Slave Life at Monticello
In one year, Thomas Jefferson owned about 200 slaves. Skilled workers built fences and barns, made nails and wove cloth. Farm workers planted, hoed, plowed and picked crops. House servants cooked meals and washed clothes. About eighty slaves lived and worked at Monticello. The others lived at Shadwell, Lego, Tufton and Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s farm in Bedford County.
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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Jefferson was responsible for the care of his slaves. He supplied them with some food, clothing, firewood, and shelter. Each week one slave might be given a peck of cornmeal, a half-pound of pork, and four salted fish.
Two times each year, slaves were given cloth to make clothes. Once every three years they were given hats, socks, and a blanket. They might receive a mattress, which was a sack filled with straw or leaves.
The slaves had to make and grow many of their own supplies. They made furniture, bowls and spoons. They raised chickens and eggs. They grew squash, cucumbers, peas and melons. They hunted, trapped, and fished to add to their food. They also sold fish, fruit, and walnuts to the “great house” to earn money. On Sundays they took extras to Charlottesville to sell at the market.
Many slave families lived at Monticello. Slaves in Virginia could not marry by law. But Jefferson thought of his slaves as married. He called them husband and wife. His records show that few marriages ended in 'divorce.'
Slave Cabin (artist's rendition)
Artist's rendition of "Building s", a slave cabin along Monticello's Mulberry Row
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Slave families at Monticello were often large. David and Isabel Hern had twelve children. Edward and Jane Gillette had twelve children. But Jefferson also recorded the deaths of many children. Some died at birth. Others died from measles, 'fever,' and whooping cough.
Slave children went to work by the age of ten. They became nailers and weavers. They became servants and cooks’ helpers. When slave Sally Hemings was about thirteen, she traveled to France. She was a companion to Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Mary. When Jame Hubbard turned eleven, he left his home at Poplar Forest. He traveled eighty miles to live at Monticello. There he learned nail making.
Most of the slaves lived in log cabins. They were usually one room with lofts. Some measured about 12 by 14 feet. Others were larger. They were made of logs. The roofs were made of pine slabs. They had wood chimneys and dirt floors. Root cellars were dug into the floors for storing vegetables.Some of the house slaves lived in rooms at the main house. These were under the South Terrace. Isaac Jefferson, a Monticello slave, recalled sleeping on a blanket on the floor of the South Pavilion.
Writing Slate and Pencils
Writing slate and pencils excavated at Monticello.
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During Jefferson’s time, teaching slaves was not against the law. But Jefferson did not educate (teach) his slaves. Yet many enslaved workers at Monticello knew how to read and write. John Hemmings, a woodworker, wrote letters to Jefferson. Joseph Fossett, a blacksmith, left records of his work. James Hemings, Jefferson’s chef, kept lists. Jefferson also left written instructions for some of his workers. He wrote 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. Some learned from each other. Madison Hemings recalled, “I learned to read by inducing [persuading] the white children to teach me the letters.” Peter Fossett, a house servant, recalled that Jefferson “allowed” them to study with his grandchildren. Peter then used his skills to teach others.
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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Treatment of Slaves
Jefferson wrote that he didn’t like to sell slaves. Yet Jefferson sold 70 slaves in 1790 to pay off debts he owed. He also sold slaves as punishment. And he sold those who continually ran away.
Between 1769 and 1820, twenty slaves ran away from Monticello. Several returned on their own. They were later sold. Only three slaves, Sam, Jenny and Harry, were never found. They may have reached freedom.
Overseer Edmund Bacon wrote that Jefferson “could not bear to have a servant whipped.” But Jefferson did have his slaves whipped. When runaway Jame Hubbard was captured, Jefferson “had him severely flogged.” Three other runaways were whipped. Letters and slave narrative told of several cruel overseers on Jefferson’s other farms.
“Our own Time”
Monticello slaves worked long days for "master." Sundays, holidays and after-work hours were their “own time.” During these too-few hours, slaves 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. They could visit with friends and family in the plantation community.