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President John Tyler’s grandson is still alive and telling his family’s story

Posted at 8:37 AM, Nov 21, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-21 08:37:41-05

CHARLES CITY COUNTY, Va. -- When were your grandparents born? The early 1900's? Perhaps the late 1800's? Would you believe one man in Central Virginia can claim having a grandfather born in the 1700's?

Sound impossible?

It is a story of a family tree with long branches that stretch all the way to the White House.

As caretaker of an older house, your job description includes a healthy dose of responsibility and TLC. But living at Sherwood Forest, an old plantation house tucked away off of Route 5 in Charles City County, requires shouldering family history too. It was once the home of our tenth president, John Tyler.

“He bought this house in 1840," Harrison Ruffin Tyler said. "It is a beautiful home that needs to be preserved. Some of it was added in 1760. And in 1975 we did buy it.”

John Tyler, of Tippecanoe and Tyler too fame, served as President William Henry Harrison’s running mate. But Harrison died one month after taking the oath in 1841.

John Tyler then became the first vice-president to become president.

Harrison now occupies the home of his grandfather -- President John Tyler. Yes, you read correctly. The man who was born during George Washington’s first term is Harrison’s grandfather.

“John Tyler was born in 1790," Harrison said. "You have to think about that. Well, that is very different.”

How can that be?

The elder Tyler had 15 children, including Harrison’s father in 1853 at the age of 63.

Harrison’s dad Lyon Tyler fathered Harrison in 1928 when he was 75 years young.

That’s three generations spanning 222 years.

“When you talk to about my grandfather born in the 1700’s there is a disconnect there," Harrison said. "It is somewhat incredulous because of the time frame."

When Harrison’s unique link to our distant past comes up it qualifies as a genuine conversation starter. The curiosity leads to endless questions from new friends.

"People ask, 'What?! He was born when?' They have a hard time taking it in because most of their grandfathers were born 100 years later,” he said.

But growing up it was no big deal in the Tyler home.

“I find it interesting now, but in earlier days," Harrison recalled. "I never really thought about it. It was never brought up.”

Now the 84 year old takes great pride in his lineage.

During a recent tour of his grandfather's old home Harrison showed off two artifacts that once belonged to his grandfather. A writing box and a walking stick.

“When I hear it. I say that is me. That is me. That is my ancestry,” he said.

While some historians pan Tyler’s presidency for his ties to secessionists and election the Confederate Congress, Harrison staunchly defends his grandfather’s time in office.

“He was not a traitor to his country," Harrison said. “John Tyler did try to promote peace wherever he could.”

Tyler’s most memorable feats in office? Opening diplomatic ties with China and welcoming Texas into the Union.

“And I think that has to be considered his greatest achievement," Harrison said. "Because Texas is still considered one of our most important states. Whether we here in Virginia want to believe that or not, but it is!”

President Tyler died at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond in 1862 as the Civil War raged. His final resting place sits overlooking the James in Hollywood Cemetery next to fellow President James Monroe.

“We go once a year. There is a remembrance on his birthday," Harrison said. “My father is buried next to the monument.”

Back at Sherwood Forest tourists roam the grounds soaking up the history and try wrapping their arms around the link between the 21st and 18th centuries.

“It almost feels like you could drive up and make it your own home," Phyllis Stewart, a tourist from Tennessee, said. “It seems like a long time, but it is just a short time. A drop in the bucket that we could have someone that is connected so closely to our tenth president.”

As for Harrison Tyler he will gladly share his presidential connection with any disbelieving listener. But don't expect him to carry on the Tyler tradition of becoming a dad late in life.

“I got one wife who is still going strong and that is enough," Harrison said with laughter. “We’re not going that route again.”

To learn more about President John Tyler you can tour the grounds of Sherwood Forest. The house is open by appointment.