The Birds of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden

Did Whip-poor-wills arrive with strawberries and peas? Thomas Jefferson thought so.

There was — and still is — an extensive garden on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The gardens and their innovations are often celebrated as living legacies of the man himself. Of course, the truth is far more complex. African and African-American slaves constructed the gardens, worked them, and maintained their own at Monticello. For his part, Jefferson maintained detailed records of the plants grown in the garden. As can be seen in a letter he wrote to his daughter Maria in June 1790, he also kept records of the signs surrounding his plants. Some of these signs involved birds, including Whip-poor-wills.

We had not peas nor strawberries here till the 8th. day of this month. On the same day I heard the first Whip-poor-will whistle. Swallows and martins appeared here on the 21st. of April. When did they appear with you? And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia? Take notice hereafter whether the whip-poor-wills always come with the strawberries and peas. 

As the letter was written in June (likely from Pennsylvania, where he lived in 1790), it would seem Jefferson heard his first Whip-poor-will rather late that year. (A half century later, Thoreau recorded calling Whip-poor-wills in Massachusetts in the first week of May.) One wonders if Jefferson wasn’t much of a birder — or if perhaps the ripening of strawberries and peas brought him outdoors, sharpened his senses, and caused him to start taking notice of the other signs of the season around him.

Maria, for her part, was too busy to note the Whip-poor-wills. In her reply to her father, she wrote,

As for the martins swallows and whippoorwills I was so taken up with my chickens that I never attended to them and therefore cannot tell you when they came…

Martin photographed by Miki Jourdan

It seems that Maria was too busy for many things. Several of Thomas’s letters of the time admonished Maria for her lack of responses. For every two or three or four letters Thomas write, Maria might offer a single one in return. The future president never missed an opportunity to remind Maria of this. He opened his June letter with these cringe-inducing words.

I have recieved your letter of May 23. which was in answer to mine of May 2. but I wrote you also on the 23d. of May, so that you still owe me an answer to that, which I hope is now on the road. In matters of correspondence as well as of money you must never be in debt.

Featured Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy