Poplar Forest is a plantation and plantation house in Forest, Bedford County, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson designed the plantation and used the property as a private retreat and a revenue-generating plantation. Jefferson inherited the property in 1773 and began designing and working on the plantation in 1806. While Jefferson is the most famous individual associated with the property, it had several owners before being purchased for restoration, preservation, and exhibition in 1984. Poplar Forest was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1971 and is presently operated as a historic house museum by the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. The Corporation is also responsible for the ongoing archaeological study and restoration work at the property.
The land upon which Poplar Forest was built shows archaeological evidence of having been populated by native peoples from the Paleo-Indian through Late Woodland periods. The 4,000-acre property was legally defined by a 1745 patent in which William Stith (a colonial minister and planter) assumed ownership, but did not live on the land. He passed ownership to his daughter Elizabeth Pasteur and her cousin Peter Randolph, who maintained ownership until 1764. John Wayles purchased the original property in 1764 and slowly added an additional 819 acres prior to 1770; he was the first to use slave labor on the property. Similar to Stith, Wayles did not live on the property due to his career as an attorney and businessman in Charles City County, VA.
Wayles’ daughter Martha Wayles Skelton was married to Thomas Jefferson, and the couple inherited the full 4,819 acres when Wayles died in 1773. The Jeffersons did not immediately continue developing Poplar Forest, nor were they frequent visitors to the property – their focus was on developing Monticello, Thomas's political and legal career, and raising their family. Martha Jefferson died in 1782, and Thomas spent time away from Virginia in public service following her death, serving as Minister to France (1785-1789), Secretary of State (1790-1793), Vice President (1797-1801), and President (1801-1809). Even in Jefferson's absence, the plantation was generating revenue from slave labor under the watch of a general steward and a team of overseers; the slave labor force at Poplar Forest produced annual tobacco and wheat crops after 1790.
Jefferson conducted annual visits to Poplar Forest beginning in 1810 and ending in 1823; he designed Poplar Forest as his retreat from his larger estate at Monticello. The retreat house was completed in 1816 and his visits ranged from a few days to weeklong stays. He frequently brought his granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia Jefferson Randolph to the house after it was completed in 1816, and always traveled to Poplar Forest with a small cadre of enslaved men and women who were based at Monticello. Jefferson maintained sole ownership of the property and the slaves until 1790, when he gave 1,000 acres and six slave families to his daughter Martha and her husband Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. Randolph would later divide and sell the rest of Jefferson's landholdings; he also sold many of Jefferson's slaves to repay debts.