The Enslaved People of Poplar Forest
Thomas Jefferson inherited many of the slaves who came to live at Poplar Forest from his father-in-law, John Wayles. He sometimes purchased, and sometimes sold, individuals to reunite families. He sold others to pay debts, or as punishment.
Jefferson encouraged hard work through incentives and paid slaves for jobs that he considered beyond their normal workload. He reserved harsh punishment for runaways and acts of rebellion. Paid overseers managed the property in Jefferson’s absence. Occasionally enslaved workers appealed to Jefferson if they thought the overseers were unfair.
Slave marriages, although not legally recognized, promoted stable family life and increased Jefferson’s wealth. By the 1820s, members of seven extended families lived at Poplar Forest. Parents often named their children for family members. Biblical names like Hannah, Solomon and Rachael were favorites at Poplar Forest. Some names, like Cuff, were of African derivation. A few family names survive in Jefferson’s records, including Hubbard, Hix and Hearne. Jefferson often used nicknames when referring to individuals. He also distinguished between people by combining their mother’s name, or their occupation, home farm, or former residence with their name, as in Dinah’s Lucy, Will Smith, Bedford John and Island Betty.
Men and women at Poplar Forest performed a variety of jobs, including field work, road building, livestock tending, brickmaking, blacksmithing, woodworking, carpentry, masonry, weaving, spinning and domestic service. Elderly people tended to young children. Older children assisted in weeding, planting seeds and gathering wheat. Jefferson sent some boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 16 to Monticello to learn a trade. Poplar Forest slaves had some control over their private lives. They lived in settlements called quarters scattered across the plantation, convenient to work places. Archaeologists have excavated five slave cabins at Poplar Forest, including both single family log cabins and a duplex for extended families. Cabins were crowded and dark, and many daily activities took place outdoors.
While slaves’ workdays were closely supervised, their evenings and Sundays were open for household chores, tending gardens and poultry, and hunting and fishing. Women raised poultry. They sometimes sold eggs to Jefferson when he was visiting the property. Some people traveled off the plantation to visit family, attend church, or visit local stores and markets.
During the 53 years that Jefferson owned Poplar Forest, many slaves were born and died on the property. Their burial sites are now unknown. Some who survived Jefferson were given to his heirs; most were auctioned and left the plantation.