Found  /  Discovery

“Kicked About”: Native Culture at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Kristine K. Ronan describes her discovery of two Native American statues at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

In the summer of 2012, while a graduate student in art history specializing in American and Native American art at the University of Michigan, I spent three months as a curatorial intern at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that oversees Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson in central Virginia. While the staff at Monticello spent much of the previous decade reconstructing slave histories and physical spaces on the site, little had been done with its Native histories since curator Elizabeth Chew had reinstalled the Indian Hall for the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.1 As conceived by Jefferson, the Entrance Hall to Monticello had served as a kind of museum, containing maps, natural history specimens, European paintings and sculptures, and Native-made objects. Many of these latter objects had been sent eastward by Lewis and Clark in the early stages of their expedition, prompting the staff of Monticello to remount the hall and its Native collections for the 2002 Bicentennial. In 2012, I was hired because of my expertise and assigned the task of reexamining these collections with an eye toward expanding their presence within the overall narrative of Monticello.

Two of the most prominent Native-made objects in Jefferson’s original hall were a pair of male and female figures that Jefferson had received several years prior to Lewis and Clark’s shipments. The pair was described in the 1809 to 1815 inventory of Monticello: “12. & 15. Two busts of Indian figures male and female by Indians in hard stone. 18 I. high. They were dug up at a place called Palmyra, on the Tennissee.”2

Curiously, the figures had disappeared from the historical record with Jefferson’s death in 1826.3 For the 2002 reinstallation, Monticello commissioned sculptor Joel Queen, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to make a pair of contemporary figures in place of the originals. Today, this pair still flanks the central doors of the hall, welcoming tour visitors to Monticello (fig. 1).4

It came as quite a surprise, then, that during my internship I reidentified two stone heads that today sit in the hall display cases and are what remain of Jefferson’s original statues (fig. 2; seen at the far right of fig. 1).5 The two heads are nearly identical in height (10 3/4 in.) and close in weight (12 to 14 lbs.) and are made of a similar soapstone. They share incised eyes, carved ears, an angled neckline, a flattened back, and a single carved brow bone. The heads have sustained a high degree of damage, displaying major gashes and breakage with evidence of later re-carving and incising. The male head includes rough-hewn holes containing plaster in the back and base of the neck, while the mouth and nose of the female head are mutilated beyond recognition. A coat of black pigment has been applied to the female head, which, where worn thin, reveals flakes of red beneath.