Jack Jouett’s Ride (1781)


On the night of June 3–4, 1781, Jack Jouett rode about forty miles from Louisa County to Charlottesville to warn state officials of the approaching British Army. The British had been threatening Richmond and central Virginia since the spring, and the General Assembly had fled to Charlottesville. On June 3, British cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton assembled in Louisa County to attack Charlottesville. Jouett noticed them, guessed their intentions, and raced ahead to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson, whose term had just ended, and other members of the state government. The assembly escaped to Staunton while Jefferson retreated to first to Monticello and then, eventually, to his second home at Poplar Forest, leaving Virginia without an elected governor for a few days. The General Assembly honored Jouett’s actions and he later moved to Kentucky, where he served in that state’s government. His ride, meanwhile, achieved legendary status over the years, at least in Virginia. Over the next two centuries, various histories treated it as an important episode of the American Revolution (1775–1783), although some writers confused Jouett with his father of the same name. (John Jouett, the elder, owned the Swan Tavern in Charlottesville.) Historical highway markers commemorating the event were erected both in Virginia and in Kentucky. And in 1940, the General Assembly of Virginia declared June 4 as Jack Jouett Day. In 2001, perhaps forgetting its early action, the assembly declared Jack Jouett Day to be June 3.


Thomas Jefferson

Late in 1780, midway through Thomas Jefferson’s second one-year term as governor of Virginia, the British Army invaded the state. Early in January 1781 the army entered the new capital city of Richmond, and in spite of Jefferson’s attempts to rally a defense force the British scattered government officials and caused the loss of much of the colonial and state archival records. In the spring, the army threatened Richmond again, and Jefferson sent his family home to Monticello, near Charlottesville. The General Assembly met in Richmond in May as scheduled, but it soon adjourned to Charlottesville, which the legislators believed beyond the enemy’s reach.

Jefferson also traveled to Charlottesville and was at Monticello when his term as governor concluded on June 2. The assembly had not yet elected a new governor, and the dispersed members of the Council of State could not quickly assemble to authorize its senior member to serve as acting governor during the interim. As a consequence, the executive branch of the state government ceased to function.

At exactly that same time, the British sent a cavalry regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in pursuit of the governor and assembly. Tarleton’s force reached the courthouse of Louisa County shortly before midnight on June 3 and prepared to attack Charlottesville the next day.

Jouett’s Ride

Banastre Tarleton

As Tarleton’s men passed Cuckoo Tavern that evening en route through Louisa County, a young man named John Jouett correctly guessed their objective. About twenty-six years old, he was the son of John Jouett, a former resident of Louisa County who had moved to Charlottesville, where he operated the Swan Tavern. A few records of the time refer to the young man as a captain, but the surviving records of Louisa County do not identify him as an officer in the county militia, and the records of Albemarle County for the time are lost. Jack, as he was known, mounted his best horse and galloped along back roads that night all the way to Charlottesville, about forty miles. Arriving at Monticello very early in the morning, he alerted Jefferson, who was preparing to have breakfast with the speakers of the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia. Jouett then went into town to warn other members of the assembly that the British were coming. The assembly quickly met and adjourned to Staunton, on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Augusta County.

Jefferson, meantime, sent his family to a place of safety but remained at Monticello to pack his papers and other valuables before setting off to meet them later in the day. His neighbor Christopher Hudson learned about the approaching British and, uncertain whether Jefferson had been warned, went to Monticello. He found Jefferson almost alone and preparing to leave. Caesar, Jefferson’s enslaved body servant, was helping him. A few minutes later as Jefferson was riding away from Monticello he heard Tarleton’s soldiers enter his property.

Jouett’s warning had saved Jefferson and most of the members of the General Assembly from capture. The men who got away included such famous Virginians as former governor Patrick Henry, Speaker of the House of Delegates Benjamin Harrison (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), Speaker of the Senate Archibald Cary, and Richard Henry Lee (also a signer of the Declaration of Independence). A few members did not leave town soon enough, and Tarleton’s men captured and briefly detained Daniel Boone and two or three other legislators.

Jouett also assisted General Edward Stevens to escape capture. Stevens was a member of the state senate and on that day was dressed in plain clothes and riding an unimpressive horse. Jouett wore a scarlet coat and flamboyant hat, and he had a fine, fast horse. When Tarleton’s men saw him and Stevens, they incorrectly presumed that Jouett was a high-ranking officer and Stevens an unimportant underling. They chased Jouett, whose fast horse easily outran them, leaving Stevens alone to get away safely.

In Staunton on June 12, the legislators elected General Thomas Nelson governor, and the same day they directed the executive “to present to Captain John Jouett, an elegant sword and pair of pistols, as a memorial of the high sense which the General Assembly entertain of his activity and enterprise in watching the motions of the enemy’s Cavalry on their late incursion to Charlottesville, and conveying to the Assembly timely information of their approach, whereby the designs of the enemy were frustrated and many valuable stores preserved.”

Aftermath and Legacy

That was the first published reference to Jouett’s ride. Details did not appear in print until 1816, thirty-five years later. The state government did not proceed in the meantime with “activity and enterprise” equal to Jouett’s. Two years later, in July 1783, a quartermaster reported to the governor that he had found in Richmond “a small sword & a brace of Pistoles very highly finished” and suitable for presentation to Jouett. The quartermaster purchased two pistols from Thomas Mann Randolph for £8 10s “for Mr. John Jouette agreeable to Order of Council” but reported nothing further about the sword.

Jouett moved to the Kentucky district in western Virginia soon after the end of the war and represented Lincoln County in the session of the General Assembly that convened on October 16, 1786. His presence may have reminded some legislator that the state still owed him a sword, or perhaps Jouett mentioned the fact. In December the assembly ordered the executive to provide Jouett with the sword promised in the June 1781 resolution. Jouett returned to Richmond for the 1787–1788 session of the assembly and again for the session that met from mid-October to late in December 1790 as a representative from Mercer County.

Probably as a result of another reminder, in November 1790 the Council of State issued an order to procure a sword for presentation to him. But nothing of record happened until the autumn of 1801, when the Council of State authorized spending $300 to purchase presentation swords for Jouett and for the descendants of General William Campbell, the hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain (1780). Governor James Monroe requested the U.S. minister to France to procure the swords. The state eventually obtained “a sword belt &c. for John Jouett esq. of the State of Kentucky” in December 1804, but surviving records do not disclose when Jouett finally received it. By the twentieth century family members did not know its whereabouts.

Silhouette of Jack Jouett

Jouett prospered in Kentucky. He served in the state’s House of Representatives for several terms, had a large family, and lived until 1822. His son Matthew Harris Jouett was one of Kentucky’s most-successful early portrait artists and painted nearly every prominent resident of Kentucky early in the nineteenth century. He executed a silhouette profile bust of his father, the only known likeness of Jack Jouett.

Jack Jouett had not been forgotten in Virginia. Louis Hue Girardin published the first full account of Jouett’s ride in 1816 in volume four of the History of Virginia, which he and Skelton Jones completed after the death of John Burk, who wrote the first three volumes. Girardin had access to Jefferson’s papers, including extracts from a diary Jefferson kept during the last six months of his administration and recollections he compiled a few years later. Girardin discussed the events of Jefferson’s governorship with him and may have interviewed residents of Charlottesville. Jefferson also read his draft before it was published and offered suggestions and corrections. The narrative Girardin published formed the basis of the longer account of Tarleton’s raid on Charlottesville that Jefferson’s biographer Henry S. Randall published in 1858. Their narratives of Jouett’s ride remain the most reliable and include none of the imaginative, misleading embellishments that appear in many later accounts.

Jack Jouett's Ride

By the end of the nineteenth century, residents of Charlottesville remembered the events of Jouett’s ride in different ways. That Jouett’s namesake father remained in Virginia and probably died in Charlottesville early in the nineteenth century contributed to the confusion. Some people asserted positively that the owner of the Swan Tavern in Charlottesville made the ride, while others were equally certain that his namesake son was the hero. Beginning with a largely fictional article in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in January 1901, Charlottesville resident R. T. W. Duke Jr. publicized Jouett’s ride as an important but underappreciated episode of the American Revolution. Duke identified the father as the unsung hero. In 1910 the Monticello Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities mounted a commemorative plaque on the building at the site of the old Swan Tavern, declaring that the tavern owner was the hero of the ride.

In the Twentieth Century

During the first half of the twentieth century journalists, antiquarians, historians, and others published numerous articles and essays celebrating Jouett’s ride. Some maintained that the owner of the Swan Tavern was the rider, others that his namesake son was, and still others argued about whether Jouett or Hudson first warned Jefferson. During a span of almost forty years the Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Virginius Dabney published at least three articles on Jouett’s ride (reprinting one of them in the Magazine of Albemarle County History in 1972), and he included a one-paragraph narrative in his 1971 history, Virginia, The New Dominion.

Statue of Paul Revere

Virginia writers often lamented that Paul Revere’s 1775 ride from Boston to Concord was more famous than Jack Jouett’s 1781 ride from Cuckoo to Charlottesville merely because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem celebrated Revere but no Virginia poet of comparable talent had celebrated Jouett. Many Virginians and a few Kentuckians tried, though. A mid-twentieth-century bibliography listed about twenty poems on the subject (the writer J. Luther Kibler published at least nine) but omitted one of the better efforts, a short 1927 poem by the history professor John W. Wayland, of the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg, later James Madison University. Lawrence Lee‘s quite fanciful 1930 “A Hawk from Cuckoo Tavern” was reprinted in a 1933 anthology, Great Americans as Seen by the Poets.

By then, as the title of the collection of verse indicates, people who knew about Jack Jouett rated him a great American. In 1912 Thomas Edison’s film company had released the last in a series of nine silent movies about the American Revolution. That film, Close of the American Revolution, featured Jouett’s ride. Frederick W. Twyman, a resident of Charlottesville, either assisted with that production or made or financed another film about the ride a few years later. In 1954 the Cavalcade of America educational film series produced a 16 mm. black-and-white film of the ride entitled The Absent Host.

Tarleton's Oak

The state of Virginia erected historic highway markers at the site of Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County where Jouett began his ride and at the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville near where he completed it. The state of Kentucky erected a marker at the site of his home in Bath County, Kentucky. In 1940 the General Assembly of Virginia designated June 4 as Jack Jouett Day “in honor of a brave and loyal Virginian whose signal exploit will be remembered as long as men shall love true courage and noble and unselfish action.” In 2001, presumably unaware of the previous action, the General Assembly named June 3 as Jack Jouett Day “to honor the memory of this outstanding American patriot.” Roads and schools in Albemarle County and Louisa County are named for Jouett, as is the Charlottesville chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The story continues to fascinate Virginians and especially residents of Louisa County and Charlottesville. People still write verse, long and short historical narratives, fiction, and children’s books based on Jack Jouett’s ride on the night of June 3–4, 1781.

January 5, 1781
A British force commanded by Benedict Arnold arrives in Richmond, plundering much of the city, freeing enslaved African Americans, and blowing up a powder magazine and arms foundry at nearby Westham.
Mid-May 1781
The British general Charles Cornwallis arrives from North Carolina and meets William Phillips and Benedict Arnold in Petersburg.
May 24, 1781
After the British occupy Richmond, the General Assembly convenes in Charlottesville.
June 4, 1781
Jack Jouett, riding forty hard miles from Louisa County, arrives in Charlottesville, warning Thomas Jefferson and the General Assembly of a British raid on the city.
June 4—12, 1781
In Thomas Jefferson's absence, William Fleming, as senior member present of the Council of State, serves as acting governor.
June 12, 1781
The General Assembly, meeting in Staunton, elects Thomas Nelson Jr. governor. A committee is established to investigate the actions of Thomas Jefferson at the end of his term.
July 1783
A quartermaster reports to the governor that he has found in Richmond a small sword and pistols suitable as a gift to Jack Jouett in honor of his famous ride.
October 16, 1786
Jack Jouett represents Lincoln County when the General Assembly convenes.
Jack Jouett represents Lincoln County in the General Assembly.
October—December 1790
Jack Jouett represents Mercer County in the General Assembly.
November 1790
The Council of State issues an order to procure a sword to honor Jack Jouett for his famous ride.
Autumn 1801
The Council of State authorizes spending $300 to purchase presentation swords to honor Jack Jouett and the descendants of General William Campbell for their service in the Revolutionary War.
December 1804
The state procures a sword for Jack Jouett in honor of his famous ride but it is not clear whether he ever receives it.
March 1, 1822
Jack Jouett dies in Bath County, Kentucky.
The Monticello Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities mounts a commemorative plaque on the site of Swan Tavern in Charlottesville in honor of Jack Jouett's ride. Jouett's father, not Jouett himself, owned the tavern.
The film Close of the American Revolution, released by Thomas Edison's film company, features Jack Jouett's ride.
The General Assembly designates June 4 as Jack Jouett Day.
The Cavalcade of American educational film series produces The Absent Host, a film about Jack Jouett's ride.
The General Assembly designates June 3 as Jack Jouett Day.
  • Crews, Ed. “Captain Jack Jouett’s Ride to the Rescue.” Colonial Williamsburg (summer 2006): 66–71.
  • Dabney, Virginius. “Jack Jouett’s Ride.” American Heritage 13 (December 1961): 56–59.
  • Girardin, Louis Hue. The History of Virginia. Vol. 4. Petersburg, Va.: M. W. Bunnavant, 1816.
  • Jouett, Edward S. “Jack Jouett’s Ride.” Filson Club History Quarterly 24 (1950): 142–157.
  • Maass, John R. “To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia, 1781.” Virginia Cavalcade 49 (2000): 148–157.
  • Selby, John E. The Revolution in Virginia, 1775–1783. Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Jack Jouett’s Ride (1781). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jack-jouetts-ride-1781.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Jack Jouett’s Ride (1781)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 28 Feb. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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