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Matriarch of Mulberry Row July 29, 1997
by Jessica E. Saraceni

Recent investigations at Monticello have focused on the home of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, matriarch of the African-American family whose members worked as Thomas Jefferson's enslaved house servants and artisans. The location of the house, on a steep mountain slope isolated from other slave housing, looks inconvenient, but archaeologists have found clues that suggest Hemings and her family may have used the site to advance their own interests.

On a map made in 1809, Jefferson noted the location of the log house 30 feet south of what he called the "third roundabout," one of four roads circling the top of Monticello Mountain. After locating the relatively flat area of the roundabout with a digital elevation model of the site, Monticello archaeologists found a scatter of cobbles marking the foundation of the house's mud and wood chimney. According to Fraser Neiman, director of archaeology at Monticello, "The site appears to be strategically placed about midway between Mulberry Row, the street of domestic and work structures next to Jefferson's mansion, where most of Hemings' children and grandchildren lived, and two water sources known as Bailey's Spring and the South Spring."

Because Hemings was the cabin's only occupant, and she lived there for less than ten years until her death in 1807, there were few obvious clues about how much of the otherwise uninhabited mountain space she used. The slope of the mountain is roughly north-south. A pile of cobbles southeast of the house had been cleared from an area to create a vegetable garden. "We know from documents that Hemings sold cabbages, strawberries, and chickens to Jefferson while she lived at this site," says Neiman. The edge of the cobble pile is straight, suggesting that there was a fence here, marking the back edge of the yard. With the yard's northern and southern limits defined by the roundabout and the cobbles, Neiman and his team set out to find its eastern and western edges. They reasoned that if the house had been built on flat terrain, yard space would have been equally accessible on all four sides. But because the house was on a 15-degree slope, movement across the face of the slope would have been easier than movement up and back down. With the help of a mathematical model, it was possible to estimate the energetic cost of moving from Hemings' front door to any point on the site. "Using this cost surface, we were able to predict the east and west yard boundaries on the assumption that they lay at the same cost-distance from Hemings' front door as the known north and south boundaries. We then evaluated our prediction by testing the soil for traces of potassium and magnesium, which would indicate the practice of transporting fireplace ash, a fire hazard, to the periphery of the site. It turns out that ash dumping on the site was concentrated east and west of the house at precisely the distance we predicted." Neiman concludes that Hemings' yard measured 70 by 150 feet, while houses on Mulberry Row were restricted to spaces as small as 30 feet across.

Hemings' house, constructed of logs supported by a few sandstone cobbles that remain at the site, had the same 12-by-14-foot dimensions and wood-and-mud chimney construction as slave houses being built on Mulberry Row in the 1790s. "Hemings' house is a form that was new to Monticello at the end of the eighteenth century, signaling a shift from large buildings sheltering unrelated people to kin-based housing that afforded enslaved individuals and their families a bit more privacy and control of their domestic environments," says Neiman. Seen against the backdrop of this larger trend, the location and layout of the Hemings site offered additional advantages of autonomy and space. On the other hand, staying within walking distance of Mulberry Row gave Hemings the opportunity to invest her time and energy in helping raise her grandchildren and eased the solicitude of her children for their aging mother.

Excavation closer to Hemings' house revealed a small artifact midden. Ceramics in the midden were limited to tea and dinner vessels, suggesting that food handling included cooking followed by immediate consumption, but not bulk processing for storage. Hemings and other enslaved African Americans living on Mulberry Row had access to the fashionable pearlware and porcelain ceramic plates that were replacing pewter ones at this time throughout Virginia. In contrast, William Stewart, a free white blacksmith living at Monticello at the same time, had more up-to-date teawares than Hemings, but less fashionable creamware plates. These differences hint at variation in how enslaved and free households participated in the quickening pace of consumerism that characterized the Federal period, a topic that Neiman's team plans to investigate in the future.

Among the many important unanswered questions about the site is the extent to which other slaves at Monticello may have had access to such individual housing with adjacent gardens. Over the next few years, the systematic archaeological survey of the 2,000-acre core of Jefferson's plantation, which Neiman and his staff began last winter, should provide answers.

Hemings was born in 1735 to an African mother and an English father. She and her children moved to Monticello in 1774 as the inherited property of Martha Wayles, Jefferson's wife, upon the death of her father John Wayles. Hemings had 14 children. When Jefferson died in 1826, five of Hemings' descendants were freed in accordance with his will. The rest of the family was sold and dispersed to help pay off Jefferson's debts.

* Click here for more information on Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America