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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Enslaved Households of President John Tyler

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Born to an affluent family in 1790, John Tyler spent most of his life in Charles City County, Virginia. He was raised on the Tyler family plantation, Greenway, and primarily lived there until his marriage to Letitia Christian in 1813.1 His father, John Tyler Sr., served as a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, governor of Virginia, and eventually judge of the United States District Court for the District of Virginia. Judge Tyler was also a prominent slave owner—by 1810, there were twenty-six enslaved individuals living at Greenway plantation.2 These enslaved men, women, and children were the people maintaining the property, farming the land, and providing the means for the growing Tyler family.

Like his father, John attended the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1807. He then prepared for a career in law, studying with his father and Edmund Randolph, former United States Attorney General. After Judge Tyler died in 1813, he left Greenway and thirteen enslaved individuals to his son John.3 That same year, John purchased a tract of land in Charles City County and built his own plantation, Woodburn, shortly thereafter.4 According to the 1820 census, there were twenty-four enslaved people living at Woodburn with the Tylers.5 Ten years later, the Tyler household had grown exponentially from three to seven children, ranging in age from fifteen-year-old Mary to newborn Tazewell. The enslaved community had grown as well—twenty-nine individuals, more than half of which were under the age of ten, were counted at the Tyler property. These enslaved children helped their mothers and fathers with their various tasks, but some likely became young caretakers for the Tyler children.6

During the 1820s and 1830s, Tyler held a series of prominent political positions at both the state and national level. While he considered himself a Democrat, he sometimes opposed President Andrew Jackson’s policies—specifically whenever the president opted to use executive power at the expense of the states. After he finished serving in the United States Senate, Tyler returned to practicing law and later ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Tyler, a Virginian slave owner and lifelong Democrat, was strategically added to the ticket to entice southerners to vote for Harrison. This tactic, along with the campaign’s efforts to villainize President Martin Van Buren for the country’s economic woes while casting Harrison as a military hero and commoner, delivered a decisive electoral victory for the Whig Party. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the oft-repeated slogan of their supporters, but this relationship changed dramatically after the unexpected death of President Harrison on April 4, 1841. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Martin Van Buren.

This 1888 engraving depicts a messenger delivering the news of President William Henry Harrison's death to Vice President John Tyler at his Williamsburg home on April 5, 1841.

Library of Congress

Fletcher Webster, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, delivered the shocking news to Vice President John Tyler at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Tyler set out for Washington, D.C., and quickly asserted himself as the new President of the United States. He took a new oath of office with the members of Harrison’s Cabinet present, and three days later issued an inaugural address to the American people:

For the first time in our history the person elected to the Vice-Presidency of the United States, by the happening of a contingency provided for in the Constitution, has had devolved upon him the Presidential office…My earnest prayer shall be constantly addressed to the all-wise and all-powerful Being who made me, and by whose dispensation I am called to the high office of President of this Confederacy, understandingly to carry out the principles of that Constitution which I have sworn "to protect, preserve, and defend."7

About a week after Harrison’s funeral, President Tyler and his family moved into the Executive Mansion. There is little surviving documentation that tells us about the household staff, but there are bits and pieces of evidence suggesting that there were both free and enslaved African Americans working at the Tyler White House.8 Abolitionist William Still’s The Underground Rail Road detailed the lives and experiences of African Americans who made the journey from slavery to freedom. Still shared the biography of James Hambleton Christian, who was born into slavery on the plantation of Robert Christian and claimed he was the half-brother of First Lady Letitia Christian Tyler.9 James worked for both the Christian and Tyler families, and at the Tyler White House.

The Colored American, November 20, 1841

NewsBank/ American Antiquarian Society

There was also a man named James Wilkins, who worked as a butler for the first family. While there is scant documentation about him, newspaper accounts suggest that he was a free man who worked for wages and managed the staff. An African-American newspaper in New York City, The Colored American, published an article about him on November 20, 1841, and it was picked up by multiple presses throughout the country. According to this column, Wilkins had his own office, oversaw the expenses of the house, and employed both his son and daughter to work at the President’s House. The article concluded: “President Tyler has in all 18 colored persons hired—he has but two of his slaves with him, as servants. This is the first time that any of our Presidents have made a colored man the chief butler of his household. His ‘illustrious predecessors’ have had white men. Surely we are getting up slowly.”10 While there were certainly other possible motivations for printing this news, Wilkins does appear again during an 1842 debate in the House of Representatives. He is referred to as “Jim Wilkins, the President’s butler,” which suggests that Wilkins did have a role—and a higher one—than expected for the times.11

There is another documented enslaved individual—President Tyler’s valet—though there is some confusion over his actual name. Contemporary accounts refer to him as either “Armistead” or “Henry”; another possibility may be that his name was actually Henry Armistead. Regardless, he appears in the news as one of the six victims of the tragic explosion aboard the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844. New Jersey Congressman George Sykes, who was on board the Princeton, described him as “the president’s servant…a stout black man about 23 or 24 years old and lived about an hour after” the accident. While Sykes doesn’t give a name, he did mention that “the blackman’s” coffin was made of cherry, and “the president’s servant was buried by the coloured persons—and his relations—the next day.”12 The Daily Madisonian noted that there were six hearses, one of which “conveyed the body of one of the President’s colored servants, to the President’s mansion.”13 While newspaper coverage fails to shed more light on this particular individual, they do consistently state that one of the president’s servants—likely his enslaved valet—was killed on the Princeton. Writing from the White House that fall, Julia Gardiner Tyler mentioned an enslaved woman named "Aunt Fanny" in a letter to her mother; Fanny was likely brought to Washington by President Tyler. These four identified individuals, a mix of free and enslaved African Americans, worked in the Tyler White House.14

The Daily National Intelligencer, February 28, 1844

NewsBank/American Antiquarian Society

Newspaper accounts from the time also suggest that there were other enslaved individuals working at the White House. Two days before the Princeton explosion, an investigation began into an alleged robbery that took place at the President’s House. According to the Daily National Intelligencer, “a colored woman named Mary Murphy” was “charged with stealing silver table and teaspoons, the property of the United States.” The magistrates held a man named “Avery” on the charge of receiving stolen property, and the report also mentioned that “a colored servant belonging to the President is also implicated in this theft.”15

According to the 1844 D.C. Criminal Court records, George Avery and Susan Goodyear were first charged with larceny in March; however, the charges were reduced to receiving stolen goods in June. John Tyler, Jr., was present at their court appearances, likely as a witness on behalf of his father. According to one newspaper, “Susan Goodyear, indicted for receiving three silver spoons belonging to the President’s House, knowing them to have been stolen, was acquitted…George Avery, also indicted for the same offence, was acquitted. Mr. Hoban, counsel for the accused, submitted a number of testimonials from gentlemen in Baltimore and Alexandria, showing for the accused an excellent character.” In a great twist of irony, the public defender for Avery was James Hoban, Jr., the son of the architect who built and rebuilt the President’s House.16

The criminal court records indicate that this theft occurred—but what of Mary Murphy and the implicated enslaved servant? Her absence from the court proceedings means she was never charged with a crime—and if she was a free woman, the city attorney certainly would have prosecuted her for stealing from the President’s House. However, if Mary Murphy was enslaved and hired out to work at the Tyler White House, her owner may have decided to sell her before she faced charges and lost her value. Many slave owners sold those that resisted enslavement, or in their minds “misbehaved” or were “troublesome”; as a result, enslaved individuals lived with the constant fear that at any moment they could be sold and sent to the Deep South.

This court docket shows that George Avery and Susan Goodyear, charged with "Receiving Stolen Goods," were found 'Not Guilty' by a jury of peers on February 7, 1845.

Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, National Archives and Records Administration

Mary’s owner may have been a man named Jeremiah Murphy, who ran a confectionary store on Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 10th streets. According to the 1840 census, Murphy owned one enslaved woman—and this woman’s experience working at this type of establishment may have made her a valuable employee in a kitchen or dining room, places where a servant would have direct access to tableware.17 While this theory is speculative, it might explain Mary Murphy’s disappearance from the criminal court records and newspaper coverage. If the newspaper account is true and President Tyler’s enslaved servant aided Mary’s alleged theft, he or she might have faced a similar punishment, but there is no surviving documentation of this individual.

President Tyler appears seldom in these records, but when he does, it is usually an instance of nolle prosequi, a Latin phrase meaning “we shall no longer prosecute.” The President of the United States served as an executive to the country and within the District itself. Lawyers could appeal on behalf of their defendants by going directly to the president, who possessed the authority to direct the city attorney to drop criminal charges. President Tyler used this power several times in 1844—first, for John Green and Thomas Ratcliff, charged with larceny on March 6. The other instances were for two enslaved men, Samuel Gassaway and Charles Coates, charged with housebreaking and stealing. According to one newspaper account, Gassaway and Coates stole “three pairs of boots and a box of cigars” from the Georgetown store of James and Henry Thecker. They were found guilty and subject to punishment by death, but their case was “recommended to the clemency of the Executive.”18 On June 20, 1844, President Tyler directed the city attorney to drop the charges against these enslaved men—but not much else is known about them. The president used this legal authority sparingly, which suggests that he knew of them or, upon hearing appeals from their owners, politely acquiesced to their requests.19 Research is ongoing to learn more about Samuel Gassaway, Charles Coates, and whether they had any prior relationship to President Tyler or the Tyler family.

This court docket shows that "Neg. Saml Gassaway" was charged with "House breaking & Stealing" in October 1843. Further down, the entry states: "Nolle Prosequi by direction of the President of the U.S. and by order of the District Attorney. Filed June 20, 1844."

Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, National Archives and Records Administration

Despite his appeal for a “lofty patriotism” over the “spirit of faction,” President Tyler quickly found himself at odds with Cabinet members and leaders in the Whig Party. His veto of legislation that would revive the Second Bank of the United States sparked a visceral reaction from both politicians and citizens alike. An angry mob descended upon the White House in the middle of the night, banging on drums and kettles while shouting obscenities at the president. They burned an effigy of Tyler, chanting “‘down with Tyler,’ ‘hurrah for Clay,’ [and] ‘give us a bank.’”20 The Whig Party cast Tyler out, and most of his Cabinet resigned over this episode. Things became even more contentious when on July 22, 1842, Virginia Representative John Minor Botts presented a petition “requesting ‘John Tyler, the acting President of the United States,’ to resign his office; and in case he do not comply with such request, they pray that he may be impeached, ‘on the grounds of his ignorance of the interest and true policy of this Government, and want of qualification for the discharge of the important duties of President of the United States.”21 While this measure ultimately proved unsuccessful, this became the first instance of Congress attempting to impeach a president in American history.

The Daily National Intelligencer, October 26, 1843

NewsBank/American Antiquarian Society

Considering the political turmoil that engulfed his presidency, it was hardly surprising when neither party selected Tyler to be its presidential nominee in 1848. He quietly left office and returned to Sherwood Forest, his plantation estate in Charles City County, Virginia.22 By 1850, there were forty-six enslaved individuals working at the Tyler property; ten years later, that number decreased slightly to forty-four.23 This increase also coincided with the second expansion of the Tyler family, as the president had married twenty-four-year-old Julia Gardiner in 1844. The couple went on to have seven children, and they enjoyed hosting guests for dinner and dancing at Sherwood Forest. Near the outbreak of the Civil War, Tyler served as a representative at the Peace Conference of 1861 but ultimately rejected the proposed resolutions. He would go on to serve as an elected representative for the Confederacy, but he did not live to see the end of the war.

On January 18, 1862, he died in Richmond, Virginia at age 71. While he had requested a simple burial, political leaders of the Confederacy organized a state funeral for the former president. His remains laid in state in the Hall of Congress in Richmond, covered “with the flag of his country.”24 Memorial services were held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, followed by a procession to Hollywood Cemetery.25 His death also marked a new era of uncertainty for the enslaved men, women, and children held in bondage by the Tyler family. Union soldiers descended upon Sherwood Forest in 1864, and their presence gave the enslaved community an opportunity to escape. The troops also inflicted damage on the property, stole items from the house, and confiscated or destroyed Tyler’s papers.26 As a result, we know very little about those enslaved by the Tyler family—but hope to learn more as our research continues.

Thank you to Dr. Christopher Leahy, Professor of History at Keuka College, and Sharon Williams Leahy of History Preserve, for sharing their insights and research for this article.