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Unearthing Secret America

 
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Changing Landscapes: Slave Housing at Monticello 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |
By Fraser D. Neiman, Director of Archeology for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
In "Thos. Jefferson, Slavemaster", Neiman takes Alan on a tour of Monticello, highlighting the places where Jefferson's slaves once lived and worked.

I
n the decades surrounding the American Revolution, many Chesapeake planters - responding to Atlantic market forces - shifted away from tobacco monoculture and toward a mixed-farming regime, with wheat as the major crop. The shift altered the experience of enslaved and free people in fundamental ways we are just beginning to understand. Archaeological evidence from Monticello offers important clues to the strategies that slaves and their owners used to advance their conflicting interests in the face of these changing economic conditions.
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Image of a slave dwelling

Monticello's archaeological record begins in the early eighteenth century, when Thomas Jefferson's father Peter patented thousands of acres at the western edge of the Piedmont, where the Rivanna River, a tributary of the James, slices though the Southwest Mountains. Thomas Jefferson inherited this land and by 1770 had begun to build a mansion on Monticello Mountain and to develop Monticello Plantation on the surrounding land.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson, like his contemporaries, shifted from growing to tobacco to more lucrative - and labor intensive - crops like wheat.

 

Thomas Jefferson's income, like that of his father, was founded on slave labor and the hoe cultivation of tobacco. Beginning in the 1790s, Jefferson - in accordance with regional economic trends - began to diversify. Wheat became the principal crop at Monticello. At the same time, Jefferson introduced crop rotations, improved breeds of livestock and more intensive animal husbandry, invested in mechanized harvesting equipment, established nail manufacturing, and built two mills on the river banks. The new mixed-farming regime still depended on the labor of slaves, most of whom were native born. At the time of Jefferson's death, some enslaved families had labored at Monticello for four generations.

How did changes in the crops grown at Monticello alter the conditions under which slaves and their families lived? Archaeological evidence for change in room size and floor plans of slave houses hints that slaves achieved greater control over some aspects of their living conditions as the 18th century drew to a close.

Change on Mulberry Row

Our best evidence for slave domestic architecture at Monticello comes from Mulberry Row, the 1000-foot-long street of domestic, service, and industrial structures that lay just 300 feet south of Jefferson's mansion. Throughout Jefferson's tenure at Monticello, slave houses stood on the south side of Mulberry Row, facing the mansion. Most of these structures housed enslaved people who worked in Jefferson's manufacturing enterprises and in his house, not in the fields.

Painting of Mulberry Row

Mulberry Row, just 300 feet from Jefferson's mansion, was the center of slave life at Monticello.

 

Archeological evidence from three domestic structures reveals that rooms were large in the 1770s: 215-260 square feet. However, in buildings dating from the 1790s room size declines dramatically to about 140 square feet. There are hints of a subsequent increase as we move into the early 19th century. Two buildings from this period have rooms of 256 and 236 square feet. Floor plans change as well. Two of the early structures have a two-cell plan with a single, shared entry. But from the 1790's on, all rooms have independent entries and most are free-standing single-cell structures.


Multiple sub-floor pits are indicators of slave domestic occupation.

 

What's going on? There are at least two - unfortunately, contradictory - possibilities. If residential group size remained unchanged, then the smaller room sizes of the 1790s would imply that slaves were being housed at higher densities. On the other hand, the decrease in room size might instead be linked to a reduction of the number of people per dwelling. The larger rooms of the 1800s could then represent an increase in the amount of space available to these smaller, presumably family-based, residential groups.

An independent line of archaeological evidence helps to eliminate the ambiguity: sub-floor pits. Since the first excavation of an 18th-century slave quarter was conducted at Carter's Grove Plantation near Williamsburg 30 years ago, archaeologists have learned that multiple sub-floor pits are indicators of slave domestic occupation in the region. However, the significance of these features remains contentious.
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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Photos: Thomas Jefferson Foudation , Inc.

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