Captain Joseph Miller (1776-1824) was an English expatriate and master brewer who was instrumental in establishing brewing operations at Monticello.
In October of 1812, Captain Joseph Miller and his young daughter Mary Ann boarded the ship Lydia, bound for Norfolk. It was then rumored, but not generally believed, that the United States had declared war on Great Britain. Soon after their departure, events on the seas proved the rumors true. Miller's ship was seized first by a French privateer, and then by British ships of war. Having thus been twice detained, the Lydia did not reach the Chesapeake Bay until February 1813. There American ships enforcing the British blockade turned the Lydia away. The Millers were sailing northward in search of an open port when their ship was overtaken by a storm and lost at the Delaware River. Miller and Mary Ann somehow managed to escape the destruction, and began traveling over land and water to Norfolk, where Miller hoped to claim his portion of the estate of his late half-brother, Thomas Reed. The Millers arrived in Norfolk in the first week of April, but because of their British citizenship were immediately ordered further inland by the deputy United States marshal. Miller was not allowed to inspect or even see his property, and was given only enough time to "wash his linens" before being sent to Fluvanna Courthouse. Here the Millers were turned away because of an illness in the area, and it was not until they reached Albemarle County — six months after they set sail from England — that father and daughter found a safe harbor.1
According to Thomas Jefferson, Miller's "conduct here has been such as to acquire the esteem of all the neighbors insomuch that he is the inmate of all their houses."2 Miller was particularly welcomed at Monticello, for he possessed the skills that Jefferson most wanted at that time — Miller had been trained in England as a brewer. During the fall of 1813, Miller instructed the enslaved Peter Hemings, who was proficient in French cookery, in the further art of malting and brewing.3
In the years that followed, Jefferson's petitions for Miller's rights of citizenship were as much a defense of beer as of Miller. To Colonel Charles Yancey Jefferson wrote, "I have great esteem for [Captain Miller] as an honest and useful man. he is about to settle in our county, and to establish a brewery, in which art I think him as skilful a man as has ever come to America. I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families."4
After the war drew to a close in December 1814, Captain Miller's confinement in Albemarle ended, and he moved to Norfolk to take care of his neglected estate. There he found that some questioned his right to inherit the property because he was a British citizen. When the fall brewing of 1815 brought Miller back to Monticello, where he remained from September through the beginning of 1816, Jefferson took up his pen on Miller's behalf.
Jefferson composed a petition outlining Miller's situation for the General Assembly, and spent the Christmas season writing letters to friends in the assembly describing Miller's plight. Jefferson argued that Miller was in fact an American citizen because he had been born in Maryland — in July 1776 no less. Furthermore, Miller had been re-naturalized as an American citizen as soon as the war had ended, and had taken an oath of fidelity to the United States.5
"An acquaintance with Capt Miller from his arrival here," Jefferson wrote to Jerman Baker on December 23, 1815, "observation of the honest worth and sincere Americanism of his character, and proofs of his great skill in the art he means to follow, & which is so important to be encoraged in this state, has attached me to hi[m] and make me feel a lively interest in his success. he has been our guest now about 2. months & a welcome one to all."6
Miller's petition was finally passed but his financial problems were far from over.7 The devaluation of his property in Norfolk prevented him from selling any of the nine houses that he had inherited so that he could buy a farm in Albemarle and return to Jefferson's neighborhood.8 In 1817 Jefferson wrote to Miller in Norfolk, "[A]ltho' our hopes of your settling among us are damped by your long absence, yet we do not despair altogether. In the mean time Charlottesville is improving much both in buildings and society."9
Although Peter Hemings's side of the story is not known, Miller clearly esteemed his assistant. Jefferson informed Miller of Hemings's successes and failures, and Hemings found his skills in demand in the neighborhood. "Peter's brewing of the last season I am in hopes will prove excellent," Jefferson wrote in the spring of 1817, "at least the only cask of it we have tried proves so."10 Miller replied, "My Respects to old Peter I am Glad he has Dun so well."11
From his first arrival in Albemarle, Miller began "looking out for a piece of land to settle here."12 As Jefferson described, Miller "has become attached to the neighbors & neighborhood and is looking out for a farm to carry on the business of farming & brewing jointly."13 After knowing him for only a few months, Jefferson described Miller as "having become intimate in my family,"14 and over the years his praise of Miller's honesty and sincerity — "as zealous an American as any of ourselves" — never waned.15
Miller's hopes of permanently settling in Albemarle came to an end in the fall of 1824, when he died in Norfolk. It would perhaps please him to know that his daughter and son eventually settled in the area. Miller's daughter Mary Ann married Robert Warner Wood, and had two children, Warner and Lucilla. After the death of her second husband, Mary Ann was contacted by her brother, Joseph, who had remained behind in England when she and her father emigrated in 1812. Joseph Miller was a successful inventor and engineer, and he enticed Mary Ann to return to England and live with him.
When Joseph Miller's health began to fail, his physician recommended a change of climate, leading Joseph and Mary Ann back to the United States, where they learned that the Farmington estate in Albemarle was for sale. And so it was that Miller's family came to live at Farmington, the home of Thomas Jefferson's close friend George Divers, a place that was designed in part by Jefferson, and where their father may have been interred. Some of Miller's descendants reside on that property to this day.