"I AM SINCERELY CONCERNED FOR THE DEATH OF JUPITER, WHICH I AM PERSUADED MIGHT HAVE BEEN PREVENTED COULD I HAVE PREVAILED ON HIM TO GIVE UP GOING WITH ME TO FREDERICKSBURG": EXTRAORDINARY LENGTHY 1800 THOMAS JEFFERSON AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED TO HIS MONTICELLO OVERSEER CONCERNING THE DEATH OF JUPITER, HIS LONGTIME PERSONAL SLAVE AND CLOSE FRIEND, AND ALSO MENTIONING TWO NEPHEWS OF SALLY HEMMINGS
JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed. Philadelphia, February 10, 1800. Single leaf (8 by 10-1/2 inches), signed on verso; pp. 2. Housed in a custom clamshell box. $150,000.
Fascinating 1800 autograph letter signed by Thomas Jefferson to Monticello overseer Richard Richardson concerning the death of Jupiter (1743-1800), Jefferson's longtime servant and friend. Jefferson also gives instructions to Richardson as to several management issues, asking that two of the nephews of Sally Hemings stay in the main house in order to guard it from intruders; recommending tasks for several other slaves, as well as proposing an efficient means of communication while he attended to his Vice Presidential duties in Philadelphia; and also forwards a bag of "a particular kind of nut, called the Paccan," asking that they be planted in the nursery.
This important letter to his plantation manager reveals Jefferson's distress at the loss of his longtime servant and friend, Jupiter, who had died after insisting on making a journey from Monticello to Fredericksburg despite Jefferson's efforts to dissuade him. Jefferson writes, in full (with original spellings and case retained without comment): "Your favors of Jan. 7th. and 18th. have both been recieved. on the 12th. of January I made a remittance to mr Jefferson, and directed him to pay out of it 329. dollars to your order as I notified you in my letter of the 13th. which I presume you recieved on the 22d. I am sincerely concerned for the death of Jupiter, which I am persuaded might have been prevented could I have prevailed on him to give up going with me to Fredericksburg, or to have stopped the 2d day, and permitted a man to go on with me whom I engaged for that purpose, proposing to him to stay by the way. I suppose the journey to my brother's compleated the business. I hope you will have care taken of the things in his charge, such as the carriages, harness, saddles &c as it is proper somebody should sleep so as to guard the house, perhaps it would be best for Joe [Gillette?], Wormely [Hughes] & Burwell [Colbert], or any two of them to sleep in the North square cellar. I take John to be a great nightwalker. besides I have no idea of letting him off from his share of labour with the men. he is beginning to be idle, and I consider his labouring with the rest in the winter to be necessary to keep him to his duty. at that season there is nothing to be done in the garden but what the old people can do with his direction. I think therefore it would be better that Burwell should feed the horses. if a supply of forage is kept ready, it need interrupt his day's work but a short time. I shall be glad if you will keep the key of the corn crib in the stable, and see that the corn is always locked up in that. under this arrangement, the sheep might remain on John's hands, without hindering him. as I understand Ned lost every thing in his house, & of course his bedding, give him three new blankets, and a hempen roll bed. I am in hopes you have sent down the three ton of half crown rod, as my merchant here agrees to take it in Richmond as cash. of course it is important it should be there immediately as it will save my paying him 120.£ cash soon to become due. I hope you have recieved the 4. tons of nail rod sent on in December, which with the 3. tons recieved before I came from home will be a supply till summer. I should like to recieve the weekly report of the boys work whenever you write to me, as also a journal of the nails sold. If you would write to me always the day after you recieve a letter from me, so that it might come by return of the same post, I would do the same here, so that a letter written by each about every three weeks would keep me possessed of the progress of the several works & enable me to give directions. I should have been very glad of the smith you mention to me; but Powel is engaged to come, tho' not till next winter. I wrote to mr Eppes to try to engage him to come the 1st. of July, & expect an answer from him. if he does not I should be willing to take this one for the present year. I have sent on a bag of a particular kind of nut, called the Paccan. as soon as ever they arrive John must plant them in the nursery in rows 2. feet apart, and 6. Inches from nut to nut in the row. Congress propose to rise the 1st. of April. if they do, I shall be at home between the 8th. & 15th. of that month. I want to hear from mr [James] Dinsmore as to the progress of his work."
Jupiter was one of Jefferson's most trusted servants. Born at Shadwell the same year as Jefferson, the pair played together as boys. When Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, Jupiter accompanied him as his valet, purchasing Jefferson's books and wig powder as well as paying his bills to the baker, shoemaker and washerwoman. Jupiter paid Jefferson's debts and even lent him money to provide tips to enslaved domestic servants in Williamsburg. When Jefferson attained his majority in 1764, he came into his inheritance which included Jupiter. In 1774, Jupiter assumed the role of hostler and coachman at Monticello, the same year as his marriage to Suck, a slave Jefferson had inherited from his father-in-law's estate. In the years immediately following his marriage, Jupiter learned the art stonecutting from William Rice, a indentured servant on Jefferson's plantation who performed much of the stone work on Monticello including the dramatic columns that adorn the front of the mansion. (For more see Lucia Stanton, "Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello," 2012.)
As he was the same age as Jefferson, Jupiter's passing must have proven particularly jarring, perhaps reminding Jefferson of his own mortality. At the same time, he lost a valuable slave lamenting to this son-in-law, "I am sorry for him as well as sensible he leaves a void in my [domestic] administration which I cannot fill up" (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, February 4, 1800, Library of Congress). Though Jefferson feared that the journey is what killed Jupiter, it was actually medicine that had been given to him by a traditional healer. Jefferson's daughter Martha wrote to explain how Jupiter met his end: "…I am afraid to indulge any more hopes upon that subject. to your enquiries relative to poor Jupiter he too has paid the debt to nature; finding himself no better at his return home, he unfortunately conceived him self poisoned & went to consult the negro doctor who attended the George's. He went in the house to see uncle Randolph who gave him a dram which he drank & seemed to be as well as he had been for some time past; after which he took a dose from this black doctor who pronounced that it would kill or cure. 2-1/2 hours after taking the medecine [sic] he fell down in a strong convulsion fit which lasted from ten to elevin [sic] hours, during which time it took 3 stout men to hold him, he languished nine days but was never heard to speak from the first of his being seized to the moment of his death…" (Martha Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, January 30, 1800).
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this letter is that it highlights the nuanced relationship between Jefferson and his slaves. Jefferson remarks that Jupiter may have not died if he could "have prevailed on him to give up going with me to Fredericksburg." Although Jefferson exerted absolute authority over his slaves, it was obvious that some of his more trusted and longtime servants could influence their master to some degree.
After discussing Jupiter's death, Jefferson asked that Richardson see that others assume his responsibilities. To guard the house Jefferson recommended three of his slaves for the duty: "Joe, Wormely & Burwell," two of whom were nephews of Jefferson's slave and mistress, Sally Hemings. Wormley Hughes (1781-1858) was the son of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings' daughter Bett (or Betty Brown), Sally's sister. He worked as a nail-maker and later became Monticello's principal gardener. Jefferson called Wormley "one of the most trusted servants I have" (Jefferson to John W. Eppes, May 10, 1810, Library of Congress). Following Jupiter's death, Wormley assumed the post as hostler in the Monticello stables. In 1826 it was Wormley who dug Jefferson's grave.
Burwell Colbert (1783-1862) was also the son of Betty Brown. He began working at age ten in the nail-making shop and later worked as a printer and window glazer. He was highly valued by Jefferson and the only member of the nail-making shop that was"absolutely exempted from the whip" and one of only two slaves to receive an annual $20 gratuity. Following his departure from the Executive Mansion in 1809, Burwell became Jefferson's Butler. The "Joe" Jefferson mentions together with Wormely and Burwell may be Joe Fossett (b. 1780) the son of Mary Hemings, another one of Sally's sisters.
Jefferson also reveals his compassion for his slaves in providing for "Ned," who's house had been consumed by fire—asking Richardson that he be provided with new bedding. This individual may have been be Ned Gillette, Jr. (b. 1786) the son of Ned Gillette (b. 1760) a laborer and tradesmen at Monticello. The identity of "John," mentioned several times in the letter remains a mystery. Jefferson's planation records mention numerous men named John, but none of them appear to be working as either a shepherd or a gardener during this period. There is a John (b. 1753) who Jefferson noted worked as a gardener in 1793, but in 1795 and 1810, Jefferson identified him as a carpenter and a tradesman (respectively).
Apart from his enslaved workforce, Jefferson also hired skilled workers. James Dinsmore (c. 1771-1830) was an Irish joiner who produced most of the elegant woodwork at Monticello form 1798 to 1809. While employed producing many of the decorative wooden details inside the mansion, he trained Sally Hemings' brother John (1776-1833) in the trade. Following his time at Monticello, Dinsmore also worked on the buildings at the University of Virginia as well as at James Madison's Montpelier plantation.
Jefferson closes the letter underscoring his boundless scientific curiosity by forwarding a bag of pecans to plant in the nursery. The pecan tree, native to North America, was first domesticated by the Spanish in the 16th century and exported the plant to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Not only did Jefferson experiment with cultivating pecans, he sent some to George Washington, who cultivated them at Mount Vernon.
Light folds and creases, small paperclip mark at top left does not affect text, a few pinprick losses mostly at fold intersections, one spot lightly soiled, else near-fine condition. Letters by Jefferson discussing slavery are seldom encountered in the market, but attract tremendous interest due to one of Jefferson's greatest paradoxes: his advocacy of liberty and equal rights despite the fact that he owned and treated others as property. Jefferson letters commenting on Jupiter's death are extraordinarily rare— only four are known, and this letter is the only one in private hands. The three other letters, which Jefferson sent to his two daughters and his son-in-law in February 1800, are all in institutions.