The story of David and Isabel Hern illustrates the strength of the African American family within an institution that constantly threatened family unity. Although slave marriage was illegal in Virginia, enduring unions were the norm at Monticello. The Herns, whose marriage lasted until Isabel’s death in 1819, had 12 children. Sons Moses and James married “abroad” (off the Monticello plantation) and persuaded Jefferson to buy their wives so they could live together.
David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks in his 50 years at Monticello. He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. As a carpenter, he built cabins and fences on the plantation, and also worked on the Monticello house. When Jefferson constructed his mill on the south side of the Rivanna River, David Hern Sr. and other enslaved workmen blasted the greenstone with gunpowder to create a canal to feed water to the mill. Jefferson considered him one of the “best hands” to blast rock.
David Hern Jr., a wagoner, made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. He was able to visit his wife, Frances Gillette Hern, an apprentice cook in the White House kitchen. Other male slaves, including Elizabeth Hemings’s sons Robert and Martin, periodically traveled and worked away from Monticello. Even with this level of autonomy, family bonds led enslaved men to keep returning to Monticello.
After Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold.
As a carpenter, Davy Hern, Sr. built cabins and fences on the plantation, and also worked on the Monticello house. He felled trees with a felling ax and used a lathing hatchetto cut the narrow strips of wood used to form the base for plaster walls. ...
Felling Ax. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
The local bedrock at Monticello was known as Catoctin greenstone. When Jefferson constructed his mill on the south side of the Rivanna River, David Hern Sr. and other enslaved workmen blasted the greenstone with gunpowder to create a canal to feed water to the mill. ...
Cactoctin greenstone. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Wagoner David Hern Jr. had the difficult job of driving wagons and carts pulled by horses or oxen over poor roads and of maintaining the wheels and axles. An iron axle hub connected the wooden carriage wheel to the axle.
Axle Hub. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Part of a wheel jack for raising a wagon for maintenance or replacing a wheel: fragment of the vertical bar for supporting the axle and a cog that moved it up and down.
Wheel jack fragment. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Charcoal-making was one of David Hern Jr.’s skills. Blacksmiths and nail-makers at Monticello used charcoal to heat iron on forges. Cooks used it in the stew stoves to generate the steady low heat needed in French cooking. Charcoal fired the stoves that warmed some of the bedrooms in the main...
Charcoal recovered by Monticello archaeologists. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Archaeologists have found gun-related artifacts at sites occupied by slaves. (Clockwise from top: lockplate, gunflint, trigger, lead ball shot, and frizzen.)
Gun parts. Clockwise from top: lockplate, gunflint, trigger, lead ball shot, and frizzen. Thomas Jefferson Foundation