Primary Resource

"Mr. Jefferson's Personal Appearance and Habits"; an excerpt from The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862)

In chapter 6 of The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862), Edmund Bacon, an overseer on Thomas Jefferson's plantation Monticello from 1806 until 1822, tells about Jefferson's dress and hygiene.

Transcription from Original

"Mr. Jefferson was six feet two and a half inches high, well proportioned, and straight as a gun-barrel. He was like a fine horse—he had no surplus flesh, He had an iron constitution, and was very strong. He had a machine for measuring strength. There were very few men that I have seen try it, that were as strong in the arms as his son-in-law, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph; but Mr. Jefferson was stronger than he. He always enjoyed the best of health. I don't think he was ever really sick, until his last sickness. His skin was very clear and pure—just like he was in principle. He had blue eyes. His countenance was always mild

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and pleasant. You never saw it ruffled. No odds what happened, it always maintained the same expression. When I was sometimes very much fretted and disturbed, his countenance was perfectly unmoved. I remember one case in particular. We had about eleven thousand bushels of wheat in the mill, and coopers and every thing else employed. There was a big freshet—the first after the dam was finished. It was raining powerfully. I got up early in the morning, and went up to the dam. While I stood there, it began to break, and I stood and saw the freshet sweep it all away. I never felt worse. I did not know what we should do. I went up to see Mr. Jefferson. He had just come from breakfast. 'Well, sir,' said he, 'have you heard from the river?' I said, 'Yes, sir; I have just come from there with very bad news. The milldam is all swept away.' 'Well, sir,' said he, just as calm and quiet as though nothing had happened, 'we can't make a new dam this summer, but we will get Lewis' ferry-boat, with our own, and get the hands from all the quarters, and boat in rock enough in place of the dam, to answer for the present and next summer. I will send to Baltimore and get ship-bolts, and we will make a dam that the freshet can't wash away.' He then went on and explained to me in detail just how he would have the dam built. We repaired the dam

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as he suggested, and the next summer we made a new dam, that I reckon must be there yet.

"Mr. Jefferson was always an early riser—arose at daybreak, or before. The sun never found him in bed. I used sometimes to think, when I went up there very early in the morning, that I would find him in bed; but there he would be before me, walking on the terrace.

"He never had a servant make a fire in his room in the morning, or at any other time, when he was at home. He always had a box filled with nice dry wood in his room, and when he wanted fire he would open it and put on the wood. He would always have a good many ashes in his fireplace, and when he went out he would cover up his fire very carefully, and when he came back he would uncover the coals and make on a fire for himself.

"He did not use tobacco in any form. He never used a profane word or any thing like it. He never played cards. I never saw a card in the house at Monticello, and I had particular orders from him to suppress card-playing among the negroes, who, you know, are generally very fond of it. I never saw any dancing in his house, and if there had been any there during the twenty years I was with him I should certainly have known it. He was never a great eater, but what he did eat he wanted to be very choice. He never eat much

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hog-meat. He often told me, as I was giving out meat for the servants, that what I gave one of them for a week would be more than he would use in six months. When he was coming home from Washington I generally knew it, and got ready for him, and waited at the house to give him the keys. After saying, "How are all?" and talking awhile, he would say, "What have you got that is good?" I knew mighty well what suited him. He was especially fond of Guinea fowls; and for meat he preferred good beef, mutton, and lambs. Those broad-tailed sheep I told you about made the finest mutton I ever saw. Merriweather Lewis' mother made very nice hams, and every year I used to get a few from her for his special use. He was very fond of vegetables and fruit, and raised every variety of them. He was very ingenious. He invented a plough that was considered a great improvement on any that had ever been used. He got a great many premiums and medals for it. He planned his own carriage, buildings, garden, fences, and a good many other things. He was nearly always busy upon some plan or model.

"Every day, just as regularly as the day came, unless the weather was very bad, he would have his horse brought out and take his ride. The boy who took care of his horse knew what time he started, and would bring him out for him, and hitch

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 him in his place. He generally started about nine o'clock. He was an uncommonly fine rider—sat easily upon his horse, and always had him in the most perfect control. After he returned from Washington he generally rode Brimmer or Tecumseh until I bought Eagle for him of Capt. John Graves, of Louisa Co., just before I left him.

"He was always very neat in his dress, wore short breeches and bright shoe buckles. When he rode on horseback he had a pair of overalls that he always put on.

"Mr. Jefferson never debarred himself from hearing any preacher that came along. There was a Mr. Hiter, a Baptist preacher, that used to preach occasionally at the Charlottesville Court House. He had no regular church, but was a kind of missionary—rode all over the country and preached. He wasn't much of a preacher, was uneducated, but he was a good man. Everybody had confidence in him, and they went to hear him on that account. Mr. Jefferson's nephews Peter Carr, Sam. Carr, and Dabney Carr thought a great deal of him. I have often heard them talk about him. Mr. Jefferson nearly always went to hear him when he came around. I remember his being there one day in particular. His servant came with him and brought a seat—a kind of camp stool, upon which he sat. After Mr. Jefferson got old and feeble, a

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servant used to go with him over the plantation, and carry that stool, so that he could sit down while he was waiting and attending to any kind of work that was going on. After the sermon there was a proposition to pass round the hat and raise money to buy the preacher a horse. Mr. Jefferson did not wait for the hat. I saw him unbutton his overalls, and get his hand into his pocket, and take out a handful of silver, I don't know how much. He then walked across the Court House to Mr. Hiter, and gave it into his hand. He bowed very politely to Mr. Jefferson, and seemed to be very much pleased.

"Mr. Jefferson was very liberal and kind to the poor. When he would come from Washington, the poor people all about the country would find it out immediately, and would come in crowds to Monticello to beg him. He would give them notes to me, directing me what to give them. I knew them all a great deal better than he did. Many of them I knew were not worthy—were just lazy, good-for-nothing people, and I would not give them any thing. When I saw Mr. Jefferson I told him who they were, and that he ought not to encourage them in their laziness. He told me that when they came to him and told him their pitiful tales, he could not refuse them, and he did not know what to do. I told him to send them to me. He did

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so, but they never would come. They knew what to expect.

"In, I think, the year 1816, there was a very severe frost, and the corn was almost destroyed. It was so badly injured that it would hardly make bread, and it was thought that the stock was injured by eating it. There was a neighborhood at the base of the Blue Ridge where the frost did not injure the corn. They had a good crop, and the people were obliged to give them just what they were disposed to ask for it. I went up there and bought thirty barrels for Mr. Jefferson of a Mr. Massey—gave him ten dollars a barrel for it. That spring the poor trifling people came in crowds for corn. I sent the wagon after what I had bought, and by the time it would get back, Mr. Jefferson had given out so many of his little orders that it would pretty much take the load. I could hardly get it hauled as fast as he would give it away. I went to Mr. Jefferson and told him it never would do; we could not give ten dollars a barrel for corn, and haul it thirty miles, and give it away after that fashion. He said, What can I do? These people tell me they have no corn, and it will not do to let them suffer. I told him again, I could tell him what to do. Just send them all to me. I knew them all a great deal better than he did, and would give to all that were really deserving.

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"There was an old woman named * * * * who used to trouble us a great deal. She had three daughters that were bad girls—large, strapping, lazy things—and the old woman would beg for them. One day she went to Mr. Jefferson in a mean old dress, and told him some pitiful story, and he gave her a note to me directing me to give her two bushels of meal. I did so. The same day she went to Mrs. Randolph and got three sides of bacon—middling meat. There was more than she could carry, and she had two of her daughters' illegitimate children to help her carry it home. When she got to the river, the old negro who attended the ferry was so mad to see her carrying off the meat that he would not ferry her over. So she laid the meat on the edge of the boat, and they ferried themselves across. When the boat struck the bank it jarred the meat off, and it went to the bottom of the river, and she had a great deal of trouble to get it.

"Afterwards she went to Mr. Jefferson and told him the meal I gave her was not good—would not make bread, and he sent her to me again. I told her the meal in the mill was all alike, and she could only get better by going to the Blue Ridge for the corn. She said she had no horse, it was too far to walk, and she could not go. I told her I would furnish her a mule. Mr. Jefferson had an old mule

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that must have been thirty or forty years old, called Dolphin. He was too old to work and we did not like to kill him. His hair grew very long, and he was a sight to look at. He was too old to jump much, but he would tear down the fence with his nose and go over the plantation pretty much as he pleased. I was very anxious to get rid of the mule and of the old woman too, and I thought that may be if I loaned her the mule she would not come back. So I told her she could have the old mule and go and get her corn. She came and stayed over night, so as to get an early start. My wife gave her a coffee sack, and I gave her an order on Massey, and she started off on old Dolphin. When she got up there the people knew nothing about her, and she could do so much better begging, that, sure enough, she never came back at all. Mr. Jefferson used to enjoy telling people how I got rid of the old woman and Dolphin. She soon sent for her daughters. Two of them went up there; but a man named * * * * had taken up with one of them, and he moved her off into another neighborhood. He was a well-educated man, and much of a gentleman. His poor old mother was a mighty good woman, and she was so distressed about it that it almost made her crazy.

"Some six weeks or two months after the old woman had gone, I saw something moving about in

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the wheat-field, and, sure enough, there was Dolphin home again. After this there was a couple of Kentucky drovers named Scott and Dudley, from whom we used to buy a good many mules for the plantation, came along with a drove. I told them about the trouble we had with Dolphin. They said they would take him away so that he would trouble us no more, and I gave him to them. They sheared off his long hair and trimmed him up so that he looked quite well. They found one in the drove that matched him very well, and went on a few miles, and sold the pair to Hon. Hugh Nelson. He was a Congressman. He and Wm. C. Rives married sisters, daughters of Frank Walker. He was very wealthy and popular. I knew his father, too, Col. Walker. He used to wear short breeches and shoe-buckles. It wasn't long before Dolphin was back, and I told Mr. Jefferson. He laughed and said, 'You treat him so much better than anybody else will, that he will come back and see you.' When Mr. Nelson's overseer came over for him I asked him how old he supposed he was. He said he could not tell. I then told him his history. He took him off, and we never saw any more of Dolphin.

"Mr. Jefferson was very particular in the transaction of all his business. He kept an account of every thing. Nothing was too small for him to keep an account of. He knew exactly how much

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of every thing was raised at each plantation, and what became of it; how much was sold, and how much fed out. Here is one of his little crop accounts. All the overseers had such. Some of them used to grumble over them mightily. But I told them we were paid by Mr. Jefferson to attend to his business, and we ought to do it exactly as he wanted it done. One of them to whom I gave one of these little papers one day, after fretting a good deal about it, said, 'Well, I believe if Mr. Jefferson told you to go into the fire, you would follow his instructions.'


From Oct. 1, 1819, to July 7, 1820, 40 weeks.

90 persons from Oct. 1 to July 7.20, 40 weeks, @ 4 1/2 b. a week, 180
70 hogs to be fattened, @ 1 1/2 bar. a piece, 105
9 breeding sows @ 1 pint a day, from Dec. 1 to Mar. 10, 100 days, 3
60 shoats @ 1/2 pint a day, 100 days 9 1/2
pigs 5
6 beeves @ 2 gal. a day, from Dec. 1 to Mar. 1 (killing off) say 90 days, 27
Stable @ 14 gals. a day, Oct. 1 to July 1 (deducting 2 mo.) 210 days, 73 1/3
1 plantation horse and 6 mules, @ 1 1/2 bush. a day, Oct. 1 to July 1, 270 d., 81
Sheep, suppose 80, @ 1/2 pint from Dec. 1 to Mar. 15, 90 d., 11
4 oxen @ 6 galls. a day, Dec. 1 to May 15, 165 d., 25
1 milch cow at the stable, @ 1 peck a day, 165 d., 8
The other cattle to be fed on stalks, tops, husks, chaff, straw, &c.


Oct. 1, corn on hand in the mill, 80
from Th. J. R. 200
Mill @ 2 bar. a week, 40 weeks, 80
Offal of 350 lb. flour, @ 25 lb. 35 b. Do. to be bough at mill, 65 b. 100
340 lbs. to be bought elsewhere, 68

"I reported to Mr. Jefferson every dollar that I received and just what I paid it out for. The first day of every January I gave him a full list of all the servants, stock, and every thing on the place, so that he could see exactly what had been the gain or loss. In all his business transactions with people, he had every thing put down in writing, so that there was no chance for any misunderstanding. There was quite a village at Milton. It was the head of navigation for bateaux. A great deal of flour, grain, and other produce was brought from the western part of the State and shipped there, the wagons carrying back groceries and other things that the bateaux had brought from Richmond. This and other business employed a good many families. Nearly all the families in Milton were supplied with firewood from Mr. Jefferson's estate. They paid him five dollars a year for what wood they would burn in a fireplace.

 Mr. Jefferson wrote a blank form for me, and I made a written contract with all the people who got their firewood from his place, and once a year I went around and made collections. Here is the blank form that he wrote for me that I filled out, and from which I copied all these contracts for wood:

"'These presents witness that the subscriber, Thomas Jefferson, has leased to the subscriber, James Marr, of the town of Milton, a right, in common with other lessees, to cut and take away sufficient firewood for one fireplace from the lands of the said Thomas Jefferson, on the south side of the road leading through from Milton towards Colle, for the year which began on the 1st day of October last past, and ending the 1st day of October of the present year, 1813; the said James Marr yielding and paying to the said Thomas Jefferson five dollars on the 1st day of October closing the year, which he covenants to do, and it is further agreed that this lease, and on the same conditions, shall continue from year to year until notice to the contrary be given by either party to the other. "Witness their hands this 6t day of February, 1813.

Th. Jefferson.

"'James Marr.

"'Witness, E. Bacon.'

"He was just as particular as this with all his business. Whenever I engaged an overseer for him, or any kind of a mechanic, I always made a written contract with him, that stated just what he was to do, and just what pay he was to receive. In this way he avoided all difficulties with the men he employed. I used to write Mr. Jefferson's name so often to contracts that I made for him, that I could imitate his signature almost exactly. A good many people could not tell whether he or I had written his name. Here is one of my contracts with a carpenter, written and signed by myself for Mr. Jefferson:

"'It is agreed between Thomas Jefferson and Richard Durrett, both of the county of Albemarle, that the said Durrett shall serve the said Jefferson one year as a carpenter. And the said Durrett does by these presents oblige himself to do whatever work the said Jefferson shall require in the business of carpenter work; and the said Durrett obliges himself to faithfully do his duty. The year commences on the day that the said Durrett shall take charge of the said Jefferson's employ; for which year's service the said Jefferson agrees to pay the said Durrett forty pounds, and to find him four hundred and fifty pounds of pork, and a peck of corn meal a week; or, in case the said Durrett

should have three in family, the said Jefferson agrees to find him three pecks a week, and to find him a cow to give milk from 15th April to 15th November. As witness our hands this 28th of October, 1812.

"'Richard Durrett.

"'E. Bacon, for

"'Th. Jefferson.'"