Patrick Henry Jolly Gives A New Perspective at Red Hill
Photos by Ashlee Glenn
I personally believe that if we think of our founding fathers, obviously George Washington would be on the highest pedestal—but I firmly believe that if, given the opportunity, he would reach down, take Patrick Henry’s hand, and pull him up on that same pedestal. I really do,” said Patrick Henry Jolly, the fifth-great grandson of Virginia statesman and revolutionary, Patrick Henry.
Patrick Henry’s home, Red Hill, sprawls over 1,000 acres, straddling Charlotte and Campbell counties. From the house at the top of a hill, one can see down over the fields to where the Staunton River flows. The land is owned by the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, which works to preserve Henry’s third and final Virginia home and keep the legacy of Red Hill alive.
The Revolutionary orator, lawyer, and politician from Virginia became most famous for his “Liberty or Death” speech, uttering seven words that remain on the tongues of almost every United States citizen today. While other figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington might be more prominent in the public mind, Patrick Henry was also a founding father.
Many visitors to Red Hill might have met or seen Jolly giving a tour, or reciting Henry’s most famous speech at the organization’s annual July 4 event. For 35 years now, Henry’s fifth great-grandson has been working with Red Hill and helping to educate others about his forefather, the place he lived, and the people who lived there with him.
Growing up, Jolly always knew he was descended from Patrick Henry through his mother. They even had a family heirloom: the now-famous ivory letter opener Henry held when he made that famous speech and, in the spirit of the Roman senator Cato, declared: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
“I’ve heard people say it has more significance to the American Revolution than the Liberty Bell,” Jolly said of the letter opener. To him as a child, he said it just looked like “an ivory popsicle stick.”
Jolly always felt proud seeing Henry’s portrait in school history books, and hearing his name mentioned—but not until his late 20’s did he really start learning about his forefather.
“It was in the late 1980s that I was asked, in Ohio, to do a talk about Patrick Henry for a DAR group,” Jolly said. “I agreed, and as I began to prepare, I realized I didn’t know that much, which is a little bit embarrassing.”
Jolly first visited Red Hill as a high school senior with his mother, and he instantly fell in love with the place. It was as though something in him remembered it.
More visits to Red Hill followed over the ensuing years, and by the late 1990s, Jolly was more involved with Red Hill as an organization. He played the violin, taking up the instrument Henry played; he met with school groups and led tours whenever he was in town; and finally, he started dressing in period costume to read Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech on Independence Day.
The original property was comprised of 3,000 acres, said Hope Marstin, executive director of Red Hill. It was always in the hands of descendants, up until 1944, when one of Henry’s great granddaughters died and Red Hill was not passed on. Concerned citizens banded together to save it, since Patrick Henry himself was buried there. Thus, the foundation was born.
“It started out, the place was kind of in ruins when his great-granddaughter died, and the Foundation formed to save it, and just started restoring and preserving everything slowly until [we got] where we are now,” Marstin said.
Over the last few years with renewed vigor, Red Hill continued its mission to restore humanity to the enslaved people who also called Red Hill home—67 of them who are known.
Jolly and Red Hill have been actively working to tell an honest and complete history of the estate and Patrick Henry.
“I just think Red Hill… they’re committed to telling the complete, truthful story of Red Hill, and slavery is part of that story. This is Patrick Henry’s Red Hill, and Patrick Henry’s Red Hill included 67 enslaved individuals,” Jolly said.
When asked what his favorite part of Red Hill is, Jolly will say it’s the house, and its stunning views down to the river. The most special place, however, is another question altogether and, for him, the most special place at Red Hill is the Quarter Place cemetery.
One day in 2019, Jolly wrote down all the names of enslaved people recorded in an inventory of Henry’s possessions—listed along with articles of furniture, instruments, and other items—walked down to the Quarter Place cemetery alone, and read each name aloud among the 147 total graves. Not all those buried there are known.
Jesse. John. Peg. Critty, who is believed to have been the cook. Maria, Eliza, Violet. Bob and Peter; Polly and Betty. The list goes on. To this day, Jolly reads the names off as he leads lantern tours down to the Quarter Place cemetery.
“To me, these people need to be celebrated,” Jolly said. “Patrick Henry wrestled with the concept of slavery, as many founders may have. He knew that it was wrong, but at the end of the day, he was a slave owner. He owned other human beings, 67 of them here at Red Hill… what I can do, personally and as part of Red Hill, is to celebrate their lives. To honor their lives.”
Multiple descendants have been identified through the genealogical research conducted at Red Hill, Marstin said, both out of state and “around the corner.” Red Hill recently had its third annual event honoring and remembering the enslaved people who lived at and operated Red Hill, and descendants were invited.
“We had always—well, for decades—done genealogy on Patrick Henry’s descendants, but now, working the other side of it with the enslaved descendants, it’s a nice way to bring those two groups together, to just talk about the past, and make that connection,” Marstin said.
Red Hill’s top priority is education, Marstin said, and this includes working in and with schools around the area, especially elementary grade classes.
Three of Jolly’s main takeaways he hopes to impart on visitors are the character of Patrick Henry; his significance to history and legacy in the modern day; and the beauty of Red Hill as a home and land.
“One takeaway would be Patrick Henry’s character, and his modesty. Another one would be his importance, not only in Virginia history, but in American history,” Jolly said.
The property of Red Hill—the final home of the three Henry owned over the course of his life with the other two, Pine Slash and Scotchtown, located in Hanover County—is also special. Its rolling fields, wooded areas, stretch of river, and cemeteries all contribute to a serene home. The house itself is modest, not a Monticello or Mount Vernon mansion, Jolly said. That is fitting, he said, because that was Patrick Henry.
“When he called this one of the ‘garden spots of the world,’ it still is,” Jolly said.