Minerva

Minerva (1771-1827+) [1] was born at Shadwell in September 1771, the daughter of Squire and Belinda, slaves who then belonged to Jane Randolph Jefferson. Two years later, Minerva and her family became the property of Thomas Jefferson, as part of a conveyance made to reimburse him for paying some of his mother's debts.

During Jefferson's absence in France, Minerva became the wife of Bagwell (1768-1827+), an older brother of Isaac Jefferson the blacksmith. Their first child was born in 1787, when Minerva was sixteen, and was named Ursula, after Bagwell's mother. By 1794, when Jefferson retired to Monticello and began to keep detailed records, Bagwell and Minerva were living with their three children at the Lego farm.

A list of tools prepared by the overseer in 1795 reveals that Minerva was assigned three hoes--for hilling the corn, weeding the crops, and grubbing the fields in preparation for the passage of the plows. Her husband had an axe and wedges and hilling and weeding hoes, but no hoe for grubbing. Apparently such work was reserved for women and old men.

A visitor in 1796 described the four farms that comprised the Monticello plantation, each with an overseer and "cultivated by four negroes, four negresses, four oxen, and four horses." As far as we know, Jefferson always maintained the custom of using mixed "gangs" of farm laborers. "Taking gangs of half men and half women, as with us," he wrote his son-in-law in 1793, "I guess we must allow a hand for every 5. acres content of each field." Although it is not documented for Minerva, some Monticello slave women even drove plows.

Every June, Bagwell and Minerva became part of the wheat harvesting team, which required almost all able-bodied slaves. In 1796, including the eight women who were to continue with the plowing, the harvesting force consisted of sixty-six men, women, and children from the ages of nine to sixty-nine. Bagwell and the strongest men mowed with cradle scythes; Minerva and the other women, and the children, gathered and bound the sheaves. Harvesting the wheat of all four farms sometimes took as many as twelve long days of steady work.

Minerva and Bagwell had nine children from 1787 to 1811, by which time they also had at least six grandchildren. The records shed little light on arrangements for infant care at Monticello. Jefferson was known to encourage his overseers to allow the slave women sufficient time to ensure the health of their infants. In 1820 he wrote to John Wayles Eppes: "I consider a woman who rings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption." Nursing mothers were allowed an extra quarter-peck of cornmeal in the weekly ration.

Minerva's youngest children would have spent the days at the quarters, in the care of an older woman, past the age of useful field labor. This may at some point have been their own grandmother, Belinda (1739-1808). Thomas Jefferson Randolph remembered that at each of the farms "a middle aged woman cooked for the laborers and milked a half a dozen cows and made butter. She spun two and half days task of wool in the week. The children were all brought with their nurses to her house every morning to be taken care of while their mothers were out, she emplyong as help all old enough."

The year of the 1796 harvest may have been a difficult one for Minerva. She gave birth to her fourth child in March and a new overseer, William Page, had replaced one of the overseers Jefferson had brought from Maryland. Page seems to have been a particularly harsh manager. Jefferson noted in 1798 that Page needed "to be moderated." When he later became the Pantops overseer for John Wayles Eppes, it became impossible to hire local slaves because of the "terror of Pages name."

By the end of 1798 Bagwell and Minerva had been moved to the south side of the river, possibly to [[Tufton]]. This may be the time when Jefferson noted that "Davy, Lewis & Abram have done the carpenter's work of Bagwell's house in 6. days, getting the stuff & putting it togother." They then had a very different overseer--Bagwell's own father, Great George.

Here they continued an industrious life that is reflected in various records from 1790. For Minerva, the workday did not end when the master's work was completed by dusk. She had to care for and feed her children and do the washing and mending, she tended a poultry yard, and worked in her vegetable garden. Minverva and Bagwell appear in various accounts selling a variety of products to Jefferson and his household: eggs, cucumbers, cymlin squash, watermelons, hops, (and even tobacco during Jefferson's absence in France), as well as the fruits of Bagwell's trapping and fishing expeditions.

When Jefferson leased Tufton and some Monticello fields in 1801, Bagwell and Minerva were leased as well. For eight years John H. Craven was their master. Also in 1801, their daughter Ursula was taken by Jefferson to Washington for training in French cookery. Ursula returned to Monticello in 1802 and seems to have led a double life, working in the kitchen when Jefferson was resident there and going back to the fields when he returned to Washington.

Jefferson took Tufton, and the slaves leased with it, back into his own hands in 1809 when he retired. In 1817 he leased most of his farming fields to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, along with sixty slaves, including Bagwell, Minerva, and some of their children. At Jefferson's death in 1826 they were living at Tufton. Bagwell was given an assessed value of $50 and Minerva, then only fifty-five, was declared worth "Nothing." At the January 1827 sale of slaves and furnishings, Thomas Jefferson Randolph bought Bagwell and Minerva (for $120), as well as their four youngest children; he bought their daughter Virginia and her family from the estate in 1829 (Jefferson had given him their daughter Bec in 1812). Their oldest child, Ursula, was sold to the University of Virginia professor George Blaetterman at the 1827 sale.

Minerva's Children

Ursula (b. 5 January 1787)
Mary (b. 29 October 1788)
Virginia (b. 8 May 1793)
Esther (b. 19 March 1796)
Bec (b. 1797)
Nanny (b. 10 April 1799 or 1800)
Willis (b. 6 January 1806)
Archy (b. 3 February 1808)
Jordan (b. September 1810 or 1811)

Footnotes

1. This article is based on Lucia Stanton, Monticello Research Report, 1993.

Tag this

None
Login or register to tag items

Add comment

Login to post comments