Weird History

What It Was Like To Be An Enslaved Person At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello  

Melissa Sartore
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There was an inherent paradox within the life of enslaved people at Monticello, one that echoed Thomas Jefferson's own thoughts and writings on the topic.

Slavery at Monticello was a reality based in business and economic interests, one that highlighted the longstanding and horrific practice ingrained in colonial life. Jefferson himself struggled with how to address slavery in the new nation, but never rid himself - nor his land - of enslaved labor.

A Founding Father and the third president of the United States, Jefferson advocated for liberty but brought enslaved people to the White House. He derided the international slave trade while applying his Democratic-Republican beliefs to the practice. The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings further emphasizes the complicated and often dehumanizing power struggles that shaped relationships among slave-holders and those they enslaved.

The lives of enslaved people at Monticello represent the contradictions of Jefferson's words and actions. The housing, conditions, and treatment of the enslaved at Monticello highlight the tenuous balance Jefferson sought to achieve while reminding historical observers of the untenable nature of what amounted to idealized servitude.

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Photo: New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Jefferson Ordered Some Humane Treatment From Overseers - Which Was Often Ignored

According to Monticello's chief overseer, Captain Edmund Bacon, "Mr. Jefferson was always very kind and indulgent to his servants... He would hardly ever allow one of them to be whipped." 

Jefferson took some steps to ensure the humane treatment of those he subjugated, writing that he wanted them to be "well treated." He abhorred whipping and told his overseers only to use it "in extremities." In Jefferson's opinion, punishment not only diminished "their value" but affected their self-perception; he wanted them to have "character."

While Jefferson didn't endorse the use of a whip, punishments were still meted out at Monticello. Overseer Gabriel Lilly was particularly harsh, whipping a 17-year-old to such a state that he was unable to "raise his hands to his head."

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At Any Given Time, About 130 Laborers Were Enslaved At The Plantation

The number of people enslaved at Monticello varied, but after Jefferson's passing in 1826, his estate sale included "130 valuable negroes... believed to be the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the State of Virginia."

That number was up from the 1776 census five decades earlier, where 83 enslaved people were part of what Jefferson referred to as his "family."

During his life, Jefferson owned more than 600 people of all ages. He bought, sold, and gave away more than 100 individuals.

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The Enslaved Lived Along Mulberry Row

From the 1790s forward, those enslaved at Monticello lived on Mulberry Row, a makeshift street that featured more than 20 storage buildings, dwellings, and workshops. Jefferson reorganized Monticello several times, but his desire to transition from a plantation - which was often subject to "the unprincipled ravages of overseers" - to a more efficient and enlightened environment led to a cultural and industrial transformation.

Mulberry Row was about 1,300 feet long and was located near Monticello's main house. Along this street, men worked as blacksmiths and carpenters, while women functioned as weavers, spinners, and launderers.

Enslaved groups worked alongside white artisans and indentured servants at what became a thriving hub of activity. Those who performed domestic labor in the Monticello house also lived on Mulberry Row, making their way to and from the Jefferson residence each day.

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Monticello's Enslaved Were Allowed To Have Families To Increase Their Value

Jefferson was thought to uphold a pro-family position regarding those he enslaved, providing cabins in which families could live together. In 1807, Jefferson purchased the wife of his blacksmith, Moses Hern, from her holder in Kentucky, out of "the desire to make all practicable sacrifices to keep man and wife together who have imprudently married out of their respective families."

Jefferson's belief that the enslaved should marry, and the economic reason why, is clear in a letter he wrote to one of his overseers:

There is nothing I desire so much as that all the young people in the estate should intermarry with one another and stay at home... they are worth a great deal more in that case than when they have husbands and wives abroad.

While Jefferson wanted to keep families together, this wasn't always possible. When children reached the age of 10 or 12, they were often either sold or sent to another one of Jefferson's plantations. Sometimes they were given away.

When Martha, Jefferson's daughter, married, Betty Brown, an enslaved 13-year-old girl, was gifted to her. On another occasion, Jefferson "would not purchase" the son of his weaver, Nance, whom he bought from his sister.