According to his ideals of continuity and economy of labor, Thomas Jefferson preferred to spread the activity of the enslaved people plowing his plantations over the whole year and, whenever possible, tried to make a single plowing serve a double purpose. In 1794, for instance, his rotation plan called for combining the actions of turning under the vetch with the "flush-plowing" for the potatoes and peas.[1]

The Pennsylvania barshare plow was the form Jefferson preferred. A "short & light" one he bought for eight dollars from George Logan of Philadelphia was the model for Monticello's plows.[2] And, from the early 1790s, the moldboard of choice was Jefferson's own moldboard of least resistance. He declared a barshare plow with his moldboard made at Monticello in 1810 to be "the finest plow which has ever been constructed in America."[3]

Trained to handle plows at an early age, enslaved workers at Jefferson's plantations were skilled in plowing. Jefferson said that thirteen-year-old Robin "works well at the plough already." The Monticello harvest records indicate that  female farm workers did some of the plowing. Jefferson's plan for the 1796 wheat harvest reserved eight laborers to "keep half the ploughs a going": Rachel, Mary, Nanny, Sally, Thamar, Iris, Scilla, and Phyllis.[4] Jefferson wrote his overseer in 1818 that, "when slack of work," the female spinners "might go to the plough."[5]

- Monticello Research Department, 5/1990

Primary Source References

1775 February 8. "A large plough with 4. oxen ploughed 24. furrows half a mile long 10.I. broad & 6.I. deep in a day, which is about 1 1/4 acres."[6]

1793 August 11. "Every year, in my rotation, carries either the plough or the scythe through every feild . . . ."[7]

1796 December 10. "[P]loughing days have been this year as follows. Jan. 6. Feb. 15. Mar. 20. Apr. 25. May. 17. June 19. July 23. Aug. 24. Sep. 20. Nov. 24. Dec. 10. = 212.."[8]

1798 March 23. ". . . if the plough be in truth the most useful of the instruments known to man, it’s perfection cannot be an idle speculation."[9]

1813 April 17. "Ploughing deep, your recipe for killing weeds, is also the Recipe for almost every thing good in farming. the plough is to the farmer, what the wand is to the Sorcerer. it’s effect is really like sorcery. . . . we now plough horizontally, following the curvatures of the hills and hollows, on the dead level, however crooked the lines may be. every furrow thus acts as a reservoir to recieve and retain the waters, all of which go to the benefit of the growing plant, instead of running off into the streams. . . . in point of beauty, nothing can exceed that of the waving lines & rows winding along the face of the hills & vallies."[10]

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to John Taylor, December 29, 1794, in PTJ, 28:233. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Jefferson to James Madison, April 16, 1810, in PTJ:RS, 2:333-34. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Jefferson to Robert Fulton, April 16, 1810, in PTJ:RS, 2:332-33. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ Farm Book, 1774-1824, page 46, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition], Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003).
  5. ^ Jefferson to Joel Yancey, March 14, 1818, in PTJ:RS, 12:538. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ MB, February 8, 1775. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, August 11, 1793, in PTJ, 26:658. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ Farm Book, 1774-1824, page 54, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition], Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003). See also Betts, Farm Book, 54.
  9. ^ Jefferson to Sir John Sinclair, March 23, 1798, in PTJ, 30:20. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, April 17, 1813, in PTJ:RS, 6:68-70. Transcription available at Founders Online.