In 1773 Thomas Jefferson purchased an enslaved family of three - George, Ursula, and their young son George, Jr. - and brought them to work at Monticello. The Grangers, their children, and their grandchildren would go on to include community leaders, skilled tradesmen, cooks, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, farmers, and cider-makers as well as caring spouses, parents, children, and siblings.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: On a winter's day in 1773, at the urging of his wife Martha, Thomas Jefferson attended the estate auction of John Flemings in Cumberland County, Virginia, 50 miles from their home at Monticello. Martha Jefferson was "very desirous to get a favorite housewoman of the name of Ursula." At Flemings' estate auction, Thomas Jefferson spent 210 pounds to purchase Ursula Granger, and two of her sons, 14-year old George, Jr., and five-year old Bagwell. After this purchase of Granger and her two sons, Jefferson soon also bought George Granger, Sr., Ursula's husband, from another Cumberland County plantation owner for 130 pounds. Thus, the Granger family came to live at Monticello.
Over the next 25 years, the Grangers held important positions at Monticello and became leaders in the enslaved community. George and Ursula Granger had four sons, three of whom lived to adulthood. The youngest of their sons, Isaac, later dictated his life story to Reverend Charles Campbell in 1847 in Petersburg, Virginia, and it was published as "Memoirs of a Monticello Slave." This is one of four surviving firsthand accounts from members of Monticello's enslaved community. Isaac Granger, who later took the surname Jefferson, was also the only member of George and Ursula Granger's family to live a life in freedom, and his recollections inform many of the stories we know today about the Granger family.
While historical records do not clearly indicate all of the details about the role George Granger, Sr. was serving in the years of Thomas and Martha Jefferson's marriage, the Grangers did live in Williamsburg and Richmond when Jefferson served as Virginia's Governor during the American Revolution. Isaac Granger's account described in detail the raids in Richmond by British soldiers, which clearly made a profound impact on him as he was only five years old at the time. Isaac Granger said that it was his father, George Granger, Sr. who hid valuables from invading British soldiers as they searched for Jefferson at the Governor's mansion in Richmond. Isaac and his mother Ursula Granger were taken by the British soldiers as they left the city toward the coast, and it's possible. George Granger was not reunited with his wife and son, for another year after that.
George Granger, Sr. traveled back to Monticello and he took up agricultural duties. When Jefferson served as Foreign Minister to France from 1784 to 1789, George Granger, Sr. was described as being "reserved to take care of my orchards, grasses, &c." By 1793, Granger was a foreman of labor, a position directly under the plantation's overseer, supervising other enslaved workers on digging the canal for Jefferson's mills. Granger's skills and ability to lead continued to bring him more responsibility, and in 1796, he became the only African American, and only enslaved person, who was an overseer in Monticello's history. He oversaw the agricultural laborers at Tufton Farm and the cultivation of tobacco, Virginia's cash crop. Though his first crop of tobacco largely failed, the success of the second crop overshadowed it and Jefferson referred to it as "extraordinary."
George Granger's nearly three-year tenure as Monticello overseer coincided with Jefferson's returned to public life, when he was elected Vice President in 1796, taking Jefferson to Philadelphia, and leaving the southern part of the Monticello plantation in the capable hands of Granger. His position as an overseer was quite likely a difficult one. Not only was George Granger forced to answer to his enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, for his crop yields and profits, he was also put into a position of power over other members of the enslaved community, including his family and friends. He was expected to maintain order among those he oversaw, which could have included meting out both privileges and punishments. While Thomas Mann Randolph once described Granger's management style as "insubordination," it was in contrast to the particularly cruel overseer on the Shadwell Farm, a free white man named William Page. Yet Randolph also once referred to Granger as "steady and industrious." Jefferson told Randolph to support Granger and moderate Page, providing evidence that, on paper at least, Thomas Jefferson preferred George Granger's approach to leadership.
While George Granger, Sr. was influential in the agricultural production at Monticello, his wife Ursula played an important role in the home. Not only working in the smokehouse and wash house on Mulberry Row, Ursula Granger also cooked in the kitchen located underneath Monticello's South Pavilion. Like most enslaved people at the time, Ursula Granger was not literate as far as we know, but Isaac Granger's account says that Martha Jefferson would come to the kitchen "with a cookery book in her hand and read out of it... how to make cakes, tarts, and so on." Effectively, Ursula Granger served as the first head chef at Monticello. While she lacked the formal French training that Jefferson acquired for later enslaved chefs, she was the first in a long line of influential and skilled cooks who left an imprint on American foodways by creating dishes at one of the most famous tables in the early United States. Her skill extended beyond the kitchen and she supervised cider making at Monticello as well. In an 1800 letter to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson wrote, "There's nobody there but Ursula who unites trust and skill to do it."
In addition to all of these responsibilities, she was also caring for her own family during these years. After moving to Monticello with her two sons, George, Jr. and Bagwell, Granger gave birth to a third son named Archy in 1773. Born around the same time as Thomas and Martha Jefferson's first daughter, Archy Granger unfortunately did not live the same long life that she would. Ursula Granger was likely called upon to serve as a wet nurse to the Jefferson's daughter Martha, who was sickly until about six months old. Not receiving all the milk needed for survival, Archy Granger died within his first year of life, and only the other three Granger sons grew to be adults.
Those three Granger sons - George, Jr., Bagwell, and Isaac - worked in many different locations around Monticello and had varied experiences. Just after moving to Monticello, George Granger, Jr. began learning the trade of blacksmithing from a hired white artisan named Francis Bishop in 1774. Bishop ran the blacksmith shop at Shadwell and trained enslaved men in the trade until he left in 1776, when Granger, and another enslaved man named Barnaby, were put in charge, running the shop for another five years until the arrival of William Orr in 1781. Orr's tenure only lasted two years, and in 1783, George Granger, Jr. began another span of running the blacksmith shop, this time for approximately 15 more years. He repaired agricultural machinery, he shod horses, and he made parts for guns and vehicles. Granger also became the manager of the nailery when Jefferson began an enterprise in nail-making in 1794. As the manager of the nailery, Granger received a small percentage of the profits Jefferson made from the sale of nails in local counties. Speaking of Granger's skill and efficacy as a manager, Thomas Mann Randolph wrote to Jefferson, "I scarcely look to the Nailery at all - George I am sure could not stoop to my authority and I hope and believe he pushes your interests as well as I could."
Coming to Monticello at only five years old, Bagwell Granger, George and Ursula's second son, was not trained in a skilled craft like his older brother. Bagwell Granger primarily worked as an agricultural laborer, first at Shadwell and later at Tufton Farm. Bagwell Granger and his wife Minerva eventually had nine children, including a daughter Ursula, named for his mother, who later trained in French pastrymaking and married Monticello's principal enslaved gardener Wormley Hughes. Bagwell and Minerva Granger cultivated a small garden next to their home, and records indicate that they would bring produce like squash and cucumbers to the Monticello home on Sundays to sell to Jefferson and his daughter's family, the Randolphs. They raised poultry, selling ducks, chickens, and eggs, and Bagwell Granger also grew hops that he sold to Jefferson, which were likely used to produce beer. It's also quite possible that Bagwell and Minerva Granger worked in the fields under the supervision of Bagwell's father, George Granger, Sr., during his tenure as Monticello overseer.
It was the youngest Granger son, Isaac, who was born in 1775, whose life we know the most about due to the memoir, he left behind. Isaac Granger worked in the nailery, blacksmith shop, and learned the trade of tinsmithing. He was probably trained by his older brother, George Granger, Jr. in the art of forging iron, but in the 1790s, Jefferson took Isaac Granger to Philadelphia to learn tinsmithing from a Quaker man in the city. While Isaac Granger's memoirs do not indicate any knowledge of anti-slavery laws or abolitionist rhetoric at the time, he was living in Philadelphia, which was a hotbed for abolitionist ideas. The tinsmith who trained him was a Quaker man who could have also possibly held anti-slavery views. While there were Quaker slaveholders, enslaving people was against the religious doctrine, and Isaac Granger could have been exposed to abolitionist viewpoints while in Philadelphia. While there he learned to cut and solder tin, mastering making items like tin cups and lining copperwares. When he returned to Monticello, he operated a tinsmith shop that was unfortunately short-lived, and after its failure, he resumed working as a blacksmith and a nail-maker
In late 1799 and early 1800, tragedy befell the entire Granger family. Within a short amount of time, George Granger, Sr., his wife Ursula, and their son, George, Jr., all died. George Granger, Jr. was the first of the family to become ill in 1798, and Jefferson paid $10 for him to be seen by a doctor. At some point, George, Sr. and Ursula Granger both sought out traditional African healing methods from a Black man in Buckingham County, and it's possible that George, Jr. saw this same person as well. The treatments for their illnesses must not have been successful, as George Granger, Jr. died in June of 1799, his father in November, and his mother by April of 1800.
Following the death of his parents and brother, Bagwell Granger continued to be enslaved at Monticello until Jefferson's death in 1826, at which point he and some members of his family were sold to Jefferson's eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, at the 1827 dispersal sale. Isaac Granger and his wife Iris had been given as gifts to Thomas Jefferson's daughter Maria and her husband John Wayles Eppes, but eventually Eppes sold Granger and his family to his brother-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph. It's not clear at what point Isaac Granger gained his freedom, but by the 1820s he had made his way to Richmond and then to Petersburg, where he was a free man at the time he told his story to Reverend Campbell. Campbell described Isaac Granger as "sensible, intelligent, pleasant," and he said, "He bore a good character." A surviving image of Isaac Granger Jefferson shows a strong, hardworking man, still donning his blacksmith's apron even in his 70s.
The purchase of the Grangers in 1773 brought a family to Monticello that would go on to include community leaders, skilled tradesmen, cooks, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, farmers, and cider-makers, as well as caring parents, children, and siblings. To learn more about the Granger family and other enslaved families at Monticello, visit the section of our website about the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, or simply go to monticello.org/gettingword.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.