John Clayton

John Clayton

John Clayton, who went on to become a renowned botanist, came to Virginia in 1715 when he was around 22 years old. He became the assistant to Peter Beverley, Gloucester County’s clerk of court, and by October 1720, had succeeded him in office. In 1723 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Whiting, the daughter of Major Henry Whiting of Elmington plantation, Peter Beverley’s son-in-law and a former member of the Governor’s Council. 

Clayton purchased a total of 450 acres in Ware Parish and developed it into a family estate he called Windsor. The Clayton plantation was one mile from the Piankatank River and bordered the east side of Wadinger Creek, in what became Mathews County. John and Betty Clayton occupied a two- story dwelling that had an English Basement and two wings.

Botany Career

John Clayton became keenly interested in botany and by the 1730s, had begun collecting native plant specimens that he sent to colleagues overseas and in other American colonies. His garden contained native plants and cultivars he obtained from contacts in Europe. He had time to explore the countryside and collect plants because he could have his deputy clerk perform routine tasks. Clayton began compiling his "Catalogue of Plants, Fruits and Trees Native to Virginia," using Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus’s classificatory system. He sent a copy of his manuscript to Dutch botanist John Frederick Gronovius, who published it as Flora Virginica. 

As a botanist and plant taxonomist, John Clayton was greatly respected by his peers, and he corresponded with Linnaeus and other greats. Over the years, he carefully collected, identified, and then dried plant specimens that he preserved in his herbarium but also sent to colleagues.

Agricultural Crops

Although John Clayton was preoccupied with collecting and preserving native plants, he was interested in agricultural crops, such as varieties of wheat the would thrive in Virginia. In fact, he was highly successful planter who sent his hogsheads of tobacco to the East River warehouse (at today’s Williams Wharf) so that they could be inspected and readied for an overseas market. His correspondence indicates that he was a man of discriminating tastes who could be fractious and litigious.


In May 1773, John Clayton’s selection as president of the Society for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge, a significant honor, was announced in the Virginia Gazette. Perhaps on account of failing health or a keen awareness of his advancing age, he made his will on October 25, 1773 and died in late December, having served as Gloucester County’s clerk of court for a remarkable 53 years. In 1794 the hundreds of Plant specimens that John Clayton sent to Gronovius became the John Clayton Herbarium, part of London’s Natural History Museum.

About Martha W. McCartney

  • Martha is an American research historian and writer
  • William and Mary graduate
  • Worked 13 years for Virginia Research Center for Archaeology
  • Independent historian
  • Consultant for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Project historian for the five year-Jamestown Archaeological Assesment conducted by the National Park Service
  • Martha has won historic preservation awards, including a National History Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2001

Her Books

  • The Free Black Community at Centerville (2000)
  • The History of Green Spring Plantation (1998)
  • James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth (1997)
  • Jamestown an American Legacy (2001)
  • Jordan’s Point, Virginia: Archaeology in Perspective, Prehistoric to Modern Times (2011)
  • Mathews County, Virginia: Lost Landscapes, Untold Stories (2015)
  • Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers - 1607 to 1635: A Biographical Dictionary (2007)
  • With Reverence for the Past: Gloucester County Virginia (2001)

George Washington portrait

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

The Gentleman Gardener

by Nicole Zema
The Gentleman Gardener (PDF)
Virginia Farm Bureau Federation®

Thomas Jefferson portrait

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Monticello’s agrarian roots still growing today

By Kathy Dixon
Virginia Farm Bureau Federation®

Monticello-lush lawns, stately columns and abundant agriculture.  That’s right, former President Thomas Jefferson’s home was once an agrarian mecca and continues that tradition today. 

Monticello Gardens Aerial photoMonticello is said to be Jefferson’s autobiographical masterpiece, and it’s gardens were a botanical showpiece.  They were a source of food and a laboratory of plants from around the world.  The Thomas Jefferson Foundation Inc. maintains the property’s restored vegetable gardens.

“We even sell seeds thorough our shop so people can grow what Jefferson grew,” noted Mia Magruder Dammann, the foundation’s marketing and communications officer.

“What Jefferson grew” included 330 varieties of more than 70 different species of vegetables, the details of their growth precisely documented.  His garden was 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide.  It was restored in 1938 when the foundation enlisted the Garden Club of Virginia to help maintain the Monticello garden plots’ historical accuracy.  Jefferson had died in debt in 1826, and the plantation and gardens were left in disrepair, Dammann explained.

Today, a full-time garden staff cultivates tobacco and wheat, along with produce.

Vegetables, herbs and fruit grown at Monticello are served in its Café at Monticello and at tasting events.  Seeds from heirloom varieties of vegetables and other plants are saved for planting the next season as well as sold.Monticello Gardens

Jefferson’s farming extended beyond Monticello.  He owned 5,000 acres in Albemarle Country and 5,000 acres in Bedford County, maintaining five farms around Monticello: Milton, Tufton, Lego, Shadwell and Pantops.  Tufton Farm is now the home of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.

Established in 1986, the center collects, preserves and distributes historic plant varieties and strives to promote appreciation for the origins and evolution of native garden plants.  Its work centers on plants Jefferson grew at Monticello but also covers the broad history of plants cultivated in America through the 19th century.

Credit: Pam Wylie

Monticello Gardens

Birds and Our Gardens
by Thomas Jefferson

Discover history's mysteries at James Monroe's Highland (PDF)

Highland Lost & Found
Discover history’s mysteries at James Monroe’s Highland


Virginia Farm Bureau Federation

James Monroe pic 1_2

To uncover the real story of Highland, one must read between the lines. The narrative of President James Monroe’s Albemarle County residence is pieced together with letters, tax records and deeds. But oral histories and current archeological investigations are bringing the site’s history more into focus. Highland’s tantalizing mysteries may appeal to visitors who appreciate subtlety—or hikers who hope to explore 6 miles of trail on the property’s current 535 acres. James Monroe pic 2Formerly known as Ash Lawn, the fifth U.S. president’s former property features both original and demonstrational structures that offer insight into Monroe’s life. They also chronicle the estimated 250 enslaved people who lived and worked on its 3,500 acres throughout Monroe’s lifetime. The sprawling property is shaded by hundreds of white ash trees, where guests can enjoy a guided history walk, stroll through the boxwood garden and peek inside recreated living spaces. Area 4-H programs expose youth to projects at Highland’s working farm. Visitors can see poultry and livestock, and tour vegetable and ornamental gardens set within the hills of Virginia’s panoramic Piedmont. Character development Highland’s names have evolved with its identity over the years, rebranded in 2016 from “Ash LawnHighland.” Education programs manager Nancy Stetz said there are people “who say they’ll never call it anything but ‘Ash Lawn.’” Even the origin of “Ash Lawn” is somewhat debated, said Jason Woodle, marketing and events manager. Was it named for its trees, or for the fire that claimed part of the original house? “We’re just now getting an understanding of what Highland looked like, based on the deeds when land was sold,” Stetz said. Monroe 3 images“A lot of the landscape changed significantly since later owners were here.” Sifting through subtext A house was built over part of Monroe’s burned home in the 1870s. Flagstones now mark the foundation once buried under topsoil and boxwoods. The fire is only mentioned in a letter by the owner at that time. “A president’s former residence burns, and there’s no newspaper account? Are you kidding me?” tour guide Jeff Butcher posed to visitors. “The fire was so intense the house imploded, which is why the guest house is untouched, and this 300-year-old white oak is still with us. Just think what we could learn if that tree could talk.” Trees don’t talk, but artifacts and 18th century structural remains do. Archaeological fact finders from Highland’s parent institution—the College of William & Mary—are interpreting every clue with archaeologists from the University of Virginia. “Our latest archaeological research focuses on the site of the 1799 main house, which was lost to fire,” Woodle said. James Monroe pic 6“These excavations may give us some clues as to where the fire started, how it started, and when. We also hope to learn more about the interior layout of the house, including what is described as the kitchen wing of the structure. There’s a lot we’re still trying to uncover.” Elusive epilogue President Monroe sporadically lived at Highland from 1799 to 1823, but spent most of his time in Washington, D.C., or at Oak Hill, his Loudoun County residence. “He ends up being an absentee owner with long stretches where it’s just overseers and enslaved families here, and that had to be a really interesting power dynamic,” Stetz said. “That adds to the mystery. Life was still happening, and you hear what’s going on through the letters with overseers.” Oral histories from descendants of Highland’s enslaved people also helped develop the property’s enigmatic narrative. “The Charlottesville region, the presidents and the enslaved community as a whole—it’s one big story,” Woodle said. “And it’s fascinating.”