A Housing Revolution

In 1793, while serving in Philadelphia as Secretary of State under President Washington, Jefferson wrote a letter to his Monticello overseer with instructions about plantation management. Jefferson requested that the overseer make sure the enslaved adults and their children then living in the stone house -- labeled Building E on the Mutual assurance plat -- move into three newly constructed log houses -- Buildings r, s, and t -- on the eastern end of Mulberry Row (see Mulberry Row in 1796). Among these slaves was Critta Hemings who, with her children, was to take the log house nearest to the mansion (Building r) "as she is wanted around the house".

What are we to make of this change in accommodations? More importantly, what did Critta make of it? Building E, built in the 1770's, featured two large rooms, each about 17 feet square, a brick floor, and walls and chimney of cut stone quarried at the base of Monticello Mountain. If Jefferson's architectural drawings are to be believed, it sported a classical decoration, including an entablature and a pedimented portico, supported by Tuscan columns, over the single entry. On the other hand, the new log dwellings were a scant 12 by 14 feet in plan. They featured clay floors, wood-framed chimneys plastered with clay, and lacked architectural embellishment, Tuscan or otherwise. Viewing Jefferson's letter in isolation, it might seem that Critta's move represented a decline in housing standards. Understanding why this is unlikely to have been Critta's interpretation requires a larger perspective on the incident, one that is provided by the systematic picture of change in slave housing at Monticello that archaeological evidence alone can offer.

Archaeological excavations have provided information on about 9 structures that housed slaves along Mulberry Row during the Jefferson's half-century tenure at Monticello. Three of these structures were built in the 1770's. The first is represented archaeologically by a cluster of four rectangular pits. The pits averaged 3.5 by 4.2 feet in plan and 1.2 feet in depth. Excavations elsewhere in the Chesapeake make it clear that they are examples of what archaeologists call "sub-floor pits," small cellars that are typically found beneath the floors of slave houses in the region during the 18th century. When in use, they would have been covered with boards, which could be removed to gain access to the pit's contents. The four sub-floor pits were located at the east end of Mulberry Row where Jefferson's design drawings show a structure he labeled a "Negro Quarter." Jefferson's drawing shows a building with two 17-foot square rooms, each heated by a corner fireplace that shared a single stack. The two rooms shared a single entry. Burnt chinking and daub in the pit fill attests that this was a log building with a wooden chimney. Because the log walls sat on top of the ground or on a cobble foundation that was completely recycled for use elsewhere, they left no detectable subsurface trace after the building's destruction about 1790. Superimposing Jefferson's plan on the four pits suggests that there were two pits in each room, positioned close to the corner fireplaces.

The second slave house dating from this early period left a more substantial archaeological trace. Here portions of the cobble and boulder foundation on which the log superstructure once sat survived. So too did portions of a stone hearth foundation on the gable end, which would have carried a clay-covered, wood-framed chimney. The foundations indicate the building was 12.5 by 20 feet in plan and contained a single room. There were two sub-floor pits, a larger pit in the center of the room, and a smaller brick-lined pit in front of the hearth. Unlike the "Negro Quarter", this building survived at least until 1796, when Jefferson labeled it "Building o" on his insurance plat.

The third early slave house on Mulberry Row has not been investigated archaeologically because it survives and is used today. Labeled Building E by Jefferson on his 1796 insurance plat, the structure originally had a plan and exterior dimensions identical to the "Negro Quarter", although room sizes were a bit smaller because the walls were stone, not log. This is the building in which Critta was living in 1793.

Slave domestic spaces built during the 1790's were consistently different. We have already encountered three of them: Building r, Critta's new home, and its clones, Buildings s, and t. Archaeology revealed that s and t both had a single small sub-floor pit. By 1800, three additional slave spaces were to be found in the brick and stone south terrace to the north of Mulberry Row, which was completed at this time as part of Jefferson's campaign to rebuild Monticello mansion. One of these was the cook's room, located next to the kitchen. The three terrace rooms ranged from 150 to 160 square feet.

Two detached stone structures were built in the early 19th century. The first of these was standing by 1809, it had a stone chimney. After Jefferson's death its partially dismantled walls became an enclosure around the grave of Rachael Levy, the mother of Monticello's new owner. The second stone structure was located on the opposite side of Mulberry Row. Copious amounts of brick rubble indicate a brick chimney. Room sizes in these buildings were even larger than those found in the terraces: 256 and 236 square feet respectively.

Changes in the number of rooms and the size of each of the rooms reveal an interesting pattern. In the 1770's rooms are large, in the 215-260 square foot range. However, in the 1790's room size declines dramatically to 140 square feet. And there is evidence of a subsequent increase as we move into the early 19th century. Two of the early structures have a two-room plan with a single entry, giving shared access to each room. But this feature is missing from the 1790's on. After that date all rooms have independent and direct access from the outside. Buildings r, s, t are free-standing single-room structures and the three slave rooms in the terraces have their own exterior doors and non-communicating partitions between them.

Clearly Critta's move needs to be seen as part of a larger change in slave housing at Monticello. But what was the significance of the change? One possibility is that the smaller rooms of the 1790's represented a reduction in space available to slave families. But there is a second possibility. On this reading, the decrease in room size in the 1790's mirrored an increase in the frequency with which Mulberry Row residents were able to live in smaller groups over whose membership they now had greater control. The larger rooms of the 1800's would then represent an increase in the amount of space available to these smaller, presumably family-based residential groups.

How can we decide between these alternatives? What's needed is independent archaeological evidence which might be sensitive to the extent to which enslaved individuals controlled residence group membership and could live in family groups. Recently, archaeologists working at Monticello have suggested that sub-floor pits, like those that marked the location of the "Negro Quarter," provide the evidence we need.

Over the past several decades, archaeologists working in the Chesapeake have discovered that floors of houses in which slaves lived during the 18th century are typically riddled with multiple sub-floor pits. One slave house located at Kingsmill Plantation just outside Williamsburg and occupied during the third quarter of the eighteenth century had an astonishing 18 rectangular pits dug into the floor. But 4 to 10 pits is more typical. Archaeologists are still puzzling over the best explanation for the pits and their association with Chesapeake slavery. However, a promising idea is that sub-floor pits were used as by slaves as safe-deposit boxes.

Under the safe-deposit box hypothesis, sub-floor pits represent clever inventions by enslaved people to increase the security of personal belongings and food, both provisioned and acquired independently, under difficult social conditions imposed on them by slave owners in the 18th-century Chesapeake. Sub-floor pits achieve their security function by making access to their contents time consuming, more likely to be publically observed, and hence socially accountable. Increased social accountability in turn helped foster a greater sense of community among Chesapeake slaves, in the same way that the Freedom of Information Act encourages honesty in government today.

If the safe-deposit box hypothesis is correct, then we can use the pattern of sub-floor pit occurrence at Monticello to evaluate the idea that the decrease in room size represented an increase in the ability of enslaved people to make choices about house mates. If slaves were able to choose residence partners on the basis of whether or not they had proven trustworthy friends in the past, then the security function of sub-floor pits would have become less important to Mulberry Row's residents. The importance of sub-floor pits can be measured in two ways: their frequency of occurrence under each structure and their size. The frequency of sub-floor pit occurrence declined over time. The two excavated structures with large rooms from the 1770's, Building o and the Negro Quarter have two pits under each room. Buildings s and t, from the 1790's, both had a single cellar. There is no evidence that any structure built after 1800 had a sub-floor pit. The pattern of change in sub-floor pit size tells a complementary story. Average sub-floor pit size declines from the 1770's to the 1790's, before sub-floor pits disappear entirely from Monticello around 1800. The tentative conclusion is that the smaller room sizes of the 1790's do represent greater control over residence group membership by slaves on Mulberry Row. The fact all the slave spaces built after 1790 could be entered directly from the outside offers additional support for this idea.

What then are we to make of Critta's move? It appears to have been part of a larger shift in slave housing at Monticello. Before the change, many slaves lived in barracks-like settings, with little say over who their house mates were. Afterwards, slaves were more often able to choose those with whom they lived and often chose to live in smaller family groups. Current evidence from other sites indicates that a similar shift was afoot all across the Chesapeake during the last few decades of the 18th century. A successful explanation will have to involve broad social and economic trends that affected not only Critta Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, but slaves and slave owners across the region.

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says

Hello Fraser,
I'm glad to see that Rachel Levy's grave is known and written about. Is she still buried at Monticello? While I was delighted to discover her and the history of the Levy family during a visit about 10 years ago, I was dismayed that at a recent visit two days ago, many of the docents were completely unaware of the grave's existence. One docent was able to tell us that the grave was on Mulberry Row, currently a construction site, and therefore (I guess) the reason why I was unable to find it. Nor did I see any plaque or written commemoration about the Levy family anywhere. The only mention of the Levy's was a single sentence at the end of the house tour, rather tepid and no mention of the grave. Do you know anything about the whereabouts of Rachel Levy's remains that you are able to share with me? Many thanks, I am very interested in Monticello, the history and the evolution of the place. It is definitely a work in progress!
Debra

says

Fraser,

Thank you for your thorough explanation. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my question.

I did read Mr. Leepson's book a few months before we came. I don't think I would've appreciated all the work that goes into keeping Monticello the masterpiece that it still is today had I not.

says

I have a question. In the picture of Rachael Levy's grave site I see stone walls which look to be roughly 5 ft tall from the dirt floor. I was there last week and the picture I took shows only short walls maybe 12-18 inches from the ground. Did 3-4 feet of the original stone wall get removed? If so, why? From your picture, the walls look strong.

says

Hi Jeff,

You are absolutely right – the walls around the Rachel Levy grave site were several feet taller in 1984, when the photo of archaeological excavations at the site was taken, than they are today. How come?

The story starts in 1809 when Thomas Jefferson built a house for slaves on the site, with walls of stone and a pyramidal roof. This building is today referred to as “1809 Stone House”. In 1834, eight years after Jefferson’s death, the Monticello mountain top was purchased by Uriah P. Levy. As the first Jewish Commodore in the U.S. Navy, Levy had struggled with anti-Semitism during his career. He was a great admirer of Jefferson and especially Jefferson’s advocacy for the separation of church and state. At the death of his mother Rachel in 1839, Commodore Levy partially dismantled the walls of the 1809 Stone House to create a graveyard wall around his mother’s grave. For more on the Levy family’s ownership of Monticello, see Mark Leepson’s recent book Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.

In 1923 the Levys sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. By 1973 the walls on the 1809 Stone House had become structurally unsound, despite previous efforts by the Levys and the Foundation to repair and stabilize them. The walls were rebuilt from the ground up to the height you see in 1984 photo. Soon after conclusion of the archaeological excavations, the walls were rebuilt to their current lower height, a decision that seems to have been driven by esthetics – the desire to make the Levy gravesite more open and visually appealing.

Today the Levy grave site and the remains of the 1809 Stone House that enclose it remain key components of the mountaintop landscape. They help illustrate the central role of slavery in Jefferson’s Monticello and the importance of the Levy family in insuring the preservation of Jefferson’s mansion in the century after his death.

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