Dabney Carr & my connection to Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello
Dabney Carr, my 1st cousin 8x removed, is the man buried next to Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Family Cemetery at Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia. Carr and Jefferson were leaders in the American cause leading up to the Revolution of 1776. Carr was also the brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson, having married Jefferson’s sister Martha, in 1765. Although Dabney Carr is largely forgotten by the history books, except for a little microbe (“bilious fever” the doctor called it), he would surely have been one of the giants of the American Revolution. As it was, Dabney Carr’s contribution to the formation of the American democracy is subtantial, even though he died young.
Dabney Carr was born in 1743 at a thousand-acre Louisa County, Virginia plantation named Bear Castle. He was the son of John Carr, grandson of Major Thomas Carr, and great-grandson of Thomas Carr (1655-1724), who held extensive land patents in Virginia from about 1701. In their youth, Dabney Carr and Thomas Jefferson both attended the prestigious academy of Reverend James Maury. Carr and Jefferson later enrolled in the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Although his legal education was interrupted in 1763 by militia service on the frontier with the Louisa County Volunteer Rangers, Carr was licensed to practice law only two years after leaving college. In July 1765, Dabney Carr married Martha Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s sister).
Dabney Carr was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1771 and 1772 and served on two House committees, including the influential Committee of Privileges and Elections. He helped incorporate the Virginia Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, a group “…dedicated to a discussion of geography, natural history, natural philosophy, agriculture, practical mathematics, commerce, medicine and American history.”
Contemporaries regarded Dabney Carr as a powerful orator and a serious challenge to the acknowledged master orator, Patrick Henry (my 3rd cousin 7x removed – Carr and Henry were 2nd cousins 1x removed through Cornelius Dabney, my 9th g-grandfather). Of Carr, Patrick Henry’s biographer, William Wirt, said [Dabney Carr] “…was considered… the most formidible rival in forensic eloquence that Mr. Henry had ever yet had to encounter.” Of Carr, Thomas Jefferson said he “…was one of the earliest and most distinquished leaders in the opposition to British tyranny.”
Friday, 12 Mar 1773 was a turning point in American history. For the previous several years relations between the American colonists and Great Britain had steadily deteriorated. The Stamp Act of 1765 brought “taxation without representation,” while the Townshend Act of 1767 further burdened ostensibly free colonists with “legislation without representation.” In June 1772, an incident in Rhode Island added fuel to the simmering cauldron. The British schooner Gaspée was burned off Newport (an incident that I have written about —> HERE). In response, the British Parliament passed an act that allowed colonists to be shipped to England for trial. The freedoms which the colonists cherished so dearly were in terrible jeopardy.
Sensing a severe threat to colonial liberties, several prominent Virginians elected members of the House of Burgesses secretly met together in Raleigh Tavern (Williamsburg) on 11 March 1773 and proposed formation of a network of Committees of Correspondence that would allow the colonies to keep in touch with each other, and to monitor British intentions. Several of the members in the meeting including Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee (both are my 2nd cousin 9x removed through my 10th g-grandfather, Richard Lee) and Dabney Carr (possibly others also) decided to offer the idea of the Committees of Correspondence to the assembled house. The idea seems to have been Richard Henry Lee’s, with Thomas Jefferson writing the text of the formal resolution that would be offerred for vote. But it was 29-year old lawyer Dabney Carr who was tasked to rise in the House of Burgesses and introduce the resolution.
The resolution was passed (although not without debate), and Carr, along with ten others, was appointed to the colonies’ first Committee of Correspondence. By 8 Feb 1774 only one of the remaining twelve colonies had not established their own Committees of Correspondence. By 5 Sep 1774 the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia…
…and as they say, “the rest is history.”
The road to the American Revolution was surveyed by Dabney Carr, but he unfortunately did not live to trod upon it. On 16 May 1773, only two months after delivering the speech that resulted in formation of the Committees of Correspondence, and ultimately to the Continental Congress and the American Revolution, the youthful Dabney Carr died of fever. He is buried at Monticello in the Jefferson family cemetery on the southwestern slope of Mr. Jefferson’s beautiful mountain.
According to legend, this graveyard had its beginning in an agreement between young Thomas Jefferson and Dabney Carr. The school-mates and friends had agreed in their youth that they would be buried under a great oak which stood on Jefferson’s plantation. Carr, who married Jefferson’s sister, was originally buried elsewhere, but Thomas Jefferson caused his body to be disinterred and removed to a grave beneath their favorite oak at Monticello. Dabney Carr’s was the first grave at the site, which Jefferson laid out as a family burial ground. Jefferson was buried here in 1826. The present monument is not the original, designed by Jefferson, but a larger one erected by the United States in 1883. Its base covers the graves of Jefferson, his wife, his two daughters and of Governor Thomas Mann Randolph, his son-in-law. The graveyard remains the property of Jefferson’s descendants and continues to be a family burial ground.
When you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, the gravesite is behind, and down the hill from, the west garden. If you stand on the porch of Monticello, the gravel path down the hill to the Jefferson family gravesite is on the left. Follow the path along the west lawn, and then down the hill to the gravesite, which is guarded by a wrought iron fence. Follow the path around to the right, along the edge of the site, to the gate (it’s locked). Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone is right inside the gate. Immediately to the right of Jefferson’s own tombstone is that of Dabney Carr. The bronze plaque at the site is pictured below: