J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

When Did Edmund Bacon Start Work at Monticello?

Edmund Bacon (1785-1866) was Thomas Jefferson’s “manager,” or overseer, at Monticello for many years in the early 1800s. (The thumbnail image to the right connects to a photograph of Bacon in old age at the Monticello website.) Exactly how many years Bacon lived on that slave-labor plantation has become an issue in the debate over the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children.

In 1862, the Rev. Dr. Hamilton W. Pierson published a book titled Jefferson at Monticello, based on interviews with Bacon. It quotes him describing his tenure at Monticello this way:

I went to live with him the 27th of December before he was inaugurated as President [i.e., 27 Dec 1800]; and if I had remained with him from the 8th of October to the 27th of December, the year that I left him, I should have been with him precisely twenty years.
However, Pierson also reprinted Jefferson’s letter of recommendation for Bacon, dated 18 Aug 1818. It says:
The bearer, Mr. Edmund Bacon, has lived with me twelve years as manager of my farm at Monticello.
That means that Bacon started the manager job in 1806, and implies that he hadn’t lived at Monticello any longer than that.

Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s major twentieth-century biographer, dated Bacon’s tenure as manager from 29 Sept 1806. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book quotes instructions to Bacon dated 21 Apr 1806, and says Bacon started to oversee the newly-built toll mill in August. A Senior Historian at Monticello, Lucia C. Stanton, has concluded:
Jefferson’s records...indicate that Bacon began working at Monticello sometime in 1806, becoming overseer on Sep. 29. Nothing in the records indicates his presence at Monticello before this. Since Bacon’s family lived not far from Monticello, it is certainly possible he was on the mountain on an occasional basis. But...he is not mentioned in the Memorandum Books until Sep. 1806. After this date, he appears in the Memorandum Books with great frequency.
So when did Edmund Bacon start to help manage Monticello—1800 or 1806? The answer bears generally on how accurate Bacon’s statements to Pierson were. It also bears specifically on when Bacon might have been able to see a man other than Thomas Jefferson regularly coming out of the room of the mother of one enslaved young woman, “nearly as white as anybody,” who many people said was Jefferson’s daughter. (I’m going to discuss that statement eventually.)

After looking at the text of Jefferson at Monticello and researching its details, I’ve reached my own conclusion about when Bacon started work at Monticello. My reasoning focuses on one of my little areas of interest, the lives of young people in early America. And my conclusion is that both dates—1800 and 1806—are probably wrong.

TOMORROW: Boys behaving badly.

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