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.
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.
learn more about the research Fraser Neiman is conducting,
please see the Digital
Archeological Archive of Chesapeake Slavery.
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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.
like his contemporaries, shifted from growing to tobacco
to more lucrative - and labor intensive - crops like
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.
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.
on Mulberry Row
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.
Row, just 300 feet from Jefferson's mansion, was the
center of slave life at Monticello.
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
Multiple sub-floor pits are indicators of slave domestic
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,
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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