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The Gillette Family

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Gillette family members labored in the summer harvest, an annual event that brought together as many as 60 enslaved workers, aged 10 to 70, to bring in the wheat. Jefferson’s records for 1799 indicate that Edward (Ned) Gillette cut wheat with a cradle scythe, for 14 hours a day...

Scythe blade fragment.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Gill, Israel, and James Gillette all worked in Jefferson’s stable tending his prized thoroughbred horses.  Fragments of hardware related to horses: iron snaffle bit, spur, stirrup, stirrup bar from saddle tree.

Items relating to horses.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Coopers made barrel hoops from sheet iron to hold the wooden barrel staves together.

Barrel hoop fragments.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Though the Gillettes lived on the Monticello home farm, they likely had household possessions similar to those owned by fellow slaves on Mulberry Row. At the home farm, archaeologists have found pearlware with painted decoration, Chinese export porcelain, wine bottle fragments, and a metal...

Pearlware fragments.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Archaeologists have found that enslaved people living at the home farm acquired clothing accessories, like shoe buckles and paste (glass) jewels, which would have been set into men’s cufflinks or buttons.

Shoe buckle.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Many children’s toys made of cloth or wood have not survived, while clay marbles and ceramic doll parts have. On their own time, members of the enslaved community enjoyed games involving dominoes and dice, and playing musical instruments like a brass jaw harp.
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Dominos, jaw harp, and marbles.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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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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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