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Jefferson's Slave

The story of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves is told through the talents of Dylan Pritchett at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
The story of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves is told through the talents of Dylan Pritchett at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

Dylan Pritchett moseys through the aisle, carrying a ragged straw hat in one hand and inviting everyone into conversation.

"My name's Lewis — good day," he says, landing on a wooden chair facing the audience.

"Been traveling for about three months to get here," he says.

Lewis' occupation is housejoiner — "a shaper or planer of wood."

"Any kind of old wood that needs to be put together — that's what I do," he says.

You see, Lewis is a slave — played by historical interpreter Dylan Pritchett — traveling from Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

His mission is to share stories about his master — Thomas Jefferson.

" 'Bout 100 slaves lived there — we built the house," Lewis says.

The slaves lived and worked on Mulberry Row, a path lined with mulberry trees located down the hill from Monticello on the "first roundabout," he says.

Since Jefferson believed everyone should have skills, the rules were this: boys between the ages of 10 and 14 learned blacksmithing and girls between the ages of 8 and 12 learned spinning and weaving.

Then there were the slaves who worked in the house — most noticeable were the slaves with the last name of Heming, he says.

Lewis' voice drops an octave, though he assures his audience this isn't gossip.

Martha Jefferson inherited her father's slaves when he died, which included the children he had fathered with a slave.

These children included Sally Hemings, who was Martha's half-sister. (Pritchett said researchers now say it's highly possible Jefferson fathered Sally's children.)

The interesting part of this, Lewis confides, is that most of Sally's ancestors were white.

"Some of ya'll is darker than they is," Lewis says, pointing to the audience members.

This fact brings a new wrinkle to the Jefferson and Hemings controversy, Pritchett said following his performance.

"We think ‘slave — she must be dark,' " he said.

After Lewis reveals a little about the slaves' life at Monticello, he rushes on to describe life under Thomas Jefferson, confiding the nature and quirks of the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States.

"He wanted to have three acres cleared out on the fourth roundabout so when Meriwether (Lewis) came back he could have buffalo to roam around," Lewis says, rolling his eyes and fanning his face with the straw hat.

Then he stops the hat's frenzied waving and looks at the audience, asking if anyone has ever seen "Master Jefferson."

"Red hair, 'bout as tall as I is and whistles a lot. When he plays his fiddle — uh, I mean violin — it sounds like cows bleeding or somethin'," Lewis chuckles.

"He practiced every day but didn't get any better."

Pritchett has studied Jefferson for years and created the character of Lewis in the late 1980s.

This week is his fifth appearance at NHOTIC, but the first time he has performed "Jefferson's Slave."

The program is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. on Monday and at noon on Tuesday.

Pritchett performs across the country, even taking his Lewis performance to Monticello where he wanders the grounds to share tales with visitors.

This character helps others understand life under Jefferson in the early 1800s, Pritchett said.

"People have no idea. They've used their 21st-century mind to process 19th-century history," he said.

Lewis takes listeners to the man behind the presidency and Declaration of Independence — a person who died penniless because he'd rather experiment with his 32 rows of tomatoes than capitalize on the crop, he said.

But was Jefferson a good master? Lewis asks the audience near the end of the program.

"I don't know what you mean by a good master," Lewis says. "All I can say is he's a good man with a strange mind."

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