Travel Back Thursday: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

By the time you read this, I will have already left the office and been in a car for a few hours. My destination? Charlottesville, Virginia — home to plenty of history, both national and local. Such history includes Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, constructed in 1768. The home is now operated as a museum and educational institution.

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Slave Quarters Discovered at Monticello

Archaeologists digging at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, have discovered slave quarters used at the time he was living there.

The remains were found at Tufton, one of Jefferson’s farms a mile from the actual house. Jefferson owned several farms around Monticello that were worked by his many slaves. The artifacts dating to Jefferson’s time include everyday items such as a button and fragments of ceramic, as well as a slate pencil, which raises the question of whether one of the slaves was literate. A more sobering find was a padlock. The slaves appear to have lived in small, single-family homes.

Jefferson’s views on slavery were complex. He correctly predicted that it would divide the nation, but that didn’t stop him from owning slaves himself, and while Jefferson wrote against race mixing, DNA evidence indicates that Jefferson fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

A second slave quarter site was also found, dating to the middle and end of the nineteenth century. Jefferson had died in 1826 and his family sold his 130 slaves to pay off his many debts. Monticello itself was sold in 1831. The family that bought the Tufton farm also worked it with slaves until the end of the Civil War.

Photo courtesy Stefan Volk.

Free beer and a behind the scenes tour at Jefferson’s Monticello on President’s Day

President’s Day technically marks the observance of George Washington’s birthday, but the holiday is widely viewed as a catch-all day to reflect on the accomplishments of all the founding fathers. Historians can argue over which of our founding fathers was most instrumental in establishing American institutions, but it’s hard to find anyone who lived a more eventful life than Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was an architect, a statesman, a writer, a voracious reader, a linguist, a diplomat, a gardener, a meteorologist, a botanist, a foodie before the term existed, a vintner and a traveler, among other things. In an age when travel was an ordeal, Jefferson nourished his hungry intellect by traveling the world. He spoke six languages and used them on the road. In 1784, when he was named the U.S. Ambassador to France, he and his 12-year-old daughter, Martha, took a lengthy trip through 7 U.S. states before departing for Paris.

And during his five years in Paris, he traveled extensively on the continent. In 1787, he took a 3 ½ month trip around France and Italy on his own dime, and in 1791, as the U.S. Secretary of State, he took a month-long “botanizing excursion” through New England with James Madison.

Jefferson constructed his home at Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, bit-by-bit over a forty year period (1768-1809) and his travels helped shape his vision for the grand estate. When Jefferson retired in 1809, at 66, he moved into Monticello and never left the state of Virginia again. But he continued to indulge passions and tastes he acquired overseas, including fine French wines and books in a variety of languages, which is probably why he spent most of his retirement deeply in debt.

I’d been to Monticello before and consider this remarkable place, which is dramatically situated high above the city of Charlottesville amidst a stunning landscape of rolling hills, horse farms and vineyards, an essential stop for any traveler with an interest in early American history. I returned to Monticello this year on President’s Day in order to check out their new “behind the scenes tour.” Last summer, the foundation that operates the site relocated some of their staff offices out of the second and third floors of the house in order to open up more of the site to visitors.
The result is that travelers can now see what’s long been off-limits at Monticello: the second and third floors. The standard tour lasts about 35 minutes and costs $24, but for an extra $18 you can also purchase an hour-long “behind the scenes” tour, which gives you access to three additional bedrooms and the spectacular “dome room.”

The bedrooms are sparsely furnished and aren’t staged for visitors in the same way that rooms on the first floor are. But the guides clue you in on some of the history there’s no time for on the standard tour. For example, I learned about Jefferson’s three indoor privies, and the fact that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s oldest grandson, was the Confederacy’s Secretary of War.

I also learned about the Levys, a Jewish family that bought Monticello after Jefferson’s death and ultimately sold it to the foundation that runs the property for $500,000 in 1923. But the real show-stopping attraction of the behind the scenes tour is the so-called “dome room” (see video below) – a stunning sitting room with six huge circular windows.

I did the two tours back-to-back and would probably do them on separate visits in the future. Standing for an hour and thirty five minutes straight was a bit long for me, even though I found the guides to be engaging and well informed. Children seven and younger aren’t allowed on the behind the scenes tour, which is for small groups of 15 or fewer. By the mid-point of our tour, several weary members of our group were sitting sprawled on the floor, which I found understandable, if a big undignified, given the hallowed ground we were on.

The dark side to life at Monticello is the fact that some 600 enslaved African-Americans lived and worked there over the course of Jefferson’s lifetime, including his paramour, Sally Hemmings. (He freed just 7 of his slaves) My guide on the standard house tour mentioned her, briefly noting that most historians now agree that Jefferson probably fathered six children with Hemmings, who also accompanied him to Paris. At lunch, my wife and I overheard a fellow traveler lament the lack of gossipy details on Jefferson’s sex life on the tours.

“I wanted to know all the juicy details about Sally,” a woman said.

Starting in April, visitors will be able to avail themselves of a Slavery at Monticello tour, free with the purchase of a standard house tour. I don’t know if the tour will include much more on Ms. Hemmings, but it’ll no doubt give visitors an understanding of what life was like for Monticello’s slaves.

Before you leave Monticello, take the time to explore the grounds, spread out across 2,600 acres. If you’re fit, consider hiking up to or down from Monticello on the Saunders Trail, a beautiful two mile path, which begins near the intersection of Rt. 53 and Rt. 20 and winds up through the woods right to Monticello. And you should also make sure to visit Jefferson’s grave. (He died on the 4th of July, 1826, at 83, on the same day as John Adams, 90, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) Jefferson wrote his own epitaph and modestly mentioned only three of his many accomplishments: authoring the declaration of independence and the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and founding the University of Virginia.

If you visit Monticello on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, consider capping your outing with a visit to the nearby Star Hill Brewery, which offers free, yes free, tastings of their outstanding brews in their tasting room. Like everything else in Charlottesville, there’s a Jefferson connection too. Star Hill’s delicious Monticello Reserve Ale, an unfiltered wheat ale that is made using the same East Kent Golding hops and other ingredients grown right at Monticello that Jefferson and his wife, Martha used to brew their own beer.

If you prefer wine, drive right down the street to the Jefferson Vineyards, which also has a connection to the country’s third president and produces a mean Monticello Cabernet Franc. Aside from all of his other accomplishments, Jefferson knew how to produce and enjoy good beers and wines. In my book, that makes him worthy of his own national holiday.

Videos- Dave Seminara. Images via Flickr, Randy Pertiet, Tony the Misfit, Dave Seminara and Star Hill.

And the best fall foliage is… all around you!

We recently asked Gadling readers to tell us where they find the best fall colors. As expected, no two answers were the same. No matter where you are in the US or Canada, you’re probably not very far away from a vibrant autumn.

Some of our reader picks were:

  • New Hampshire’s White Mountains — New England is certainly renowned for its fall colors, and Gadling readers agree. The hikes in this area are spectacular any time of year, but climb a mountain in the fall and you’ll be treated to leafy fireworks in the valleys below you. For vacation information in New Hampshire, try this website.
  • Reader Marilyn casts her vote for Connecticut — Staying in New England for now, Connecticut also boasts a beautiful fall. This is also a great place to visit if you love to check out old architecture. Being here can feel like walking through the pages of a history book.
  • Don’t discount the south! Several readers backed me up when I said Virginia has some of the best leaves around. The best hiking and views are in and around the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but a couple of Gadlingites suggest the view from Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, and I have to agree… Even though my heart belongs to the Hokies, no one can argue against the beauty of the University of Virginia grounds, of which you’ll get a lovely view from Jefferson’s home.
  • Going still farther south, reader Dick recommends a visit to Lookout Mountain, offering spectacular views of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. While you’re there, go underground to see Ruby Falls, America’s deepest cave and largest underground waterfall accessible to the public.
  • Northeast Canada received a few votes from our readers. A reader recommends the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton for some of the best leaf peeping.
  • Donna recommends a visit to Hiram, Ohio for the best leaves. She says she’s compared it to the south as well as New England, which are no match. Not exactly a bustling metropolis, Hiram could be a wonderful place for a quiet fall getaway.
  • Skipping now to the left coast, Gael calls Northeast Washington state “one of the best kept secrets in the U.S.” Her highest recommendation is for Pend Oreille County for its scenery and history.
  • Certain Oregonians wonder why we East Coasties call our hills “mountains.” For real mountains and valleys, and truly spectacular fall colors, they say, nothing beats the Cascades in Oregon. I’ll be able to speak to the truth of this soon enough — I’m spending October in Oregon, and I hope what they’ve been telling me is true!
  • Finally, a dark horse candidate for best fall foliage comes from our own Jamie Rhein, who says the aspen trees in the mountains of New Mexico make for the most gorgeous autumn.

If you’ve got more suggestions, we’d still love to hear them. You can also share your favorite fall foliage photos with us in the Gadling Pool on Flickr.

I think the best way to enjoy fall foliage is to hike right through it. My husband is already drawing up hiking routes for us for our time in Bend, Oregon, and also at Mount Hood, and I’ve never been more excited about a walk. To find a great hike near you or your vacation destination, check out Intelligent Traveler’s “Walk Into America” series, featuring a list of reader favorites.

Race and the ties that bind at Monticello

There is an article in today’s New York Times about Monticello. Not so much about Monticello, but about how the decedents of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave who he supposedly had children with, have come to see the house as a place that binds them together. Jefferson, however, is buried in the graveyard, but Hemings is not. No one knows where Hemings is buried. Still, Jefferson’s grave holds importance, and like many places with historic value, people aren’t allowed to go near it. It has something to do with messing up the grass.

Monticello, according to the essay, is an indication of the complexity of United States history and the relationship between the people whose lives have been affected. It has become a place where healing can take place. One of the people mentioned in the article is from Gahanna, Ohio, not far from Columbus. She is a descendant of Hemings, and thus, possibly of Jefferson. For her, Monticello is a place that fosters the idea that folks ought to learn to get along since they may be related to each other after all.

The essay brought to mind the idea that places have meaning when the people who go there understand its importance. Otherwise, one might be walking through just another fancy house with gleaming wood furniture and fine china.