificed for payment of debts contracted in the public service.
  • That Mr. Monroe is still encumbered with debts amounting to more than $30,000 with a large arrearage of interest is well known. (Virginia Advocate, Vol. II, No. 16, p. 3, col. 1)
By this account, Monroe's total holdings in Albemarle amounted to 5,433 acres. The growing accumulation of debts over the years undoubtedly precipitated Monroe's decisions on when and at what price he would sell different parcels of this land.

Monroe advertised his Albemarle property for sale in Richmond and Washington, D.C. newspapers in 1823 (Cunningham 1996: 181). At that time, he believed that the market value of his land in both Albemarle and Loudoun Counties had decreased because "'all such property has of late declined much in value, and for the reason that our produce sells for nothing'" (Letter from James Monroe to Fulwar Skipwith, Mar. 11, 1823). These decreasing values had been worsened by the "Panic of 1819," a three-year economic depression which included a collapse of America's agricultural export markets due to surplus crop harvests in Europe (Ammon 1971: 408, 462-63). Monroe was willing to extend credit to any worthwhile purchaser, but viewed the prospects for a sale as poor. Nonetheless, his efforts would "'bring the subject [of his debts and requests to Congress] before the public, and as I offer credit, it is probable that propositions may be made to me for it'" (June 5, 1823 Letter from Monroe to Samuel L. Gouverneur).

Monroe continued these efforts in the Spring of 1825. In an advertisement dated April 12, 1825 by Monroe, he listed his residence as Oak Hill, Loudoun County, and stated: "With a view to a sale of the land above described, to the highest bidder, in small tracts, and with liberal credit, I will attend on the premises, on the first Monday in June next" (The Richmond Enquirer, May 17, 1825).

He finally sold the Highland property, consisting then of approximately 907 acres, to Edward O. Goodwin for $20 per acre, as recorded in a deed agreement dated January 1, 1826. At the time of this sale, Highland was described as including a "commodious dwelling house, buildings for servants and other domestic purposes, good stable, two barns with threshing machine, a grist and sawmill with houses for managers and laborers . . . all in good repair." After his purchase, Goodwin preferred to call the property "North Blenheim."

As described in the November 1828 Virginia Advocate, Monroe had possessed "3778 acres, his former residence above Milton, a portion of which, say 900 acres, has been sold at $20 per acre, and the residue transferred to the Bank in payment of debts contracted in the public service." That residue of 2,800 acres was offered for sale by the Bank of the United States in July 1828, and was described in a public notice as follows:

2,800 ACRES Of valuable land, being the residue of a tract of land in the neighborhood of Charlottesville, formerly belonging to the late President MONROE, and conveyed by him to the Bank of the United States in settlement of a debt transferred to it by the Bank of Columbia.
The whole tract is remarkably well timbered, [and] advantageously situated; and abouth five hundred acres of it is of the best mountain quality, and the remaining part of good quality. On the mountain part there is a commodious DWELLING HOUSE, with a GRIST and SAW MILL, and there are other improvements on other portions of the tract. The land has been laid off into six convenient divisions, and will be sold to suit the convenience of purchasers. (Virginia Advocate, July 26, 1828, Vol. II, No. 53, p. 4, col. 3.)

Goodwin sold the main part of the Highland property, consisting of 600 acres, to Bernard H. Buckner in 1834. Alexander Garrett, a friend of Monroe and Jefferson, purchased the tract from Buckner in 1837. Garrett changed the farm's name once again, to "Ash Lawn," by 1838. After changing hands a number of times, the property was purchased by John Massey in 1867. The Massey family added to the existing house over time, and owned Ash Lawn until 1930, when they sold it to Jay Winston Johns of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Johns used the farm for his family residence and opened it for public visits.

Johns conveyed the entire property through a bequest in his will, consisting of the house and 535 1/2 acres, to the College of William and Mary. The court probate proceedings for Johns' will and estate were completed in 1974, and the property was conveyed at that time to the College. This bequest by Johns specified that the College was "to operate this property as a historic shrine for the education of the general public." The College has owned the property to date, and has operated it as a public museum from 1975 to the present.

Review details of original records of Ash Lawn-Highland over time
View map images of the Highland tract location (large files)

To view a particular topic on Monroe's land holdings,
click on the desired subject below

1. The Ash Lawn-Highland plantation
2. Monroe Hill, site of the University of Virginia
3. Parcels in Downtown Charlottesville
4. The Limestone Farm in Albemarle
5. The Oak Hill plantation in Loudoun County
6. A residence in Fredericksburg
7. A residence and land in Henrico County
8. Other speculative land holdings in Kentucky and elsewhere
9. A List of Sources and References Cited

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Ash Lawn-Highland Museum Web Page

Last Modified: September 2, 2012