Jefferson and Madison in Dutchess County

Juniper berries
On his "botany tour" (perhaps acttually a disguised political tour) with James Madison, as he left Poughkeepsie, Thomas Jefferson noted in his journal of May 23, 1791, “The White pine [5. leaved] Pitch-pine [3. leaved] Juniper [a shrub with decumbent stems about 8 f. long, with single leaves all-round the stem, and berries used for infusing gin.]”
Barbara Hughey, a botanist specializing in local ecological restoration, education and design, explains, "Jefferson's reference is to 'Juniper virginiana,' which is abundant in Dutchess County. We know this commonly as the Eastern Red Cedar tree. The berries are used most famously for gin, but are also used traditionally for flavoring various things such as sauerkrauts. It is also a Native American smudge (incense) plant for spiritual ceremony."
Photo by Barbara Hughey, of  Land Stewardship Design.

A version of the following article authored by Bill Jeffway was published in the Northern/Southern Dutchess News/Beacon Free Press on June 26, 2019 as part of DCHS's Decoding Dutchess Past series.

Jefferson and Madison. These names have such iconic status that we might forget that these “mere mortals” put one foot in front of the other in the daily pursuit of ordinary life and work. In the spirit of understanding them in this way, let’s retrace some of their lesser-known footsteps in Dutchess County.

May 22 into May 23, 1791.

Although telling few of their trip, attempting to travel incognito, in May 1791 President Washington’s Secretary of State and future President Thomas Jefferson, and Congressman and future President James Madison, went on a tour that included the Hudson Valley. They told friends their springtime trip was for vacation and recreation, and the study of botany. They told the public nothing.

Jefferson Madison

The two met in New York City for the start of the journey. They were traveling with one of Jefferson’s slaves, James Hemings. James was mixed race, he was the child of Jefferson’s white father-in-law and one of his slaves. James was sister to the better known Jefferson slave, Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson had children. Hemings was an accomplished chef de cuisine trained in Paris. But a slave, and owned by Jefferson as property.

Tending first to some business in the city, Jefferson sent James ahead with carriage and horses, and $6 in spending money, to what would be their first overnight stop: Hendrickson’s Inn, Poughkeepsie.  Jefferson and Madison came up to Poughkeepsie a few days later by boat. They indulged in a good meal at the Inn and stayed the night as planned. The next day, Jefferson rated his tavern stay a “good,” which was the highest rating, the others being “midlin’” and “poor,” indicating he paid $7.23 for the evening.

Leaving Poughkeepsie, Jefferson notes in his Journal of May 23, 1791, given a genuine and deep interest in botany, and so many other things, “The White pine [5. leaved] Pitch-pine [3. leaved] Juniper [a shrub with decumbent stems about 8 f. long, with single leaves all-round the stem, and berries used for infusing gin.]”

They traveled up the “Albany Post Road,” the old curvy one, not the now straightened Route 9, through Hyde Park, Rhinebeck, and Red Hook. They would travel sixteen miles before breakfast and ride thirty-seven miles that first day on horseback, with James Hemings behind them driving the carriage. They stayed the next night at Lasher's Inn, in Claverack, which Jefferson also awarded a category of “good.”

They had arranged for the newspaper supportive of their rival, Alexander Hamilton, to be delivered to certain points along their trip, suggesting to some that the tour was more politically oriented and a way to get a sense of public mood.

It was in Columbia County that Jefferson began to understand some successful measures in combating the Hessian Fly against wheat crop destruction. In this regard, botany did indeed figure into the trip.

ddp Hendrickson Forbus Nelson Signs
ddp Hendrickson Forbus Nelson

The location of Jefferson and Madison's overnight stay on Market Street in Poughkeepsie is marked with historic signage. Stephen Hendrickson converted his home to an inn, it would have looked similar to the house in the upper right of the above photo. The site would become home to Forbus House which received guests like Lafayette in 1824, and the site of the Nelson House, which was a frequent base for FDR before, and during, his US Presidency.