Monticello Guide Sam Saunders looks at the life of enslaved personal servant Israel Gillette Jefferson and relates the momentous events in his life, such as the passing of Thomas Jefferson, his subsequent sale and separation from his first wife and children, and his move as free man to Ohio where he became a deacon and treasurer of Eden Baptist Church in Pike County.

This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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. 

Today at Monticello, you can learn about the many individuals who were enslaved at the plantation by Thomas Jefferson. Among them was Israel Gillette Jefferson.

As some visitors walked by and read the nearby exhibits, I met with Sam Saunders, Associate Guide at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in one of the cellar storerooms at Monticello to talk about Gillette.

Sam Saunders: It is quiet here, but maybe we can imagine the sounds that might've been heard here 200 years ago. We might notice the clatter of dishes being filled with food in the adjacent warming kitchen. We might also hear the feet of young enslaved men carrying firewood to keep the fireplaces burning. For sure, we would hear the voices of enslaved people who worked to serve Thomas Jefferson and his guests.

One of those young men was Israel Gillette. As a young man, he performed many of the household chores, such as tending the fires in Jefferson's rooms, dusting the books, and serving as a waiter for the Dining Room. He even worked in the Textile Shop on Mulberry Row.

Kyle Chattleton: Gillette also served as a postillion, riding on the back of one of the horses that pulled Jefferson's fine landau carriage. He was privy to many important discussions.

Sam Saunders: In 1824, Thomas Jefferson entertained his old friend from France, the Marquis de Lafayette, who was visiting the United States. Lafayette and Jefferson were riding in the carriage when Gillette overheard their conversation, a conversation, he recalled late in his life:

“Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership in his brother […]; that he [Lafayette] gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle — the freedom of mankind; [but then] instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage.” Israel Gillette said in his recollections, “the conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.”

Kyle Chattleton: As a young enslaved man, Gillette yearned for his freedom, but it would be many years before he was free.

Sam Saunders: After Thomas Jefferson died, Gillette was sold at auction. Later, his second wife Elizabeth helped him purchase his freedom and he took the surname Jefferson. Israel Gillette Jefferson moved to Ohio with his second wife, served as a waiter on an Ohio riverboat, and eventually bought a farm in Pike County. Later, his recollections were published in the Pike County Republican Newspaper.

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: This episode of Mountaintop History was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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