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Winter in Virginia isn’t always mild...there were many times in Thomas Jefferson’s life when the cold temperatures at Monticello made normal life difficult. Hear some of those stories in this episode of Mountaintop History.

Olivia Brown: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation - from the past and from the present. Thank you for joining us, we hope you'll learn something new. 

Thomas Jefferson regularly recorded information in his Garden Book. He wrote when certain things were planted, what the weather was like, and the work that was happening in Monticello's gardens. His last entry in 1771 was on September 30, but by early 1772, the weather was notable enough that he wrote a new entry. On January 26, 1772, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "the deepest snow we have ever seen. in Albemarle it was about 3.f. deep." A little over three weeks prior at the age of 28 years old, he married Martha Wayles Skelton on New Year's Day at her father's plantation, The Forest, in Charles City County, Virginia. On January 18, the couple set out for Monticello to begin their lives together at Jefferson's home. 

At that time, all that existed fully on the mountaintop was a small brick building, known today as the South Pavilion. Thomas Jefferson had started living there himself in November 1770 on the top floor above the kitchen down below. This would be the home for the Jefferson family until 1775, when enough of Monticello's main house was completed for them to move in, but in 1772, it was this relatively modest home that was waiting for the young, newly married couple at the end of a long journey. The Jefferson's traveled over 90 miles from The Forest to Monticello, and according to their eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, the poor weather had already started when they left. 

Snow was falling and Thomas and Martha Jefferson were no longer able to continue traveling in their carriage. Their daughter said, "They were finally obliged to quit the carriage and proceed on horseback." They stayed for a little while at Blenheim, not far from Monticello, but still had eight more miles to travel "in which the snow lay from eighteen inches to two feet deep." They finally arrived late at night and exhausted from the trip. The home they came to was small and cold, with no fire to keep them warm. While the Jeffersons did indeed make it through that first winter as a married couple. It was not the last cold winter the mountaintop would see. 

Jefferson began recording the weather regularly in his Weather Memorandum Books starting in 1776, and many of his letters mentioned the cold. One from late 1796 is particularly noteworthy. At the time, Monticello was being transformed according to Jefferson's new design and in a state of partial demolition. That winter was difficult. Cold temperatures arrived early. Thomas Jefferson recorded 12 degrees one day in November, and later that month wrote to his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, "It is so cold that the freezing of the ink on the point of my pen renders it difficult to write." On the days leading up to Christmas of 1796, Jefferson recorded -5 degrees on December 23, and zero degrees on December 24. January of 1797 saw regular temperatures in the teens, making for a cold home for the Jefferson family. 

In Jefferson's retirement, winters were cold as well and he wrote in both 1816 and 1817 about the frigid temperatures they were experiencing. He wrote to Charles Thomson, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, on January 9, 1816, "no tooth shaking yet, but shivering and shrinking in body from the cold we now experience." In February of the next year, he wrote to James Madison "We have had the most severe spell of cold, which commenced on the 11th. of Jan. On the 19th. of that month the thermometer was at six degrees. That is 26 degrees below freezing." 

These cold temperatures did not only affect Thomas Jefferson and his family, of course. Winters would have been very difficult for the enslaved people living and working at Monticello. They lived in small cabins with wooden chimneys, which would have been used to keep them warm in these cold winter months, though likely didn't provide enough heat for comfort. Regardless of the weather, enslaved people were still forced to work sunrise to sunset, roughly nine hours each day in the wintertime. For those whose jobs were primarily agricultural winter did not mean a stop in work. For tobacco production, enslaved laborers spent the winters stripping, sorting, and preparing tobacco leaves for the markets. Other work was performed in the winter as well, including the construction of buildings. In 1818, Jefferson wrote to Joel Yancey, an overseer at his other plantation Poplar Forest, directing the work of constructing a cabin for an enslaved woman named Maria, saying, "Maria, now having a child, I promised her a house to be built this winter." 

Thomas Jefferson decided on the clothing allotment, given to each enslaved person twice a year: one outfit in the summer and one outfit in the winter. Every three years, each person received one blanket. The clothing rations were often given in yards of textiles, however, rather than pre-made clothing. It was likely enslaved women, who would have been able to create clothing out of this material, who had to spend additional time making the outfits worn by themselves and their families. Most people, excluding those who worked inside the house and perhaps in other skilled trades, wore a coarse brownish linen called osnaburg, which was commonly used for enslaved people throughout the South. Record indicates that year-round enslaved people did extra work outside a full day of forced labor, in order to receive small sums of money, they could spend on additional food or clothing. The cold winters on the mountaintop at Monticello would have been quite difficult for everyone.

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at monticello.org.

 

Livestream: Thomas Jefferson on Wintertime

Bright, crisp days and long evenings by the fire: wintertime at Monticello was a quiet and beautiful season. But it was also difficult in many ways, requiring extra work, more arduous travel, and restricted diets.

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