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October 24, 2019 / Joanne Yeck

A Jefferson Mystery

Bleak Hill, “Peter Jefferson Farm.”

Photo by Francis Benjamin Johnston. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Earlier this year, Scottsville Museum received a request to help solve the mystery concerning a series of four photographs taken c. 1933 by Francis Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) and labeled “’Peter Jefferson Farm.”  The images captured a dwelling house and out buildings in significant disrepair, located in Albemarle County.

During the 1930s, Frances Benjamin Johnston traveled the American South documenting historic structures, many of which were on the verge of collapse. Some of her photographs can be viewed online at the Library of Congress: Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection.

Initially, the researcher thought the structures might be located at Shadwell, the plantation owned and developed by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson. This was not the case. Could they have been owned by Randolph Jefferson’s son, Peter Field Jefferson? They did not match his home at Mount Walla, which was occupied by his descendants through the 1930s. Could they be another Peter Field Jefferson property?

Connie Geary, webmaster for Scottsville Museum, went to work on the mystery, consulting my book, Peter Field Jefferson: Dark Prince of Scottsville & Lost Jeffersons. Fortunately, in 1937, R. E. Hannum documented Bleak Hill, a property Peter Field Jefferson purchased in 1857, providing a residence for his son, also named Peter Field Jefferson. Hannum’s survey for the Virginia Historical Inventory, included a photograph and can be viewed online at the Library of Virginia.

Bingo!  Hannum’s photograph matched the images of “Peter Jefferson Farm.” Connie had solved the mystery.

One wonders why Frances Benjamin Johnston chose to photograph Bleak Hill.  It may have been the connection to the Jefferson family, despite its obscurity compared to Monticello or even Mount Walla. Perhaps, she was drawn to its vernacular style.  Its relative humbleness made it representative of many 19th century dwellings that had already vanished and were quickly fading from the Virginia landscape.

Whatever Johnston’s motivation, we’re glad that she took time to document Bleak Hill and that Connie Geary shared her findings with Slate River Ramblings.


In my book, “At a Place Called Buckingham, Volume Two,” I included a gallery of Johnston’s striking Buckingham County images.

To learn more about life at Bleak Hill, consult Peter Field Jefferson: Dark Prince of Scottsville & Lost Jeffersons.

Scottsville Museum’s website is packed with wonderful local history and images.

Click here to explore: Scottsville Museum.


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