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John Hemmings

Mahogany Armchair, made in the Monticello JoineryJohn Hemmings (1776-1833) was an enslaved joiner at Monticello. He was the son of the enslaved Betty Hemings and, it was said, Joseph Neilson, one of the white housejoiners that Thomas Jefferson hired in the 1770s. Hemmings started his working life as an "out-carpenter," felling trees and hewing logs, building fences and barns, and helping to construct the log slave dwellings on Mulberry Row

John Hemmings must have demonstrated his ability early, for at the age of seventeen he was put to work under a succession of skilled white woodworkers hired by Jefferson to enlarge the main house. Hemmings learned to make wheels and fine mahogany furniture, and to use an elaborate set of planes to create decorative interior moldings. He was principal assistant to James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner responsible for most of the elegant woodwork in the Monticello house. Hemmings alone crafted much of the interior woodwork of Jefferson's house at Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Virginia. Unfortunately, his woodwork at Poplar Forest was destroyed in a fire. He also made all of the wooden parts of a large landau carriage Jefferson designed in 1814. He thus became far more than a carpenter — he was a highly skilled joiner and cabinetmaker.

John Hemmings was a great favorite with Jefferson's grandchildren, who told of his making toys and furniture for them. He was "Daddy Hemmings" to them, while his wife Priscilla was their head nursemaid. Jefferson freed John Hemmings in his will, allowing him the tools from the joinery as well as the service of his two apprentices. He continued to live at Monticello until 1831, doing occasional work for Jefferson's family members.

Further Sources

Filed In: 
People, Slavery
Related Links:
Monticello Classroom: An Enslaved Craftsman
Featured Letter: A Slave Writes Jefferson’s Granddaughter
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