Several times a year Thomas Jefferson made the one hundred-mile, three-day trip by carriage from Monticello to his personal retreat at Poplar Forest. Attended by Burwell Colbert, an enslaved man who was Jefferson’s trusted personal servant and who directed the running of his households, they made their way along dirt roads from Albemarle to Bedford stopping at country inns and marking the miles with an odometer that delighted Jefferson by chiming every ten miles.

The ca. 1806 octagonal Poplar Forest is surprisingly modern with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and sleek furnishings made by Jefferson’s enslaved master carpenter John Hemings. Jefferson designed the home and landscape himself and maintained a library of nearly 1,000 books in the six languages that he read. The east wing of offices at Poplar Forest were built by John Hemings who frequently traveled to Jefferson’s retreat from his home on Mulberry Row at Monticello.

Seven enslaved families served at Poplar Forest. They enjoyed relatively stable family lives. Jefferson encouraged unions between eligible enslaved men and women, and on Christmas they traveled to Lynchburg or Monticello to visit extended family. Workdays at Poplar Forest were sun up to sun down Monday to Saturday. As skilled tradesmen and women, the enslaved community served as weavers, spinners, barrel and basket makers, masons, brick makers, and carpenters. They grew tobacco, wheat and corn and raised livestock.

The Hubbard family served at Poplar Forest along with the Hemingses and Hixes. James Hubbard worked as a waterman, navigating the rivers to carry goods to market and returning with necessary supplies. He married Cate, and together they had eight children. James became overseer of the field laborers at Poplar Forest. His daughter Joan was given away as part of Martha Jefferson’s dowry. James Jr. was sold off for being a habitual runaway.

James’ son Nace became an overseer as well, and his daughter Hannah became Jefferson’s housekeeper. Hannah married another member of the enslaved community, Solomon, and Jefferson gifted them with a bed and a pot. Hannah could read and write. She worked in the fields and as Jefferson’s housekeeper. Her son William apprenticed with master carpenter John Hemings but was sent to work in the fields after proving to be ‘ungovernable.’ Billy – as he was known – attacked two overseers and plotted slave uprisings. As punishment – and an example - he was whipped, branded on the hand and sold down the river to the auction block at New Orleans.

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is an active restoration and archaeology site. Guided tours of the house and self-guided tours of the grounds including the slave quarter archaeology site are offered daily in season and on weekends in winter. In addition, Poplar Forest offers themed tours including a Slavery at Poplar Forest tour. Poplar Forest features a film, museum shop, archaeology lab, exhibits and a splendid walk among ancient tulip poplars.

Pictured at the top: The back porch of Thomas Jeffersons Poplar Forest.

thomas jeffersons poplar forest tulip poplar thomas jeffersons poplar forest slave quarter

Ancient tulip poplars line the entrance of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. Artifacts recovered by archaeologists in the slave quarter tell us much about the lives of those who lived there. For example, the presence of lead shot and animal bones indicate that the enslaved community hunted to supplement their daily rations. Buried coins tell us they earned money on their own outside of the plantation. Fancy buttons show an interest in the fashions of the times.