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.

Charcoal-making was another 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 house. To make charcoal, Hern stacked hardwood sticks into a large dome shape, leaving openings in the bottom and a vertical flue through the middle. He then covered the dome with turf and set the wood inside on fire. He kept constant watch for several days to make sure the wood charred without burning.