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Thomas Jefferson Did Not Sleep Here:
The Cave at Snowden

The Cave at Snowden

The 'cave' at Snowden was dug out of phyllite rock.  Photo by David Spears.

Name:  Thomas Jefferson Did Not Sleep Here:  The Cave at Snowden

By Joanne Yeck

Date:  ca. 2014

Image Number:   DS01cdDS01

Comments:  Shown above is the "cave" at Snowden that was dug out of phyllite rock and has been attached to a legend involving Randolph Jefferson's plantation, Snowden, and Thomas Jefferson's flight from Monticello during June of 1781 when Lt. General Charles Cornwallis, Col. Banastre Tarleton, and the British troops were bearing down on central Virginia.

In 1968, Virginia Moore told an embellished version of this legend in her conversational history, Scottsville on the James.  She began, "There is a tradition that Jefferson hid out in a cave under a bluff below Scott's Landing, about a mile downstream from his brother Randolph's plantation house; the place is pointed out."  In the 18th century, Randolph's Snowden consisted of about 2,000 acres covering both high and low grounds at the James River's Horseshoe Bend.

It was George W. Foland, a descendant of Randolph Jefferson's granddaughter, Frances (Jefferson) Foland, who related the family's oral history to Virginia Moore who continued:

"He says that Thomas Jefferson rode south along blind mountain paths.  Striking Rockside River, he followed it to a ford near Mount Alto, crossed, and stopped at a house where he told his story and asked for shelter.  The owner thought this road, the only good one in the area, unsafe - Tarleton might gallop up.  Conducted two miles upstream, ex-Governor Jefferson (his term had just expired) spent two weeks at the home of Mr. Thomas Farrar.  Then pressed on to Scott's Landing, which he knew intimately, having for years passed through it to visit Snowden, now his brother's.  It was probably Randolph Jefferson who suggested the cliff cave below Scott's Landing as a hideout.  Provisions could be sent as long as there remained any danger of a Tarleton or Simcoe raid.  Perhaps also such luxuries as pillow, quilt, towel.  Already Scott's Landing had heard that Cornwallis was using Jefferson's Goochland seat Elk Hill below Point of Fork as British headquarters, news not calculated to make a cave more comfortable.

With the publication of The Jefferson Brothers (Slate River Press), I became the bearer of bad tidings.  Randolph Jefferson had not come to the aid of his brother during his daring flight.  Thomas had not hidden, even for a few hours, at Snowden.  In fact, Jefferson's own writings make it perfectly clear what actually happened when he fled his home atop the little mountain.  In his "Diary of Arnold's Invasion and Notes on Subsequent Events in 1781", Jefferson wrote:

"I now sent off my family, to secure them from danger and was myself still at Monticello, making arrangements for my own departure, when Lt. (Cristopher) Hudson arrived there at half speed, and informed me the enemy were ascending the hill of Monticello.  I departed immediately, and knowing that I should be pursued if I followed the public road, in which too my family would be found.  I took my course thro' the woods along the mountains and overtook my family at Colo. Cole's, dined there, and carried them on to Rockfish after dinner, and the next day to Colo. Hugh Rose's in Amherst.  I left them there on the 7th and returned to Monticello....I then rejoined my family at Colo. Rose's and proceeded with them to Poplar Forest in Bedford 80 miles S.W. from Monticello."

Jefferson's version of his methodical escape leaves no room for doubt.  There was no two week stay with Thomas Farrar, no time spent secluded in a cave at Snowden, and, certainly, no 'pillow, quilt and towel" provided by his attentive brother, Randolph.

"Wait!" protested Buckingham and Scottsville locals.  "There is a cave at Snowden!"

Indeed there is something like a cave at Snowden, and Virginia State Geologist David Spears has examined and described it, further putting an end to the myth.

Caves and sinkholes do not typically form in the geological formation exposed in the bluffs of the Horseshoe Bend at what was once Randolph Jefferson's Snowden.  Spears believes that the extremely small "cave" which can be found there today is man-made.  He suspects that the bluff may have been excavated by someone searching for mineralized calcium carbonate.  Faint traces of calcite (lime) can be seen on the rock surface.  A keen eye might have noticed the streaks and dug into the bluff hoping to find a pocket of lime, useful to farmers as fertilizer.

According to Spears, "There are very few sources of lime in the Piedmont.  In the 19th century, a few thin bands of marble running along the James River between Scottsville and Lynchburg were exploited extensively for agricultural lime.  The prospect at Snowden is not in a layer of marble; it's a rock we call phyllite, made mostly of mica and mica-like minerals, but it has just enough calcite in it to be noticeable.  The hole in the rock face was probably made in a desperate attempt to scrape a little lime out of a lime-poor rock."

There is no indication that this hole in Snowden's bluff dates back to 1781.  Likewise, there is no way of knowing when the tale of Thomas Jefferson hiding there began to circulate though, following the publication of The Jefferson Brothers, I discovered a version in print in 1900, indicating it was cherished by the descendants of Randolph Jefferson long before it was repeated to Virginia Moore.

Snowden may have lost a legend but in its place I've discovered an actual mystery.  This time, however, the Thomas Jefferson involved is Randolph Jefferson's son, Thomas Jefferson, Jr., not his famous namesake.

About 1807, Randolph Jefferson, his oldest sons, and his son-in-law, Zachariah Nevil, launched a business venture at Snowden called "Nevil and Jefferson."  They purchased supplies in William Moon's store at Stony Point, located just above Scott's Ferry, now Scottsville.  A surviving store ledger shows that they bought, among other things, "shoe brushes, 27 [units?] iron, a blacking ball, quires of paper and pencils, copperass, pit and hand saws, two orders of German steel, and black pepper."

What early 19th century endeavor might have utilized iron, copperass, and steel?  Copperass is an antiquated term for ferrous sulfate which was used in the manufacture of inks, most notably iron gall ink.  This process dated from the middle ages and was used until the ened of the 18th century.  It was also used in the dyeing of wool and in a material called harewood, used in parquertry.

Significantly, in 1808, Randolph's son, Thomas Jefferson, Jr., purchased an African-American slave named Cary, who was skilled as a "rough" cooper.  Did Gary make barrels for specialized containers for "Nevil and Jefferson?"  What might they be selling that required barrels, tubs, casks, or other containers made of wood? Hogsheads were used for tobacco.  Whiskey required barrels.

By 1810, the business had dissolved, Randolph Jefferson had remarried, and most of his children had dispersed from Snowden.  At least for now, that's where the story of 'Nevil and Jefferson' ends.

Have any ideas about what the Jefferson clan and Zachariah Nevil were up to at Snowden?   Please visit me online at Slate River Ramblings (, click "Contact Joanne," and share your thoughts.

Despite the fact that Joanne Yeck lives in Ohio, she spends much of her time musing and writing about Buckingham County.  She is the author of "At a Place Called Buckingham" and "The Jefferson Brothers", both published by Slate River Press.  Learn more about her and her books at

Published by Scottsville Monthly, October 3-October 30, 2014.

Image Located On:  Capturing Our Heritage, CDS01



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