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.

Help select the next World Heritage Sites in the U.S.

As most travelers know, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are amongst the most spectacular places in the entire world. The list, which currently consists of more than 900 unique locations across the planet, recognizes those places for their cultural or physical significance. But that list is constantly being evaluated and updated, with some sites being removed when they are threatened or altered, and others being added as their significance becomes more apparent.

The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, which operates as a Federal Advisory Commission to the Department of State, has just opened a 30-day call for public comments on the current list of places that are being considered for World Heritage status. During this phase, the general public is invited to weigh in on the nominees, and express their opinion on whether or not those sites are worthy of UNESCO’s very esteemed list.

There are a total of 13 sites under consideration, with nine falling under the “cultural” category. Those sites include: Civil Rights Movement Sites, Alabama; Dayton Aviation Sites, Ohio; Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio; various Thomas Jefferson Buildings in Virginia; Mount Vernon, Virginia; Poverty Point National Monument and State Historic Site, Louisiana; San Antonio Franciscan Missions, Texas; Serpent Mound, Ohio and various Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings throughout the country. Additionally, there are four sites up for nomination in the “natural” category as well. Those sites include: Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, American Samoa; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia; Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona and White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

The call for comment went out on Tuesday, Dec. 14, so the process has already been set in motion. For more information you can read the official entry into the Federal Registry by clicking here. If you would like to share a comment with the Commission, you’ll find the contact information for doing so, including mailing address, by clicking here.

This is a great opportunity to get some historically and culturally significant sites recognized by UNESCO. If you would like to see one, or more, of these sites added to the World Heritage list, be sure to share your thoughts now.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]

Where have U.S. presidents traveled and a personal sighting

The latest has an interesting slide show accompanied by text that covers various travel habits and destinations of American presidents through history. For example, Abraham Lincoln never left the United States, and Teddy Roosevelt is the first president to have traveled overseas while in office. Air travel had nothing to do with the amount, it seems. For example, check out Thomas Jefferson. He was an international traveling man for sure.

Browsing through the slides and texts is a bit of a history lesson, along with a glance at how presidents are tourists like the rest of us–except for the Secret Service. If you’ve ever seen a U.S. president in person, you’ve noticed the folks in suits.

The folks in suits is what tipped me of that I was about to get a presidential sighting when I was in Poland years ago. The first Bush–George Herbert Walker was in Warsaw at the same time. I was initially tipped off to some important happening by the American flags festooning the light posts of the street where we happened to be walking.

“Look at all those flags,” we said. “What’s that about?” The large parked cars with American diplomat license plates were another clue. “Hmmm, that’s interesting.”

“Isn’t President Bush on a world tour?” someone in my group asked. The dark suited men carrying walkie talkies and wearing sunglasses cinched it. We’d hang out with the rest of the commoners to see what came next.

Regardless of ones politics, there is something exciting about the hoopla that surrounds a presidential visit, particularly if you happen to be at a place where you didn’t expect a sighting. We might have been heading off for a bite to eat or to a museum. I can’t remember. As the years pass, the experience I remember most about the visit to Warsaw was that slice of time.

Before the motorcade approached, minutes after we stopped, the energy in the air crackled. People in the crowd craned their necks and stood on tip-toes, stretching for a glimpse. As the car road by and turned into the fortress of some official goverment type building, there was a flurry of waves and shouts in Polish.

My view of President George Bush, the elder, version and his wife Barbara was from a distance, but I could see both of them waving through the car window’s glass for a few seconds before they disappeared behind a gate and we continued on to wherever we were heading.

The photo is of President Dwight Eisenhower’s motorcade in Kabul. [Flickr/ Library of Congress via pingnews.]