The Gillette Family

Making Hard Decisions: Passing

Would you have tried to "pass"? Explore this and other challenging decisions faced by Monticello's enslaved families.

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Scythe blade fragment.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
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Items relating to horses.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
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Barrel hoop fragments.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
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Pearlware fragments.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
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Shoe buckle.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
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Dominos, jaw harp, and marbles.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
scythe blade.jpg
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Barrell-Hoops.jpg
4.2.0.5Pearlware.jpg
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4.2.0.7Recreation.jpg

Though Jefferson referred to them simply as Ned and Jenny, their son Israel stated in 1873 that his parents’ names were Edward and Jane Gillette. Both farm laborers, they had 12 children and lived on the Monticello home farm. Jefferson said he had “most perfect confidence” in Edward Gillette.

The Gillette children learned a variety of valuable skills, including barrel-making, shoemaking, caring for horses, and cooking. Barnaby Gillette, a cooper, made flour barrels that Jefferson sold to the tenants of his gristmill. In 1813, Jefferson offered Gillette an incentive: the price of one barrel for every 31 he made. He could thus earn more money than most other Monticello slaves, up to $40 a year. His brothers Gill, Israel, and James Gillette worked in the stable and rode postilion for Jefferson’s landau carriage.

The family employed expertise and entrepreneurship to improve their situation, selling fish, chickens, eggs, garden produce, and wooden pails to the Jefferson family. Israel Gillette remembered Jefferson’s death as “an affair of great moment and uncertainty to us slaves.” In 1827, Edward, Jane, nine of their children, and 12 grandchildren were sold.

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