Although slaves in Virginia could not marry legally, the institution of marriage was taken very seriously by enslaved men and women at Monticello and elsewhere across the state. Enduring unions seem to have been the rule at Monticello. Records reveal only one marriage that involved separation and taking of new partners. Jefferson recognized the marriages of his slaves, regularly referring to an individual's "husband" or "wife," and he did not separate spouses through sale or gift (although couples were sometimes temporarily separated because of their occupations).
Over the sixty years of Jefferson's residence at Monticello, what was called "abroad" marriage (marrying outside the boundaries of the plantation) became more and more common. The expanding web of kinship made it increasingly difficult to find an unrelated spouse and young men often outnumbered young women. From the 1780s to the 1820s, adults under 45 who appear without spouses in Jefferson's slave rolls rose from one-third of the adult population to almost two-thirds. We assume that most of the women with children but without husbands and many of the apparently "single" men had "abroad" spouses.
Were there cases of resistance at Monticello?
Resistance, to both abuses and the whole system of slavery, was often a cooperative activity. One of the most common types of resistance, and one which often involved networks of slaves and free blacks, was pilferage. Theft was a fact of life on southern plantations. As Jefferson himself recognized, a slave "who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force."
A number of references suggest that feigning illness was a fairly common practice among Jefferson's slaves. Other mild forms of day-to-day resistance--like losing tools, pretending ignorance, and working slowly--are less documented, but were also probably prevalent. There were reported attacks on overseers, at least at Poplar Forest, and one hired slave at Monticello in 1804 was said to be "encouraging the hands to rebellion and idleness" and tormenting the overseer by destroying his garden and possessions. None of the more violent acts of resistance, like arson, poisoning, or murder, are known to have occurred at Monticello.
Did any of Monticello's slaves run away?
There were over twenty known runaways from Monticello, from 1769 to 1819. Almost half of them were enslaved men hired from other owners who probably tried to get back to family members. Slaves often ran away for reasons other than a desire for permanent freedom. In 1806 blacksmith Joseph Fossett departed on foot for Washington, DC, from an urgent desire to see his wife, Edith, an apprentice cook at the President's House. Cases of truancy rather than determined running away were extremely common on Virginia plantations, and few of these cases were recorded.
But those who sought freedom were rarely successful. Four young men from Monticello ran to join the British army in 1781. One died of camp fever, two were brought back home after Yorktown and sold, and one was never heard of again (nineteen men, women, and children from Jefferson's Elk Hill and Willis Creek plantations met a similar fate). Beverly Hemings and his sister Harriet left Monticello with Jefferson's knowledge and were not pursued. At least four runaways (Sandy, Kit, James Hubbard, and Billy Hern) seem to have dedicated themselves to lives of resistance. According to his usual policy, Jefferson had the runaways sold after they were recaptured. Hern, however, vanishes from the record while still at large.
Our new app, available for iOS and Android devices, introduces visitors to the individuals who lived and worked on Mulberry Row, once the industrial hub and “Main Street” of Thomas Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation. Free wifi is available on site.
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