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.
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.