You are here

Peter Jefferson

Peter Jefferson (1707/8-1757) was Thomas Jefferson’s father.1 He was the son of Thomas Jefferson (c. 1677-1731) and Mary Field Jefferson (d. 1715). The family lived near Richmond “at the place in Chesterfield called Ozborne’s, and owned the lands afterward the glebe of the parish.” Peter, the third son and fourth of six children, was born at Osbornes, a settlement on the James River, on February 29, 1707/8.2

Though not a major landowner by Virginia’s colonial standards, Peter’s father Thomas was a substantial property-holder and a recognized “gentleman.” He was a justice of the peace on the Henrico County court for almost twenty years and served as captain in the local militia.3 In 1718 and 1719, he held the important position of county sheriff.4 Peter’s mother Mary was the daughter of Major Peter Field of New Kent County, and was the granddaughter of a former speaker of the House of Burgesses.5 Mary Jefferson died when her son Peter was eight years old.

Peter Jefferson’s formal education was “quite neglected,” according to his son Thomas, but “being of a strong mind, sound judgment and eager after information, he read much and improved himself.” The value that Peter Jefferson placed on education would be reflected in the schooling that was provided for his children.6 Meanwhile, the young Peter developed “extraordinary vigor, both of mind and body.”7 His elder son would come to describe him as a man of gigantic strength with “remarkable powers of endurance, untiring energy, and indomitable courage.”8

In 1731, when he was twenty-four years old, Peter Jefferson’s father died. By the terms of the will, Peter was his father’s executor and was the beneficiary of properties on Manakin Creek and Fine Creek in Goochland County, south of the James River.9 Evidence suggests that the house known as “Fine Creek Manor” was constructed in the early 1730s, and Peter Jefferson was probably occupying the property by that time.10 Following his father’s example, Jefferson became a justice of the peace in Goochland County and later served as sheriff and as county surveyor.11 Peter’s nearest neighbors along the James River included young William Randolph of Tuckahoe and William’s uncle, Isham Randolph of Dungeness. Both men would feature prominently in Peter Jefferson’s future.

In the early 1730s, Peter Jefferson expanded his landholdings by acquiring property on the Rivanna River in the Piedmont region of Virginia. A thousand acres of land was patented by 1735. William Randolph exchanged an additional 200 acres for “Henry Weatherbourn’s biggest bowl of arrack punch,” the reference being to Wetherburn’s Tavern in Williamsburg.12 Later, Randolph sold Jefferson 200 more acres for a payment in cash.13 Peter Jefferson planned to build his home on the property acquired from William Randolph and to establish a tobacco farm on the surrounding acreage.

On October 3, 1739, Peter Jefferson married Jane Randolph (1721-1776), the eldest daughter of his neighbor Isham Randolph.14 Ten children were born to Jane and Peter between 1740 and 1755. The young family moved to Jefferson’s Piedmont property around 1740. Peter Jefferson was believed by his descendants to be perhaps “the 3d or 4th settler” in the region.15

The Jeffersons’ Piedmont estate was called Shadwell, after the London parish where Jane Randolph Jefferson had been born. Here Thomas Jefferson, their third child and first son, was born in April 1743. In 1744, when Goochland County was divided, Shadwell was included in the newly-formed Albemarle County. Peter Jefferson became a founding justice of the peace, a judge of the court of chancery, and a lieutenant colonel of the militia in Albemarle County.16 His new duties were forestalled, however, by the death of his friend William Randolph. The terms of Randolph’s will called for his “dear and loving friend Mr. Peter Jefferson” to move to Tuckahoe until Randolph’s orphaned son came of age.17 Accordingly, the Jefferson family returned to Goochland County.

During the Tuckahoe years, Peter Jefferson gained renown as a surveyor. The Albemarle county surveyor was Joshua Fry (ca. 1700-1754), and Fry and Jefferson joined together in assorted projects. In 1746, the two men participated in an expedition to draw the “Fairfax Line,” marking the property of Lord Fairfax in the Northern Neck of Virginia.18 One of their companions, who recorded the events, described a treacherous journey through uncharted land.19

In 1749, the team of Jefferson and Fry extended the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.20 Peter Jefferson apparently shared with his family the adventures of his journey south. According to Jefferson family lore, running the line across the Blue Ridge was perilous and toilsome. Peter’s great-great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph recorded the story as passed down in the family: “On this expedition, Colonel Jefferson and his companions had often to defend themselves against the attacks of wild beasts during the day, and at night found but a broken rest, sleeping — as they were obliged to do for safety — in trees. ... Amid all these hardships and difficulties, Jefferson’s courage did not once flag, but living upon raw flesh, or whatever could be found to sustain life, he pressed on and persevered until his task was accomplished.”21

The efforts of Jefferson and Fry did not go unrecognized. In 1750, Lewis Burwell, Acting Governor of Virginia, commissioned the two men to produce a map of the colony.22 The map was completed and printed the following year. Thomas Jefferson would describe his father’s famous accomplishment as “the 1st map of Virginia which had ever been made.”23

When the colony’s new map was complete, Peter Jefferson returned from Tuckahoe to Albemarle County. In addition to tobacco farming at Shadwell, Peter continued to serve as a magistrate and as a surveyor. He became county surveyor in Goochland beginning in 1751.24 Soon afterwards, Jefferson resumed duties as a justice of the peace in Albemarle County.25 In 1754, upon the death of Joshua Fry, Peter took over as county surveyor in Albemarle and assumed Fry’s position as county lieutenant.26 He served also in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1754 and 1755.27

When the Jeffersons first came to Shadwell in the early 1740s, they lived in a “plain weather-boarded house.”28 Once reestablished in Albemarle County, Peter Jefferson developed the Shadwell property by improving the dwelling house and outbuildings and by constructing a water mill on the Rivanna River. Jefferson continued to add to his landed estate and would hold over 7,200 acres at the time of his death.

Though he left no written records that might reveal the inner man, Peter Jefferson was clearly a vital member of his community. He was a perennial office-holder; his agricultural activities and material acquisitions provided employment for community residents; his mill and an ordinary, located on his property, provided important services for the area; and, perhaps most interestingly, he hosted Native Americans traveling to Williamsburg on official business.29

Life at Shadwell reflected the Jeffersons’ leadership position in Albemarle County. As members of the gentry, they maintained a refined residence that was suitable for entertaining their peers. Their extensive household inventory included numerous tables and chairs, a mirror and dressing glasses, books and bookcases, silverware and ceramics, and scientific and drafting instruments. More than sixty enslaved servants helped to support the Jeffersons’ lifestyle.30

Peter Jefferson became ill in the summer of 1757. He was attended by Dr. Thomas Walker, but failed to recover and died on August 17. The burial service took place at Shadwell.

Jefferson’s estate was valued at nearly £2,400, the largest estate in colonial Albemarle among those estates that were valued.31 Jefferson’s will provided for each member of his family. Jane Randolph Jefferson maintained a life interest in the farmhouse and property at Shadwell. Each daughter was provided with £200. Randolph Jefferson, the younger of two surviving sons, inherited property in the Fluvanna district. Thomas Jefferson inherited his father’s property in the Rivanna district, including the mountain that he would call Monticello.32

-Nancy Verell, 4/14/2015

Further Sources

Filed In: 
People, Personal Life


Login or register to participate in our online community.