The Enslaved People of Poplar Forest
Documents and archaeological findings reveal most of what is known about Poplar Forest slaves, who left few written records of their own. Although Jefferson and his overseers wrote mainly about work schedules, births, deaths and the economics of running a large plantation, these accounts contain few glimpses into the slaves’ private world.
Archaeological research has revealed the size, materials and layout of slave cabins and yards, the types of belongings people owned, the foods they ate, and what they did at home. Excavations hint at their participation in the local economy, their creation of privacy, and their views of the world around them.
Members of the Hubbard Family
The following biographies were written by Dr. Barbara Heath, University of Tennessee.
Born in 1770 at Monticello, Hannah and her family were moved to Poplar Forest when she was a teenager. There she met and married Solomon. Like others who married within the plantation community, Hannah established a new household with her husband. Jefferson likely rewarded the couple with a pot and a bed.
The fate of Solomon is unclear, but he was no longer living at Poplar Forest by the mid-1790’s. He left behind his wife and three young children.
By 1810, Hannah married Hall, a plantation blacksmith and hogkeeper. The couple lived together with her five younger children. Hannah’s last child was born in 1812.
Hannah worked in the fields and probably spent some of her time spinning flax and wool into yarn. Her mother, Cate, trained girls to spin, and Hannah might have learned that skill at an early age. By 1811, she served as Jefferson’s housekeeper, preparing the house for his visits, cooking and washing for him, and greeting visitors in his absence. While cooking for Jefferson she may have stayed in the third room of the Wing of Offices until a cabin was built for her near Jefferson’s vegetable garden.
Hannah could read and write, skills that she probably shared with other slaves. Archaeologists discovered pieces of a writing slate at a slave quarter, suggesting that at least one resident was literate. A single surviving letter written in 1818 from Hannah to Jefferson describes the state of the house and sends wishes for his health. Hannah also expressed her Christian faith in the letter, one of the few hints that survive of the spiritual beliefs of people living at Poplar Forest.
While Hannah’s letter points to the importance of Christianity in her life, other Poplar Forest slaves maintained spiritual and healing practices derived from Africa. When Hall became ill in 1819, he believed that only a conjurer could cure him. Hannah’s brother Phill used medicine from a “negroe doctor” provided by a fellow slave. Both men died that year.
Hannah’s life is last recorded in an 1821 provision list. Whether she lived beyond the sale of her son William and the breakup of the community following Jefferson’s death is 1826 is unclear.
James Hubbard was born in 1743. At age 30, he became Thomas Jefferson’s property and was moved from Indian Camp (a Jefferson property) to Monticello. Hubbard worked as a waterman, carrying goods to market and returning with plantation supplies. His work subjected him to only loose supervision, and enabled him to visit family and friends as he navigated the rivers between Charlottesville and Richmond.
Hubbard became foster father to three young children upon their parents’ deaths. He also married Cate, the mother of two young daughters, Hannah and Rachael. Together, they had six more children.
By the mid-1780s, Jefferson moved the family to Poplar Forest. There, James Hubbard became headman, overseeing field laborers. This position allowed Hubbard more autonomy and better living conditions than other slaves, and demanded that he enforce rules and discipline within his community. In his later years, Hubbard became the hogkeeper.
James Hubbard lived to be a great grandfather. His children’s lives reflect the range of experiences common among slaves. Nace and Hannah became headman and housekeeper. Nancy died as a teenager, and Joan was given away as part of Martha Jefferson’s dowry. James, who shared his father’s name, became a habitual runaway and Jefferson sold him. The elder James Hubbard remained at Poplar Forest with his wife until his death, sometime between 1820 and 1826.
Phill Hubbard was born at Poplar Forest in 1786, one of eleven children in the family of headman Jame Hubbard and his wife Cate. Jefferson sent Phill, at age ten, to Monticello to work in the nailery, making nails for the plantation and for sale. During the years he lived at Monticello, Phill was allowed to visit his family for a few days at Christmas time. For the remainder of the year, he depended on news from home carried by others traveling between the plantations. From 1810-1812, when not needed elsewhere, he worked as a field hand at Jefferson’s Tufton quarter farm in Albemarle County.
As a young man, Phill was also engaged in carpentry, masonry and landscaping. In 1807, Jefferson asked his mason Hugh Chisolm to seek volunteers among the slaves to dig the lawn south of the house under construction at Poplar Forest, offering to pay them for their time. The following summer, Chisolm brought Phill Hubbard and other slaves to Bedford. He assigned the task of digging to Phill, providing him assistance when possible. Hubbard continued working on the lawn at least through year’s end.
Jefferson then ordered his return to Monticello, where he was to saw wood for carpenter Elisha Watkins who had been hired to construct a fence enclosing the 1000-foot-long kitchen garden and north orchard. In 1809, Hubbard was back at Poplar Forest, assisting plasterer John Richardson with his work. Three years later, Jefferson recommended that Phill be one of two Poplar Forest slaves assigned to work with Chisolm in plastering the house “because he understands the making mortar so well.”
Phill Hubbard returned permanently to Poplar Forest in 1812, and was assigned to the Tomahawk quarter. Also residing at Tomahawk was Hanah, the daughter of Dick and Dinah. She worked as a spinner, and was ten years his junior. The two agreed to marry at Christmas-time in 1814. Although slave marriages were not legally recognized, Jefferson encouraged them between men and women living on his plantations, writing “certainly there is nothing I desire so much as that all the young people in the estate should intermarry with one another and stay at home. They are worth a great deal more in that case than when they have husbands and wives abroad.”
Overseer Jeremiah Goodman interfered with the match between the two young people, claiming he did not realize that the two had married. In a letter to Jefferson, he said that he would offer the couple a pot and one end of Dick’s house to live in (most probably half of a duplex cabin), but that Phill had run away. A few days later, Phill arrived at Monticello to plead his case before Jefferson, saying that the overseer had driven him off and punished Hanah for receiving him at her home. Jefferson interceded on the couple’s behalf. He further warned Goodman against punishing Phill, explaining that he had known Hubbard since he was a boy and that he did not have the character of a runaway. Phill returned to Bedford, and as he had requested, moved his wife to Bear Creek. There he lived close to his family, and outside of the influence of Goodman. The following summer, Hanah gave birth to a son who she named Dick.
In the spring of 1819, overseer Joel Yancey reported that some Poplar Forest slaves were sick, and that at least one man, Phill’s brother-in-law Hall, believed himself to have been poisoned. By summertime, Yancey wrote again, noting that he would be short handed for the wheat harvest, adding that Hercules, the suspected poisoner, “is better but Phill Hubard I fear will hardly ever be of much service.” Phill died in late June at age 33, having never recovered. Joel Yancey wanted to prosecute Hercules and the “negroe doctor” who was suspected of having caused such sickness but there was not enough evidence to jail them.
William was born at Poplar Forest in 1799. Unlike his grandfather and mother, he rebelled violently against slavery. In 1812, Jefferson sent him to Monticello to learn a trade. His sister Sally and cousin Maria journeyed with him to work in the textile shop. Two of his uncles, and other slaves from Poplar Forest, lived at Monticello too.
William showed promise as a craftsman. Yet by age 18, he had a bad reputation. In late 1817 Jefferson removed him from the supervision of enslaved master carpenter John Hemmings, assigning him to make barrels. Within two months, having proved to “be so ungovernable and idle” that he could no longer remain in the cooper’s shop, William was sent back to Poplar Forest to work in the fields.
In the fall of 1819, he attacked a Poplar Forest overseer. The man was not seriously hurt. Following the attack, William ran away to Monticello to argue his case. Jefferson’s farm manager urged him to dispose of the young man. How or if Jefferson punished William is not known, but he sent him back to Poplar Forest.
Three years later, William and two others were arrested and tried for attacking another Poplar Forest overseer and for conspiracy to rebel. William was convicted of the first charge and sentenced to be burned on the hand and publicly whipped. The others were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. Following the trial, Jefferson sent the three men, along with a fourth slave believed to have taken part in the attack, to Louisiana. He hoped this would deter other slaves from rebellious behavior. By early 1824, all had died except William. He tried again to run away, and was caught in New Orleans and sold.