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Coopering

Jefferson's Mill at Shadwell Little is known about coopering at Monticello before the completion of Thomas Jefferson's merchant mill at Shadwell in 1807. There the wheat of Jefferson and his neighbors was ground into flour and shipped in barrels down the Rivanna and James Rivers to Richmond to market.

Jefferson had two coopers' shops near the Shadwell mill, which provided additional income by supplying flour barrels to the tenants of his mill. The weekly output of each shop was fifty-four barrels, or nine each working day.

The coopers and their assistants were enslaved individuals. Barnaby Gillette (b. 1783)—son of Edward, an enslaved carter, and Jane, an enslaved farm laborer—started his working life as a nailmaker at age eleven and was also trained as a shoemaker. He was active as a cooper from at least 1813. As an incentive, Jefferson allowed Gillette to keep one of every thirty-one barrels he made to sell for his own benefit.

Another cooper was Nace (b. 1796), the son of Maria, an enslaved woman at Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation. Nace was brought to Monticello by 1810, probably to learn the carpenter's trade. He was working full time as an enslaved cooper by 1819, receiving the same incentive as Barnaby Gillette (in June 1821, Jefferson gave Nace an order for forty-five barrels worth about $20, his "premium" for the 1,203 barrels he had made so far that year).

Primary Source References

Undated. "[A] cooper's task is 4. flour barrels a day from the rough, i.e. from the stuff merely rived out into thicknesses for 2. staves. and 6.barrels a day when the staves are drawn."1

1771 March 30. "Pd. Wm. Hickman for Coopering 15/."2

1772 March 12. "Pd. James Jones for coopering 20/. Owe him 10/ more."3

1778 March 20. "Pd. Giles Carter for coopering tobacco sold to T. Pleasants 42/."4

1778 March 24. "Pd. ... a barrel 3/."5

1807 March 1. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "[M]r Perry was wrong in saying I had blamed you about the building the cooper house & stable at the mill."6

1812 October 20. "3 men & 3. lads get 550. bolts of stave timber for flour barrels in a day. each bolt makes 4. staves or heading pieces, & 25 staves & heading pieces make a barrel."7

1813 March 17. "Promised Barnaby to give him one barrel out of every 31. he sends to the mill."8

1816 September 13. (Jefferson to Joel Yancey). "[A]s we cannot have the benefit of our offal there by finding barrels, & here I can engage any quantity of offal at it's present price in exchange for barrels at 43. cents equal to 2/8, I have actually engaged for 1000. bushels over and above my own in exchange for barrels to be delivered as quick as possible. I must therefore pray you to send off Barnaby [and] Nace immediately, hoping they have done your hogsheads: if they have not let them do them without delay & come off. we will determine what to do with the barrels & staves they have prepared when I come up."9

1816 December 21. "Gave Barnaby ord. on T. E. Randolph for the price of 18. Barrels to wit 1. in every 31. See ante 1813. Mar. 17. Note he has delivered (with 72. to be delivd. this day) 563. barrels from Oct. 9. to this day inclusive."10

1817 August 2. "Colclaser says that a man saws & rives the timber & dresses compleatly for setting up staves for 250. barrels a day, 17. staves to a barrel."11

1817 August 8. (Jefferson to Daniel Colclaser). "You enquired the other day what number of barrels I should be able to furnish. we have barrel stuff enough in the woods ready cut off to serve two seasons. I have now set mr Goodman’s force to riving and dressing ready to put up, and mean that they shall always get and dress the timber, so that Barnaby & the other two with him shall do nothing but set up. I count on their setting up ready for delivery from 90 to 100. a week, & that they will do this at least 40. weeks in the year, as nothing but harvest or sickness will ever take them a day out of their shop. I therefore count on delivering you 4000. barrels a year. they have 50. in the barn ready for delivery and will begin on Monday to prepare their 90. or 100. a week. I have instructed mr Bacon to give the hauling necessary in this business a preference over every other call."12

1817 November 15. (Jefferson to Bacon). "I request particular attention to the Coopers that no hindrance may prevent their deliverance of their weekly complement of Barrels. Davy, Jame & Sancho should carry them in the boat."13

1817 November 29. (Jefferson to Bacon). "I send Bedford Billy down to be put to work with the Coopers under Barnaby, and Thrimston to leave Barnaby and work with the carpenters. I hope you will keep them all to their duty. Billy is found too ungovernable for Johnny Hemings."14

1817 December 10. (Bacon to Jefferson). "[T]he Cooper is at Present going on very well we have been Obliged to get the timber as we use it from the woods."15

1818 April 5. "Gave Barnaby ord. for barrels delivd. to Feb. 7. 234/31 = 8."16

1818 July 26. (Bacon to Jefferson). "the miller says that they are intirely disappointed in their arraingments to get barrills and that all their dependance is upon us. I think as the corn crop is to be so short that we had better try to make all the barls we can so that we may get offall from the mill to fatten our hogs and indeed we may get bread stuff from them also no doubt upon better terms than we may expect to get corn perhaps the carpenters will not be long from here. if they could dres staves so as to Keep the coopers constantly makeing barrils it would be more profitable than any other labour they can do."17

1819 August 4. (Bacon to Jefferson). "I have been thinking that as we have so graite a demand for bread stuff and support for stock that it would be the very best thing we can do to put more force into the cooper shops so as to enable the coopers to do nothing in dresing stuff but to Keep constantly makeing barrils. I wrote you by Mr Meeks the disappointment the miller met in geting barrils they are intirely desirious that we should expedite our barl makeng they say they will gladly take all we can make I find that from what the two coopers say they have stuff ready dresed for about 5 or 600 barls. they are to begin to make barrils on munday next say 3 days hence and in a few weeks they will be out of dresed stuf so as to be Obliged to stop makeng I have inquired of them what force they would require to enable them to Keep constanly makeing they say that if I will have their hoop poles cut and give them one good hand to draw staves that they are pretty shore they can Keep on makeing barrils without having to stop from delivering their 54 from each shop a week which they say is their task it is so very important to make all we can that I will make free in violateing your orders so far as to give each shop a man on munday and cut their poles ... we have nearly hauled in all the bar stuff ready got. they had not above one half as much as they told you they had got and unless more timber is got for them they will have to stop making barls in the higth of the season to get timber themselves."18

1819 August 11. (Jefferson to Bacon). "I am glad you have given the assistance of a hand to each cooper’s shop, and wish it to be continued, and even more help to be given if necessary, for I look to the offal of the mill as our only resource for bread."19

1819 September 4. (Bacon to Jefferson). "Davy & Beverly are with the Coopers they have not failed to deliver 108barls every week sence they began to make and they dress their timber as they go by ading the man to each shop Compleatly enables them to deliver from the rough 9 barls a day from each shop this would give us a fine Profit during the season and if they are strictly attended to it can be done with ease and certainly I spend most of my time intirely at the Cooper shops & toll mill I intend to fix one of my sons to attend to the mill to markeing of the bags & delivering them and the other to see to the Coopers and other hands during my absence."20

1819 December 19. "For barrels delivered by him from Aug. 10. to Nov. 16. 19 inclusive, being 666. gave him order for 22. For do. by Barnaby from Aug. 10. to Nov. 22. inclusive being 643. gave Barnaby order for 21."21

1820 November 21. (Bacon to Jefferson). "We are ingaged sawing barrill timber."22

1820 November 29. (Jefferson to Bacon). "I must get you to look out for a successor to Meeks, and engage him on the best terms you can. in the mean time employ James & Beverly in dressing timber for the coopers under your own superintendance."23

1821 April 14. "[T]he staves of a flour barrel are got 28. 1. long & dress to 27 I. it it takes 16. or 17. staves to a barrel & 6. heading pieces 22. or 23 in all. a cut of a middle sized tree yields 16. or 17. bolts, which give 4 staves each. such a tree, midling good will yield 18. or 20 cuts. a cut will make 3. barrels, staves & heading one tree with another will make 50. barrels."24

1821 June 26. "Barnaby has delivd. 1203. barrels this year. I gave him an order for 26. some time ago, & now for 13 = 39 his allowance."25

1822 April 18. (Bacon to Jefferson). "I understand the coopers have been geting bark from their timber. we had as well get it before the coopers[.] [B]ishop [local tanner] wants 30 or 40 cords."26

1822 August 6-29. (Calculations of hours worked by slaves). "[N]early the whole stone was furnished by the hill above the cooper shop."27

1824 August 28. (Jefferson to Bernard Peyton). "The mill doing no business the last year I lost the avails of my cooper's shop 1200.D. more."28

Related Links:
Plantation Database
Life at Monticello
Monticello, the House
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