Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

I’ve always been interested in American history. The stories of our country are fascinating, filled with amazing places and memorable characters. But even better than reading history is visiting the places where it happened. Thomas Jefferson’s “Monticello” in Charlottesville, VA had been on my “must see” list for many years.

We arrived early in the morning on the second Thursday in May. Monticello was easy to find and there was ample parking close to the visitor’s center. We purchased the basic day pass and house tour for $29 which included a tour of the gardens and a slavery tour at no additional cost. Other passes were available including a more in-depth “behind the scenes” tour. That tour cost $62 per person and would take 2 hours. It visited the recently renovated upper floors that aren’t seen on the basic tour. We would have liked to have taken that tour, but it promised to be a hot day and there was already a lot to see. Since Jefferson himself lived mainly on the first floor (his family and guests slept upstairs), the basic tour would show us all of the areas where he spent his time including his bedroom, study and greenhouse. The one thing I regret missing by not taking the longer tour was the dome room.

From the visitor’s center we boarded a shuttle bus which carried us up the hill to Jefferson’s home. Our tickets were timed for 9:15 and there was a 9:00 tour ahead of us. We had to wait outdoors until our tour time. We wandered the grounds close to the house. We were lucky to have nice weather since most of the day’s touring took place outdoors.

At 9:15 we were met by our tour guide and led inside the house and into the entry hall. This was where Jefferson greeted visitor’s who arrived, many of them unexpected strangers looking to meet him for the first time. Jefferson kept a good number of chairs in the entry and the room was filled with interesting items for his guest’s perusal. On our visit the room contained some marvelous displays and ingenious inventions such as a clock which announces the time both indoors and out and also designates the day of the week. Also displayed were bones discovered at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky and collected by Jefferson, and a set of elk antlers gifted to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark.

Jefferson’s home is filled with his innovative ideas and inventions. The house is bright and cheerful with floor to ceiling windows that allow for good ventilation and many skylights that fill rooms with light. A small door on each side of the fireplace hides a dumbwaiter which brought wine up from cellar below. A crafted machine in Jefferson’s study copied his letters as he wrote them so that he could always keep a copy for himself. Throughout the home were portraits and busts of American heroes, vintage maps, old books, beautiful furnishings.

Monticello’s tours are very well organized. Our 40-minute house tour ended in time for us to join the first garden tour of the day at 10 AM. This was the tour I was most looking forward to and our garden guide did not disappoint. Blooming peonies, bachelor’s buttons and bright red and yellow parrot tulips lined the walkway to Jefferson’s grove of trees which Monticello’s gardeners have replanted in their original locations. Jefferson collected trees and plants from around the world. He grew 330 vegetable varieties and 170 fruits. A terraced vegetable garden would have provided food for Jefferson’s table. A vineyard still provides grapes today for the wine that is bottled and sold in the gift shop. Monticello’s gardens are planted with the same varieties Jefferson planted. Jefferson kept extensive records and historians today know right where he planted which varieties. Plants in the gardens were labeled making it easy to identify unusual varieties.

The garden tour ended in time for us to join the first slavery tour of the day at 11 AM. Our guide for the slavery tour was also well-informed and gave an excellent presentation of the facts. There were some skeptics in our group who clearly were upset with the story of Jefferson fathering the six children of his slave, Sally Hemings. The guide faced their challenges head on with no apologies.

I had not thought much about slavery until visiting Monticello. And I guess I never realized how many slaves were NOT black. Sally Hemings has always been described as “Jefferson’s slave” so I assumed that she must be black. But Sally’s mother was the daughter of Martha Jefferson’s father. Betty Hemings was half white. She was Martha Jefferson’s half-sister. She was a slave owned by Martha – a gift given to Martha by her father. Betty’s daughter, Sally, also had a white father. That made Sally Hemings 3/4 white. There is no known photo of Sally but she was described in journals as being “very light-skinned” and having “long, straight hair.” All of Sally’s six children were fathered by Jefferson. That made them 7/8 white. The overseer on Jefferson’s estate wrote that all of Heming’s children were “as white as anybody.” If you look at old photos of them you can see they were white. And yet they were slaves and were owned by Jefferson. Jefferson eventually freed all six of Heming’s children. Once free, all but one joined white society and lived as white because they WERE white. Being white or a light skinned black allowed those slaves to have better jobs inside of the house. Darker skinned blacks were sent to work on farms and in the fields. Heming’s children were all taught to read and write and even to play the violin (Jefferson played the violin). But to think that blacks in those years were so disparaged that having so much as a drop of black blood was enough to keep a person locked in slavery is hard to comprehend. It was such a horrific and embarrassing period in our history.

Vegetable garden at Monticello

By noon, we had finished all three basic tours. For the next hour we walked around to view the self-guided exhibits which included slave quarters, the cellar kitchen, and Jefferson’s wine cellars and store rooms. We did not walk to the cemetery, but the shuttle bus makes a quick stop there on the way down the mountain. (Sit on the side of the bus behind the driver for the best view). You can get out if you like and then catch the next shuttle that comes by.

By 1 PM we were out and on our way to the nearby Michie Tavern for lunch (which I highly recommend). If you don’t start early, or you take a break between tours, you will likely need to allow the entire day to tour Monticello. There is a café and a gift/farm shop where you can buy snacks and drinks if you need a break.

Monticello was one of the best historical sites I have visited. There is so much more to learn than you can possibly absorb in a day and the visit will likely inspire you to do further reading. If you have an interest in gardens, “Founding Gardeners” is an excellent read which brings Jefferson’s and other founding father’s obsessions with their gardens to life.

Peonies like those grown by Jefferson

Monticello was crowded even on a weekday in early May. My advice is to arrive early and avoid weekends if possible, especially during the summer tourist season when I expect it gets VERY crowded. Since most of the day is spend outside, wear good walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, and carry water. If the weather is wet, you’ll need rain gear.Get a discount on some passes and be sure to get the tour time you want by purchasing tickets online. Some prices are also reduced during the less visited winter months. Check the website at Monticello.org.

I’ve always been interested in American history. The stories of our country are fascinating, filled with amazing places and memorable characters. But even better than reading history is visiting the places where it happened. Thomas Jefferson’s “Monticello” had been on my “must see” list for many years.

We arrived early in the morning on the second Thursday in May. Monticello was easy to find and there was ample parking close to the visitor’s center. We purchased the basic day pass and house tour for $29 which included a tour of the gardens and a slavery tour at no additional cost. Other passes were available including a more in-depth “behind the scenes” tour. That tour cost $62 per person and would take 2 hours. It visited the recently renovated upper floors that aren’t seen on the basic tour. We would have liked to have taken that tour, but it promised to be a hot day and there was already a lot to see. Since Jefferson himself lived mainly on the first floor (his family and guests slept upstairs), the basic tour would show us all of the areas where he spent his time including his bedroom, study and greenhouse. The one thing I regret missing by not taking the longer tour was the dome room.

The kitchen at Monticello

From the visitor’s center we boarded a shuttle bus which carried us up the hill to Jefferson’s home. Our tickets were timed for 9:15 and there was a 9:00 tour ahead of us. We had to wait outdoors until our tour time. We wandered the grounds close to the house. We were lucky to have nice weather since most of the day’s touring took place outdoors.

At 9:15 we were met by our tour guide and led inside the house and into the entry hall. This was where Jefferson greeted visitor’s who arrived, many of them unexpected strangers looking to meet him for the first time. Jefferson kept a good number of chairs in the entry and the room was filled with interesting items for his guest’s perusal. On our visit the room contained some marvelous displays and ingenious inventions such as a clock which announces the time both indoors and out and also designates the day of the week. Also displayed were bones discovered at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky and collected by Jefferson, and a set of elk antlers gifted to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark.

Jefferson’s home is filled with his innovative ideas and inventions. The house is bright and cheerful with floor to ceiling windows that allow for good ventilation and many skylights that fill rooms with light. A small door on each side of the fireplace hides a dumbwaiter which brought wine up from cellar below. A crafted machine in Jefferson’s study copied his letters as he wrote them so that he could always keep a copy for himself. Throughout the home were portraits and busts of American heroes, vintage maps, old books, beautiful furnishings.

Snowball Viburnum

Monticello’s tours are very well organized. Our 40-minute house tour ended in time for us to join the first garden tour of the day at 10 AM. This was the tour I was most looking forward to and our garden guide did not disappoint. Blooming peonies, bachelor’s buttons and bright red and yellow parrot tulips lined the walkway to Jefferson’s grove of trees which Monticello’s gardeners have replanted in their original locations. Jefferson collected trees and plants from around the world. He grew 330 vegetable varieties and 170 fruits. A terraced vegetable garden would have provided food for Jefferson’s table. A vineyard still provides grapes today for the wine that is bottled and sold in the gift shop. Monticello’s gardens are planted with the same varieties Jefferson planted. Jefferson kept extensive records and historians today know right where he planted which varieties. Plants in the gardens were labeled making it easy to identify unusual varieties.

Monticello’s wine cellar

The garden tour ended in time for us to join the first slavery tour of the day at 11 AM. Our guide for the slavery tour was also well-informed and gave an excellent presentation of the facts. There were some skeptics in our group who clearly were upset with the story of Jefferson fathering the six children of his slave, Sally Hemings. The guide faced their challenges head on with no apologies.

I had not thought much about slavery until visiting Monticello. And I guess I never realized how many slaves were NOT black. Sally Hemings has always been described as “Jefferson’s slave” so I assumed that she must be black. But Sally’s mother was the daughter of Martha Jefferson’s father. Betty Hemings was half white. She was Martha Jefferson’s half-sister. She was a slave owned by Martha – a gift given to Martha by her father. Betty’s daughter, Sally, also had a white father. That made Sally Hemings 3/4 white. There is no known photo of Sally but she was described in journals as being “very light-skinned” and having “long, straight hair.” All of Sally’s six children were fathered by Jefferson. That made them 7/8 white. The overseer on Jefferson’s estate wrote that all of Heming’s children were “as white as anybody.” If you look at old photos of them you can see they were white. And yet they were slaves and were owned by Jefferson. Jefferson eventually freed all six of Heming’s children. Once free, all but one joined white society and lived as white because they WERE white. Being white or a light skinned black allowed those slaves to have better jobs inside of the house. Darker skinned blacks were sent to work on farms and in the fields. Heming’s children were all taught to read and write and even to play the violin (Jefferson played the violin). But to think that blacks in those years were so disparaged that having so much as a drop of black blood was enough to keep a person locked in slavery is hard to comprehend. It was such a horrific and embarrassing period in our history.

Parrot tulips

By noon, we had finished all three basic tours. For the next hour we walked around to view the self-guided exhibits which included slave quarters, the cellar kitchen, and Jefferson’s wine cellars and store rooms. We did not walk to the cemetery, but the shuttle bus makes a quick stop there on the way down the mountain. (Sit on the side of the bus behind the driver for the best view). You can get out if you like and then catch the next shuttle that comes by.

By 1 PM we were out and on our way to the nearby Michie Tavern for lunch (which I highly recommend). If you don’t start early, or you take a break between tours, you will likely need to allow the entire day to tour Monticello. There is a café and a gift/farm shop where you can buy snacks and drinks if you need a break.

Monticello was one of the best historical sites I have visited. There is so much more to learn than you can possibly absorb in a day and the visit will likely inspire you to do further reading. If you have an interest in gardens, Founding Gardeners is an excellent read which brings Jefferson’s and other founding father’s obsessions with their gardens to life.

Monticello was crowded even on a weekday in early May. My advice is to arrive early and avoid weekends if possible, especially during the summer tourist season when I expect it gets VERY crowded. Since most of the day is spend outside, wear good walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, and carry water. If the weather is wet, you’ll need rain gear.Get a discount on some passes and be sure to get the tour time you want by purchasing tickets online. Some prices are also reduced during the less visited winter months. Check the website at Monticello.org.

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