In 1776, Jefferson tallied the 117 “souls of my family.” Within Jefferson’s “family” were the enslaved families of Monticello—the Herns, Hemingses, Gillettes, Hubbards, Grangers and others. They strove tirelessly to maintain family bonds, protect and nurture their children, and to create vibrant social, cultural, and spiritual lives independent of Jefferson.
Jefferson encouraged slaves to form families and advocated that enslaved couples have children. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years” as “an addition to the capital,” he wrote. Jefferson also discouraged his slaves from marrying “abroad” on other Virginia plantations.
Although Jefferson tried to wield influence over slave families, the increasing strength and cohesion of the African American family led to greater autonomy and negotiating power. While slave marriages were illegal in Virginia, enduring unions were the norm at Monticello. To protect their families, couples asked Jefferson for “a house by themselves” when they had children. In 1818, an enslaved woman petitioned for a home for her own family, and Jefferson instructed his overseer that “Maria now having a child, I promised her a house to be built this winter.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge to African American familial bonds was the slave trade. The separation of spouses, parents, and children remained a constant threat, although Jefferson promised to make “all practicable sacrifices to keep man and wife together.” In some cases, Jefferson strove to unite families, purchasing wives or husbands to prevent separation. For example, James Hern’s wife, Lucretia, belonged to overseer Gabriel Lilly. In 1805, Lilly’s departure from Monticello threatened to separate them but Jefferson intervened and purchased Lucretia, her two sons, and “the child of which she is pregnant, when born” for £180. But, at other times, Jefferson knowingly divided families by selling enslaved people or by giving them to his children and grandchildren. Over 400 of the 607 people that he owned in his lifetime were separated from home and family by sale or gift.