Jefferson’s Monticello Chickens

Reader Contribution by Patricia Foreman
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

A Pyncheon bantam hen was probably the breed kept by the Jefferson as a family pet. The Pyncheon breed is in grave danger of extinction.

In the 1800s, many gardens, homesteads and all farms raised livestock. Animals were integrated into the fabric of everyday life and community commerce — livestock provided local daily sustenance.

Monticello’s gardens and orchards are world famous for the fruit and vegetable production. The volumes of garden notes and sketches by Mr. Jefferson give deep insights into production gardens of his time.

Interestingly, among all his writings, there is very little included by Mr. Jefferson about keeping poultry. Among the few references I could find was a record from his granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph about foodstuffs purchased from the Monticello slaves for the Jefferson household’s fine dining and entertaining.

“On September 29, 1805 the Jefferson kitchen purchased…(among other produce), 47 dozen eggs and 117 chickens.” 1 To put that single purchase in context, Anne bought 564 eggs and about 527 pounds of chicken. That’s over a quarter ton of chicken (at an average weight of 4.5 pounds per bird). Chickens were a major source of food and income for the enslaved community.

“More than half of the black adults at Monticello sold produce to the Jefferson household and all but three adults among of them also sold chickens.” 2 So why did Mr. Jefferson not include poultry in his livestock records? It might be because in our founding father days, raising chickens was viewed in some circles as a lower-class activity. “Poultry, held in low regard during the 18th century, was usually omitted from farm stock listings”.3

This helps to explain exclusion of chickens from the livestock accountings for Monticello stock inventories. The belief that chickens are a lower-class occupation appears to be a deeply rooted because still, today, some of the opponents of the backyard chicken movement have expressed that keeping family flocks is for poor people and legalizing chickens would be a degradation to the neighborhood, causing property values to drop. This belief has been proven false.

In fact, chickens are gaining such favor that Virginia Governor Terry McAulfiee keeps a family flock at the yolk-colored mansion in Richmond. However, back in our founding father’s time, European flocks of ornamental and fancy fowl were all the rage — a genuine royal class occupation. Raising bantams was especially the in-thing to do for “gentry-class young ladies.” “Ornamental and bantam fowl were becoming increasingly popular (in America) as the colonists copied prevailing trends in England”.4

Mr. Jefferson definitely qualified as one of America’s upper class and was quite active in breeding bantams and ornamental chickens.

A Letter from Jefferson

­In a letter dated November 30, 1806 (Jefferson wrote to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge): “By Davy I send you a pair of Bantam fowls; quite young: so that I am in hopes you will now be enabled to raise some. I propose on their subject a question of natural history for your enquiry: that is whether this is the Gallina Adrianica, or Adria, the Adsatck cock of Aristotle? For this you must examine Buffon etc.”5

On June 29, 1807 Mr. Jefferson asked Ellen: “How go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, and on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians (fowel)”.6

This letter (and others) shows that Jefferson was experimenting with varieties of chickens. Mr. Jefferson’s daughter had a pet bantam, probably a Pyncheon hen. This little hen was such a family favorite, that when it died there was a full family funeral for the beloved biddie. The Jefferson family had a pet cemetery. It would appropriate if that pet chicken was buried there with a grave stone engraved with her name and date of death.

Chicken Breeds of Colonial Mulberry Row

The painting Mulberry Row by Nathaniel Gibbs documents chickens being fed by African-American Monticello residents.

“Mulberry Row” by Nathaniel Gibbs includes chickens as a part of daily life along the gardens of Mulberry Row.

What breeds of chickens might have been on Mulberry Row? Colonial Williamsburg has a Rare Breed Program where they researched and selected four breeds that existed during the 1700s. These are the Dorking, Dominique, Hamburg and Nankin Bantam. I’m including the Pyncheon. According to Jeanette Beranger of The Livestock Conservancy, that was a popular breed probably one of the bantam breeds Mr. Jefferson raised and gave as gifts.

The Pyncheon bantam breed still exists but is quickly slipping into extinction as its breeding numbers dwindle. This breed was dropped from exhibitions (American Poultry Association poultry shows) in the mid-1900s.7 There is only one American breeder of Pyncheons listed on the internet.8 We can only hope there are more in Europe.

Loosing chicken breeds is nothing new. Many of the old breeds have become extinct. The Livestock Conservancy lists over three-dozen breeds of chickens in danger of extinction, losing their genetic uniqueness forever.

Chicken Keeping in Colonial Times

The archives of Monticello seem to have very little about the practices of chicken keeping.From description of Colonial Williamsburg, most family farmers and residents let the birds free-roam, without providing shelter. “They drove them to roost in orchards or stands of timber. Chickens were expected to forage for most of their food, cleaning up behind the more important meat and draft animals or occasionally receiving table scraps or grain from their owners. In a town setting, they may have even sheltered them in their houses or other nearby outbuildings”.9

How many chickens were kept at Monticello? No written records seem to exist. But from that single chicken and egg purchase by Anne Cary Randolph in 1805, it is clear there had to have been thousands of chickens that fed not only the enslaved community but also the Jefferson household.

How were these the chickens raised, kept and employed? I believe the answers might still available through the descendants of the enslaved community who raised chickens for Jefferson. The Getting Word oral history project started at Monticello in 1993. This project is to preserve the stories of Afro-American families of Monticello by taking histories from their descendants. An NPR show, entitled: Life At Jefferson’s Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It is an excellent description of the project.10

I propose it would be a useful research project to conduct a “Chicken Keeping and Employing” survey of the Monticello African American Descendants to glean information handed down about poultry keeping in the 18th century. I would love to participate in such a project.

I have been presenting chicken workshops at the Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival for several years and always bring my co-presenter, Oprah Hen-Free (a heritage chicken), to show people how dignified, beautiful and personable chickens can be. At a book signing in the gift shop, Ms. Hen-Free, with the usual clucking that represents the sound of a forthcoming egg, presented an egg with as much grace and dignity as can be expected of any fine hen. People were thrilled! The still-warm egg was passed around and marveled at by those who had never held a truly fresh egg,

I asked the staff if this might be an historic egg? Might this be the first egg laid at Monticello since Jefferson’s time? The staff was clearly stunned — and didn’t have an answer. But the question remains: Was that an historic egg? Could Oprah Hen-Free, in presenting a single egg to the Monticello gift shop, possibly have laid the first egg at Monticello in over 100 years? Might Oprah Hen-Free have uttered: “The cluck heard around the world” as a clarion call announcing that it is time to bring chickens back into our culture?

It is clear there were chickens kept by the residents of Mulberry Row. An authentic recreation of their daily lives has to include the 18th century poultry breeds. Not only to recreate glimpses of the lives of the people, but also to preserve the breeds of chickens that served them — so they can continue to serve future generations.

May the flock be with Monticello.

Mr. Jefferson (Bill Barker) holding chicken celebrity Oprah Hen-Free, a heritage bantam Chantecler at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, 2015.


1. In Our Own Time. Keeping Food on the Table.

2 Ibid

3. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

6. POULTRY. Letters between Jefferson and Martha Jefferson Randolph regarding bantam chickens.

7. Ibid.

7. Pyncheon Bantams, by Brian Heldberg, Minnesota Member The Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Backyard Poultry Magazine.

8. Pyncheon Chickens. Rusty Hart, 2531 Vance Road, East Jordan, Michigan.

9. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

10. Life At Jefferson’s Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It.

11. Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.

Poultry pioneerPatricia Foremanhas kept poultry for about 25 years, employing chickens to build topsoil for a community farm and co-owning and operating a small-scale farm with free-range, organic layers, broilers and turkeys. Her commercial operation experience includes managing breeder flocks, incubating eggs, pasturing poultry, finished processing and direct marketing. Find Patricia online atwww.ChickensAndYou.comand read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.