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The 10th president’s last surviving grandson: A bridge to the nation’s complicated past

William Tyler, left, the great-grandson of President John Tyler poses with a painting of his father, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, who is the 91-year-old grandson of the 10th president of the United States, at the Sherwood Forest Plantation near Charles City, Va. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

These days Harrison Ruffin Tyler, 91, is allowed only one designated visitor. Those are the pandemic rules at the nursing home in Virginia where he lives. So in September, when his last living sibling, brother Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. died at 95, he found out about it on the daily visit from his daughter-in-law.

“He understood what was going on, he was upset,” said his son William Tyler, 58. But “he doesn’t have any memory of yesterday, he doesn’t have any memory of today.”

Due to a series of mini-strokes starting in 2012, Harrison lives almost without time. It would be quite a change for anyone, but it’s particularly so for someone like him, who grew up steeped in family history. Harrison was raised in his grandfather’s hunting lodge; his grandfather — John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States — was born in 1790.

That is not a typo — 1790, as in, during George Washington’s first term.

John Tyler, an enslaver who was thrown out of his own political party, the Whigs, for vetoing so many bills, never makes it onto lists of best presidents. But he certainly made his share of history in the White House, where he served from 1841 to 1845. He was the first vice president to assume the presidency upon the death of a president; the first president to have a veto overridden; the first president to endure a House impeachment vote (it failed); the first president to be widowed and to marry while in office; and the president who fathered the most children — 15!

Because his second wife, Julia Gardiner, was so much younger, Tyler was still fathering children throughout his sixties. One of those children was Lyon Gardiner Tyler Sr., born in 1853, nearly a decade after his father’s term in office. Lyon Sr. ended up following a similar domestic path, being widowed and then remarrying to a much younger woman. They had Harrison when he was 75 and she was 39.

Harrison is also related to William Henry Harrison, the president his grandfather replaced, hence his first name. And he’s related to Pocahontas — “like 10,000 other people,” William said — but because of his unique bridge to the nation’s past, “there’s a high likelihood that he’s the closest living genetic relation to Pocahontas in the world.”

He’s one of the last living members of a club of people who seem like they are bending time, demonstrating that “long ago” isn’t so long ago. There was the man who fought with George Washington in the Revolutionary War who lived long enough to be photographed; the woman who received her father’s Civil War pension until her death in May; a retired man in Washington whose father was born enslaved.

She was the last American to collect a Civil War pension — $73.13 a month

President Tyler was a wealthy man with a large plantation house, where he profited from the labor of 40 to 50 enslaved people. When he died in 1862, he became the only president in history to be buried in a casket covered by the flag of another country — the Confederate States of America. Tyler spent the last years of his life railing against Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement. He had just been elected to the Confederate Congress before dying at the age of 71.

Because he had so many heirs, his wealth was spread thin. Plus, most of Lyon Sr.’s wealth was tied up in a vast book collection that he donated to William & Mary, where he had been president. So Harrison actually grew up poor, his son said. Lyon Sr. died when he was 7; at 8, he would wake up early to chop wood for fires that heated the house. Their clothing was made from burlap sacks. One night a week, they would run a generator to listen to the radio.

One thing the family did have was connections. During his life, Lyon Sr. had a long correspondence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harrison remembered visiting the White House and waiting out on the grass while Roosevelt and his mother spoke privately, his son said.

Years later, when Harrison was reaching college age, the family received a mysterious visit from the American-born Lady Astor, whom they had never met. She drove up to the hunting lodge, wrote a check for $5,000, handed it to the family without getting out of her car and drove away, William said. That money funded Harrison’s education at William & Mary.

Recently, William learned from an archivist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library of a letter from a colleague of Lyon Sr.’s appealing for Roosevelt for help with the brothers. “... Unless they can obtain some assistance in a financial way, I am afraid they will not have the proper educational advantages,” the colleague wrote. Since there was a strong connection between the Astor and Roosevelt families, William believes it’s possible the 32nd president arranged for their mysterious gift.

After graduating from William & Mary, Harrison earned a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Virginia. In 1968, he co-founded an industrial water treatment company that became wildly successful. Harrison passed on the gift, turning his company into an Employee Stock-Owned Plan; he turned the reins over to them in 2000.

The relatives who had inherited the plantation house, called Sherwood Forest, were young and “the house was rotting out from under them,” William said, so in 1975 Harrison purchased it. His wife had grown up on another former plantation house in South Carolina and devoted herself to restoring it.

John Tyler had originally purchased the plantation in Charles City County at the close of his presidency. And by a bizarre twist of fate, he left office with a young bride ready to do some entertaining.

His first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler, had been ill for years and died of a stroke in 1842. In February 1844, the president and hundreds of others were on board a new ship in the Potomac River when a huge naval gun exploded, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy and Sen. David Gardiner of New York, among others. As family legend has it, Tyler survived only because he was below deck flirting with the senator’s daughter. They were married in June 1844.

Over the next few years, they expanded the home, including adding a 68-foot-long ballroom. “He was always known as ‘the president without a party,’ ” William said. “[Julia] built that ballroom, and she said, ‘Now he’s going to have a party.’ ” Pretty soon the mansion was more than 300 feet long, the longest frame house in the country.

Along with restoration, Harrison started public tours of the property and set up a nonprofit foundation to keep it in the family. William has taken over those duties since his dad’s strokes and spends two nights a week at the plantation.

“It’s a lot of work, and I don’t get a penny for it,” William said. “But, you know, it’s family duty.”

The pandemic has temporarily shut down those tours, but it has brought another opportunity. William’s 23-year-old daughter Frances was forced to finish her Georgetown University degree from home last spring. And in May, when protests ignited over the killing of George Floyd, she began to unearth the family’s history with slavery.

Frances spent much of the summer and fall working with researchers at the local history center, plus historians at William & Mary and the University of Virginia. She read her great-great-grandmother’s letters for more clues, which meant interpreting a lot of euphemistic, paternalistic and racist language.

As plantations talk more honestly about slavery, some visitors are pushing back

“I definitely have some opinions about Julia Gardiner Tyler that, um … ” she said, trailing off. “Anyone who has read the letters, you kind of get this sense that she didn’t understand the degree of suffering by any means.”

For example, in an 1852 letter Julia describes receiving a visit from a formerly enslaved man named Henry. President Tyler had sold Henry south years earlier as punishment for running away. In Georgia, he became a skilled barber and was able to earn enough side money to emancipate himself. When he returned to Sherwood Forest a free man, Julia interpreted it as him coming to apologize.

But researchers told Frances it’s more likely Henry was coming to check on his family or to show the Tylers he hadn’t been defeated by their punishment.

In the beginning what she learned was “tremendously painful,” she said, but it’s helped her to speak with others about it, particularly to history professor Jody Lynn Allen, who runs the Lemon Project, William & Mary’s program to rectify the college’s history with slavery. Allen, she said, “helped me separate myself and condemn the behavior, and also recognize that I’m not responsible necessarily for my ancestors’ actions, but I have benefited from a system that they supported.”

Frances is developing a slavery-focused tour modeled after Monticello’s. But first, she’s working on revamping the Sherwood Forest website — the current one is older than she is — which will include all she’s learned about the enslaved people who lived there.

There are hopes for archaeological research to uncover more about the enslaved peoples’ dwellings. Cabins on the property now were moved over from another plantation by Harrison’s wife. Frances has also met one descendant of the people her family enslaved — she shared letters from her great-great-grandmother describing the woman’s ancestors — and hopes to meet more.

William welcomes his daughter’s research. “Frances is looking at it differently. She wants to know who the people are, were there any descendants, she wants to find and meet people. I think it’s really neat what she’s doing,” he said. Each generation has its work, he said, and younger people have “different priorities, and I support that.”

Will she someday take over the tours and the “two days a weeks for no compensation,” as her father puts it? She doesn’t know. First, she’s going to law school.

Berkeley, Shirley and Westover plantations are all sort of being run by the younger generation now, and they’re much more open to honoring and acknowledging the role of enslaved people,” she said. “But their generations are a lot shorter than ours.”

Read more Retropolis:

At 88, he is a historical rarity — the living son of a slave

She was the last American to collect a Civil War pension — $73.13 a month. She just died.

Neo-Nazis rallied around Jefferson’s statue. But it was a Jewish family that saved Monticello.

‘Like chasing shadows’: Uncovering Colonial Williamsburg’s LGBTQ history