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In Our Own Time

Sundays, occasional holidays, and the dark hours of night provided the only opportunities for enslaved families to follow the pursuits of their own choice. While they evidently participated in communal festivities and religious worship, it is clear that many enslaved people at Monticello continued to work in "their own time." Their activities reveal a concern for their families and an enterprising spirit that put food on their tables and money in their pockets.


Not only did the black community grow food for themselves in their own gardens, but they also produced foodstuffs to be sold to the Jefferson household, usually on Sundays. For three years Jefferson's young granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph kept a written record of foodstuffs purchased for the Monticello table from members of the enslaved community.  Through this chronicle we gain a birds-eye view into their gardens and poultry yards as well as some idea of how they chose to dispose of the fruits of their own free labor.

The record for Sunday, August 25, through Sunday, September 29, 1805, is impressive.  The following items were sold to Jefferson's kitchen: 9 watermelons, 36 cabbages, three-quarters of a bushel of potatoes, 138 cucumbers, and 24 cymling squashes.  In addition, and even more impressive, were the 47 dozen eggs and 117 chickens on the list. More than half the black adults at Monticello sold produce to the Jefferson household and all but three adults among them also sold chickens.  Peter Hemings was paid 12 shillings for 11 young hens one April day in 1807.

These were prolific gardens and the Monticello black community contained skilled gardeners, who also had the task of producing dried peas and shell beans, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, cabbages, snap beans, and turnips for their own households to supplement the corn meal and salted fish that were the common ration items handed out weekly.  Jefferson's records indicate that Bagwell and Minerva Granger and their five children received seven pecks of cornmeal (a peck equals ¼  bushel), 16 dried herring, and 2 pounds of beef each week in 1800.  Quite clearly a garden was an absolute necessity if this family of seven was to be adequately nourished year round.

The entries in the record invite questions for further research.  Did selling the produce, eggs, and chickens reduce the overall nutrition available to the black community?  How much garden space was used to produce corn or other fodder for the many chickens?  Who built the many hen houses, nest boxes, and brood cages necessary to raise the large number of chickens in the community, and who tended the hens while they were in the brooding cages?  How were the chickens protected from predators such as black snake, opossum, raccoon, dogs, or cats?  How did the individuals and the larger slave community allocate time to achieve all this production?  Was the labor of children and adolescents incorporated into the food production process by the adults in the community?  Monticello researchers hope to find answers to these and other questions about the daily lives of all the residents of Monticello 200 years ago. (Leni Sorensen, African-American Research Historian, 2005)

Top of page: detail of "Mulberry Row" by Nathaniel Gibbs


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