Slave Life at Monticello

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In a typical year, Thomas Jefferson owned about two hundred slaves. They provided the labor to run his plantations. Skilled laborers built fences and barns, crafted wheelbarrows and wagons, repaired threshing machines and wove cloth. Farm laborers planted, hoed, plowed and picked crops. House servants cooked meals and washed clothes. Up to 140 slaves lived and worked at the 5,000-acre Monticello plantation. The others lived at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s plantation ninety miles away in Bedford County.


Weekly Food Ration for a slave

Weekly Food Ration for a slave

Display approximating the ration of food (cornmeal, fish, and pork) given to each adult slave per week.
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“Master” Jefferson

Jefferson was responsible for the care of his slaves. He provided them with some food, clothing, firewood, shelter and medical care. The enslaved workers were given weekly food rations. One adult might receive a peck of cornmeal, a half-pound of pork or pickled beef, and four salted fish.

Two times each year, Monticello’s slaves were given cloth for a suit of clothes. Once every three years they were provided with hats, socks, a blanket and a mattress (burlap sacks which were filled with straw or leaves).

Jefferson’s enslaved workers had to make and grow much of their own supplies. They crafted furniture and household utensils. They kept a poultry yard for chickens and eggs. They grew squash, cucumbers, peas and melons in garden plots. They hunted, trapped and fished for their own use. They also sold fish, fruit, beeswax, and walnuts to the "great house." Household accounts show that slaves were paid for items ranging from eggs to squirrel skins. On Sunday, when Jefferson’s slaves had some free time, they took extra goods to Charlottesville to sell at the Sunday market. Records show that sometimes slaves were paid for working on their own time. Hauling and earthmoving earned fifty cents a day.


Slave Families

Slave families living at Monticello were long-lasting and stable. Although slaves in Virginia could not marry legally, Jefferson referred to slave couples as husband and wife. His records also show that few marriages ended in ‘divorce’. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson, recalled about slave marriages, “As many lived in wedlock from youth to age without reproach.” Jefferson believed in keeping families together: “Nobody feels more strongly than I do the desire to make all practicable sacrifices to keep man and wife together.” And slave families did all they could to stay together. Jefferson encouraged his slaves to find spouses within Monticello’s borders. Marrying someone outside of Monticello was called marrying ‘abroad.’ When slaves did marry ‘abroad,’ they often “petitioned” (asked) Jefferson to be united with their families.

Slave families at Monticello were often large. David and Isabel Hern had twelve children. Edward and Jane Gillette also had twelve children. However, Jefferson recorded the deaths of many children. Some died at birth, others died from measles, ‘fever,’ and whooping cough.


Slave Cabin (artist's rendition)

Slave Cabin (artist's rendition)

Artist's rendition of "Building s", a slave cabin along Monticello's Mulberry Row
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Enslaved children began working by the age of ten. They became nailers and weavers, house servants, and cooks’ helpers. When slave Sally Hemings was about thirteen, she traveled to France with Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Mary as her ‘nurse companion.’ When Jame Hubbard turned eleven, he left his home at Poplar Forest and traveled ninety miles to live at Monticello. There he learned nail making in a shop on Mulberry Row, Monticello’s industrial street. Isaac Jefferson remembered his boyhood jobs in the ‘great house.’ Every morning he woke early to make a fire for the white children who were taught in the South Pavilion.



Most of the slaves lived in log cabins. They were usually one room with lofts. They ranged in size from 12 by 14 feet to 12 by 20 feet. The log sides were chinked with mud. The roofs were made of pine slabs. The cabins had wooden chimneys and earthen floors with root cellars dug into them.

Several of the house slaves, including the head cook, lived in the servants’ rooms under the South Terrace of the main house. These rooms were made of stone and brick and built into the side of a hill. Isaac Jefferson recalled sleeping on a blanket on the floor of the South Pavilion.


Writing Slate and Pencils

Writing slate and pencils excavated at Monticello.

Writing slate and pencils excavated at Monticello.
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During Jefferson’s lifetime, teaching slaves was not against the law. Although Jefferson believed in public education, there are no records that he educated his slaves. Israel Gillette Jefferson, a Monticello slave, recalls hearing Jefferson say that he was “in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge [free] papers.”

However, many enslaved workers at Monticello knew how to read and write. John Hemmings, a woodworker, wrote to Jefferson about his progress building Poplar Forest. Joseph Fossett, a blacksmith, left records of his work. James Hemings, Jefferson’s chef, kept lists of the kitchen equipment. Jefferson also left written instructions to David Hern, a skilled laborer, and to Great George, his African-American overseer.

How did these slaves learn to read and write? Some learned from Jefferson’s grandchildren and some from each other. Madison Hemings recalled in his memoirs: “I learned to read by inducing the white children to teach me the letters.” Peter Fossett, a house servant, recalled that Jefferson “allowed” those eager for learning to study with his grandchildren. Peter then used his skills to teach others. “Peter Fossett taught my father to read and write by lightwood knots in the late hours of night.” remembered Charles Bullock.


Selling Slaves

Jefferson wrote that he didn’t like to sell slaves except “for delinquency, or on their own request.” However, Jefferson sold 70 slaves in 1790 to pay off debts he owed. He also sold slaves as punishment. A nail boy named Cary who had attacked another was sold to someone “so distant as never more to be heard of among us. It would to the others be as if he were put out of the way by death.” Jefferson also sold slaves who continued to run away.


Runaway Ad

Runaway Ad

Jefferson ran this ad offering a reward for the return of "Sandy" in "The Virginia Gazette" on September 14, 1769. Image courtesy the Library of Virginia
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Between 1769 and 1820, there were twenty known runaways from Monticello, most of them slaves who Jefferson had hired by the year. In 1781, during the American Revolution, Lord Cornwallis and his British soldiers invaded Jefferson’s plantation Elk Hill. When Cornwallis left, nineteen of Jefferson’s slaves went with him. Jefferson noted that two families including nine children under twelve had “fled to the enemy.” About fifteen of the runaways died from disease. A few were found and brought back to Monticello “in the last stages of the disease.” Several returned on their own and were later sold. Only three slaves, Sam, Jenny and Harry, were never accounted for. They may have found freedom.



In his memoirs, overseer Edmund Bacon wrote that Jefferson “could not bear to have a servant whipped, no odds how much he deserved it.” But Jefferson did sometimes have his slaves whipped. When runaway Jame Hubbard was captured, Jefferson “had him severely flogged in the presence of his old companions, and committed to jail.” Three other runaways were also whipped and “sent as an example to New Orleans to be sold.” Letters and slave narratives also revealed several cruel overseers on Jefferson’s quarter farms. William Page, overseer of Shadwell and Lego, had inspired "terror" in the slave community.


“Our own Time”

Monticello slaves had Sundays, holidays and after-work hours as their “own time.” All day the slaves worked for “master.” During their “own time,” they worked for themselves and their families. They made brooms and buckets, bowls and chairs. They tended gardens and caught fish and game. Jefferson’s grandson recalled moonlit adventures following the African-American men on the trail of possums and bee trees. On Sundays, slaves could travel to Charlottesville to the market to sell goods to earn money.

Letters and accounts say almost nothing about slaves’ amusements. Pieces of violins and jaw harps have been unearthed by archaeologists at Monticello’s slave cabins. Sally Hemings’s sons played the fiddle. Isaac Jefferson recalled that Thomas Jefferson’s brother would “come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” Sundays and a four-day holiday at Christmas gave slaves an all-too-brief chance to visit with friends and family in the plantation community.