Were some people enslaved at Monticello born in Africa?
We do not know. The names of men like Sanco, Mingo, and Quash in Jefferson's 1774 Farm Book lists are suggestive of an African origin. It is probable, however, that most, if not all, of the enslaved persons at Monticello were a number of generations removed from Africa. Jefferson's father, Peter Jefferson, had acquired his enslaved laborers in the mid-eighteenth century from other Virginia planters in small lots of one or several. His father-in-law, John Wayles, while not directly engaged in the transatlantic slave trade, was commercially connected to it. It is possible that, among the 135 enslaved individuals Jefferson inherited from Wayles in 1774, there may have been native-born Africans.
Based on what is known of the eighteenth-century slave trade to Virginia ports, the forebears of those enslaved at Monticello were most likely brought from western Africa, especially the land of the Igbo in present Nigeria. Signs of African spiritual and cultural traditions persisted at Monticello into the nineteenth century. Archaeological excavations have unearthed artifacts like a cowrie shell, jewelry items, and a possible playing piece from a West African game, mankala.
Several Monticello slaves could definitely read and write. Although there is no record that Jefferson provided instruction for his slaves or encouraged them to learn their letters, several enslaved men at Monticello could read and write. There are surviving letters and documents in the hands of woodworker John Hemmings, blacksmith Joseph Fossett, and James Hemings the cook. Although severe legal restrictions on slave education were not enacted in Virginia in Jefferson's lifetime, many plantation owners tried to prevent their slaves from learning their letters. Educated slaves were considered potentially rebellious and those who could write could also forge passes. Nevertheless, some members of Jefferson's family took an interest in the education of enslaved children, and Joseph Fossett's son Peter remembered that Jefferson "allowed" those eager for learning to study with his grandchildren. Enslaved children also undoubtedly learned from literate members of their own community, as work schedules permitted. Peter Fossett, sold to another man after Jefferson's death, passed his reading and writing skills on to fellow slaves in secret after dark, by the light of pine knots.
Many members of the enslaved community at Monticello attended worship services. Fragmentary records indicate a rich spiritual life—incorporating both European and African traditions, including Christianity—in the Monticello slave quarters. We know that enslaved woodworker John Hemmings and his wife Priscilla held prayer meetings in their cabin, and there is at least one reference to a baptism. It is assumed that Jefferson, a fervent believer in freedom of conscience, adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward religion in the slave quarters. Once they gained their freedom, a number of former Monticello slaves became ministers and founded churches.
Many enslaved people at Monticello embraced Christianity. Others held onto a variety of traditional beliefs from their homelands. Most African Americans combined cultural elements of various origins in their spiritual beliefs. They turned to traditional healers and spiritual leaders to resolve problems and heal ailments, and to ward off evil forces or to cast spells. The reputation of one such practitioner of magic and herbal medicine was strong enough to draw at least four African Americans from Monticello twenty miles to the south. People knowing of this traditional healer from so far away demonstrates a thriving traditional culture among enslaved people in Virginia, and a persistence of tradition and culture that defied the dictates of chattel slavery.