Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

By Boynton Merrill Jr. | Go to book overview
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PREFACE TO FIRST EDITION

LATE IN THE year of 1811 a crime of singular depravity was committed in the west Kentucky frontier county of Livingston. The two men charged with the murder were nephews of Thomas Jefferson. In the century and a half or more since the murder, most of the facts have been distorted or lost, and indeed, the crime itself has been nearly forgotten, even though it was widely known in Kentucky at that time.

About ten years ago I came into the ownership of a portion of the plantation where this crime occurred. Becoming interested in discovering the truth about the legends, I spent increasing time with old records, letters, and books, until, five years ago, the search for the true story became a full-time occupation, and has been ever since. Although at times I felt like a secondary victim of the tragedy, the understanding I have gained about our heritage has been somberly rewarding.

This book is a reconstruction of the crime, its consequences, and the circumstances that led to its commission. The social, religious, and governmental institutions of that time are discussed, as are the family and friends of the accused, Lilburne and Isham Lewis. Their family traced its beginnings far back into the colonial period of Virginia. For nearly sixty years the Lewises were neighbors of Thomas Jefferson's family in Albemarle County, Virginia, and for three successive generations these two families were bound together by intermarriages. Jefferson's connection with this branch of the Lewis family is discussed herein at length for the first time.

In the years since the murder, slavery and the frontier have both disappeared, and governmental structures have been drastically altered. The old-time patterns of plantation and family life have nearly ceased to exist, and the doctrines and purposes of certain religious denominations have changed so much that the sects are scarcely recognizable. None of the families, customs, and institutions, not even the land and rivers, are the same today as they were then, yet they are with us still.

-xxix-

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