Minerva Granger was one of the enslaved women who was essential to Jefferson’s agricultural endeavors on his plantation. Along with her family and other members of the enslaved community, she planted and harvested tobacco and later wheat, which Jefferson sold on Atlantic markets. While Jefferson's writings contain numerous references to the enslaved individuals who worked in his house or along Mulberry Row, he rarely wrote in detail about the enslaved field workers with whom he had little contact. Since Minerva Granger was an agricultural laborer, Jefferson wrote about her in terms of the type of work she performed, the rations and tools she received, and the children she bore. We can learn more about the life of Minerva Granger and other enslaved female agricultural workers by using the archaeological record to understand what their lives may have looked like.

Documentary evidence indicates that in addition to her role as an enslaved laborer, she was also a mother, daughter, wife, grandmother, and daughter-in-law. She was born at Shadwell in 1771. Her parents, Squire and Belinda, whose surnames are unrecorded, were owned by Jefferson’s mother but were conveyed to Jefferson. Young Minerva was moved to Monticello home farm when she was two years old, beginning life-long movement around the Monticello Plantation property. In the 1780s, Minerva married Bagwell Granger, whose parents were Ursula and George Granger, Sr., both of whom held prominent roles on the plantation. Minerva Granger was the mother of nine children and had her first when she was just 16 and her last when she was 39.

Granger appears in lists of tools she and other enslaved laborers received from an overseer. In one, she was assigned three hoes – one each for hilling corn, weeding crops, and grubbing fields. Her husband had different tools assigned, including an ax and wedge, as men and women worked together but were assigned different tasks during the planting and harvesting seasons according to their strength and abilities. Every June towards the end of the month, Granger was part of the wheat harvesting crew, which demanded all able-bodied workers. In 1796, the workforce consisted of 66 enslaved men, women, and children, ranging in age from nine to 69. Her husband and other strong men mowed the wheat with cradle scythes, while Granger and the rest of the women and children gathered and bound the sheaves. Harvesting wheat for all four of Monticello plantation’s quarter farms took as many as 12 long days of work and typically lasted into July.

We know from the documentary record that in 1795 and 1796 Minerva Granger received linen, cotton, a pair of shoes, and a bed. She did not get a blanket, but her husband did. Her daughters received linen and cotton but nothing else. The amounts seem to be on par with other agricultural laborers at Monticello. We don’t know what Granger looked like, but we can draw on a watercolor that Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted in 1798 outside of Fredericksburg of two women working in a tobacco field for clues. We can surmise that she might have worn a short, tabbed bodice (which was a snugly fitting waistcoat or jacket) and an ankle-length skirt. The women in the painting are without shoes, but we know that Granger was issued shoes. Jefferson allotted clothing twice a year, including shoes, so she may have worn them while working.

In 1820, Jefferson wrote that he considered a woman who had a child every two years more profitable than the best man of the farm. Minerva Granger’s children were all born into slavery, which meant that Jefferson enslaved them by owning their mother. Nursing mothers were allotted an extra quarter peck of cornmeal in the weekly ration, which ordinarily included a peck of cornmeal, four salted fish, and a half-pound of pork or picked beef for each adult. Granger’s children were provisioned smaller amounts of meat and fish according to their age.

Enslaved workers had to supplement their diet with hunted and trapped birds and mammals like squirrels, deer, woodchucks, opossums, turtles, and rabbits. Granger’s children likely foraged for wild fruit and plants that would supplement their diet. Additionally, we know from the documentary record that Granger and her husband sold food to the main house with produce from their own vegetable gardens and poultry yards, including eggs, chickens, ducks, cucumbers, squash, watermelons, tobacco, and hops. These vegetable gardens were essential to ensuring enslaved people had enough food. Rations provided by Jefferson did not include enough calories or variety for them to thrive.  

The documentary evidence for their marriage and children suggests that Minerva and Bagwell Granger managed to secure some stability for their family within the constraints of slavery. However, at Jefferson’s death, that stability ended when most of their children were sold to pay Jefferson's debts.

Documents give us the names of people. Archaeology gives us a complementary picture, although often an anonymous one. We can often draw connections between what we know of Minerva’s life and archaeological evidence at a general level. Our current fieldwork at Site 6, a domestic site occupied by field laborers who worked on the Monticello home farm in the early-19th century, is revealing surprising levels of inequality among enslaved households.

Based on artifact concentrations, we know there were three cabins at Site 6, and we’ve recovered different types of artifacts from each cabin. One of the cabins has a lot of fashionable ceramics like transfer-printed and hand-painted pearlware. Fragments of stoneware food storage vessels attest to independent food production. We also found window glass, beads, buttons, buckles, writing slate and slate pencils, horse hardware like stirrups and bridle bits, and eating utensils. We think a family like the Grangers may have lived in this spot because of the types and diversity of artifacts we found. They likely had a garden, and we see signs of yard maintenance, which indicates permanence on the site. We found a one cent piece from this one cabin, which along with the fashionable ceramics, suggests that the people who lived here participated in the larger local economy. They likely earned money from selling produce from their gardens or chickens or eggs to the main house or from hiring themselves out to go to the market in Charlottesville or nearby Milton on their days off. They purchased goods like plates, tea bowls and teacups, beads, buttons, and storage vessels.

Not all of Site 6's residents had the means, motives, and opportunities to acquire these kinds of goods. One of the other cabins has more outdated ceramics and far fewer personal artifacts like beads and buttons. There is little evidence for food storage and none at all for yard maintenance. These clues point to a succession of short-term occupations by individuals who could not count on living at Site 6 from one season to the next. Uncertainty about continued residence at the site meant there was little incentive to make investments with long-term benefits, like planting a garden. Evidence from Site 6 suggests that not all enslaved households fared as well as Minerva and Bagwell did.

Sometimes visitors to Monticello are surprised to learn about enslaved people buying and selling things and making homes for themselves, but that’s part of understanding slavery. Even though the system treated them like they were property and not people, enslaved people were human beings living complex lives. Archaeology helps shed light on that in a way that the documentary record can’t. It’s a challenge to talk about relative levels of comfort and stability when talking about people who were held captive within a system designed to take their humanity. But enslaved people were people, and they tried to negotiate the system of bondage as best they could, trying and sometimes succeeding in creating some form of home and stability within the confines of slavery.

When Minerva Granger was done working in the fields for the day, she returned home to her cabin to collect her younger children probably from her mother and then cared for and fed her kids, washed and mended clothing, tended the poultry yard, and worked in the family’s vegetable garden. Each cabin was about 12-feet-by-14 feet with chestnut logs. It would take a group of three men about six days to construct one of these buildings, so they were not complicated structures.

When Jefferson was president, he leased some Monticello fields and slaves to his neighbors, and Minerva and Bagwell Granger were leased during that time. Still living on Monticello property, they lived at Lego and eventually were moved to Tufton, which were adjacent farms that Jefferson owned, and were living there at the time of Jefferson’s death. After Jefferson died, Jefferson’s grandson bought Minerva and Bagwell Granger and their four youngest children for $120.

Each generation works to shed light on their own family history and help us understand where we came from, where we’re going, and share their stories. Thanks to the Getting Word project and willingness of the Granger family to share their story, we’re still in touch with members of the Granger family, some of whom still live in the Charlottesville community today and are an important part of the fabric of Monticello.

Further Reading