Grandpappy Walker

Since it’s almost Independence Day, I decided to post about someone in my family who was involved with the revolution. Sure, there are the likely suspects: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. And, they are indeed family members on either my mother of father’s side. But we all know those stories. One of my favorite distant grandfathers wasn’t as well known as the these others. Dr. Thomas Walker was born in 1715. He was Thomas Jefferson’s guardian, the first white man to explore Kentucky, and did a whole batch of impressive things.

But I like him because he risked everything for the revolution. By 1776, Dr. Walker was 61 years old and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He wasn’t a destitute revolutionary; he was firmly set as a member of the gentry. It would be as if a comfortable CEO of a Fortune 500 company decided to join a revolution today. Typically comfortable old white guys don’t do this. 

In 1781, British Colonel Banastre Tarleton marched on Charlottesville with the intent to capture then Governor, Thomas Jefferson. When the British Army reached the family estate, Castle Hill, my distant grandmother and Dr. Walker delayed them by preparing a fine breakfast. Legend has it they also supplied liquor. This gave the patriot Jack Jouett time to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislators of Tarleton's plan to capture them, and they escaped.

Just after the American Revolution, a traveling author visited Castle Hill and wrote an account of his interview with Dr. Thomas Walker:

"One day, in a chat, while each was delivering his sentiments of what would be the state of America a century hence, the old man [Walker], with great fire and spirit, declared his opinion that, 'The Americans would then reverence the resolution of their forefathers, and would eagerly impress an adequate idea of the sacred value of freedom in the minds of their children, that if, in any future ages they should be again called forth to revenge public injuries, to secure that freedom, they should adopt the same measures that secured it to their brave ancestors.'"

Thomas Anbury (Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, 1776-1781)

Castle Hill, Virginia

Castle Hill, Virginia

The Ghosts of Virginia

Last week, I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia. Part of this visit was for speaking engagements. I also wanted to do some family history scouting in Virginia. In the same way that people return to the county of their ancestors in Ireland, or the village in Italy, I wanted to visit my roots. The only experience I have of Virginia is either stories told by my grandmother, or history books. I expected that I would be a cousin to everyone I met on the street. Oddly, this wasn’t the case. As I was reminded, it’s not 1850. I was surprised to find many streets named after family members, and Colonial Williamsburg was like a family reunion. I had some of the best fried-chicken of my life. I met some remarkable people working incredibly hard for their community. And, I now know what Henrico and Albemarle counties look like.

My grandmother talked about Virginia in a poetic and tragic way. I assumed that it was because she was dramatic. But, I found myself feeling the same way. I felt a constant undercurrent of family history everywhere I went. I thought about the great achievements and terrible deeds committed. The entire time, I was aware that all of these people were gone, all of their accomplishments completed by the 18th century, and that the families had long ago dispersed. I definitely felt the ghosts of many of them at each stop. Whether it was Peter Meriwether Fry at the Jefferson Hotel, or Dr. Thomas Walker at Castle Hill, or Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, I could see their world through my eyes.

Robert Carter house

paint color detail, Colonial Williamsburg

Oh baby, when I look in your eyes I go crazy

Amelie Rives, Princess Troubetzkoy

One of the benefits of having a family obsessed with old family stories is, just that, many old family stories. My grandmother is from an ancient Virginia family and she often referred to cousins, aunts, and great-great grandparents in polite and obscure language. “Well,” she would say, in a very slow Virginia drawl, “she was a true beauty, and quite eccentric.” And that would be that. As I’ve looked deeper into some of these relatives, the truth is far more interesting.

For example, my grandmother’s cousin Amelie Rives' godfather was General Robert E. Lee and granddaughter of Senator William Cabell Rives. She was born at the end of the civil war and lived at Castle Hill, built by one of my distant grandfathers Dr. Thomas Walker, near Charlottesville. In 1888, she married John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, grandson of John Jacob Astor. The marriage was a disaster with details including morphine addiction in France, affairs, and eventual madness. The Astor family claimed that Amelie drove Archie mad, my family claimed that he was already mad. Donna M. Lucey’s biography, Archie and Amelie, Love and Madness in the Gilded Age retells the story, albeit in a salacious way.

In the end, Archie descended into madness, including delusions that he could put himself into a sort of trance in which his face would somehow morph into the death mask of Napoleon. In the meantime, Amelie became the toast of European society, divorced Archie, and married Russian Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy, "an artist and an aristocrat," who possessed more glamour and panache than money. The two settled at the family home, Castle Hill and were together for the rest of their lives. The scandals continued, when Amelie began writing novels and plays including the shocking The Quick and the Dead?, an erotic story. However, as my grandmother said, “Why, she was such a fine beauty.”

Castle Hill, near Charlottesville, Virginia

Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy

Amelie Rives 1890

John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler

John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler as Napoleon's death mask, and riding

Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy

Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy by Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy c. 1890