When Richard Waller, executive director of University of Richmond Museums, heard that a desk once owned by Thomas Jefferson was returning to the University after a fifty year period on loan at Monticello, one of the only records of the desks' provenance—the record of its owners— was a book titled Furniture of Our Forefathers. From this single source, senior Kate Wiley, a curatorial assistant with UR Museums, was able to trace the desk's provenance back to the dispersal sale of Jefferson's estate in 1827.  

Furniture of Our Forefathers noted the first two owners of the desk: Governor George Rockingham Gilmer of Georgia bought the desk from the dispersal sale, and Colonel John Russell Jones, the original second bidder, waited until Governor Gilmer's passing to buy the desk at his estate sale in 1859. In 1901, the date of the book's publication, Ella Marshall Thomas owned the Thomas Jefferson desk. 

Wiley said she discovered that Ella’s grandfather was James Thomas Jr., a prominent tobacco merchant who funded UR's reopening after it went bankrupt on Confederate bonds. In fact, the first UR museum in downtown Richmond was dedicated to him. Upon James Thomas Jr.’s death, he set up a professorship for the university, and his son and Ella Thomas’ father, William Dandridge Thomas, became the first philosophy professor who was funded by it. Before becoming a philosophy professor, William Dandridge Thomas was a longtime trustee of the university and then he resigned his post when he became a professor.  

Furniture of our Forefathers also stated that the desk descended to Ella Marshall Thomas from Colonel John Russell Jones—the last link that was needed to establish the full provenance. Through the Virginia Baptist Historical Society's Thomas Family Papers Collection, Wiley was able to access a handwritten letter that William A. Dandridge had sent Colonel John Russell Jones asking for his daughter's hand in marriage. Ella's mother had presumably inherited the desk from her father and then left it to her daughter.  

Ella Marshall Thomas died in 1929 and left her entire estate to her sister, Mary Wortham Thomas, in life and upon her death, to be split between the University of Richmond and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1950, Mary Wortham Thomas passed and the desk came into the University of Richmond's possession. 

After the desk was at UR for approximately 14 years, it was then sent to Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home, for 50 years on loan. 

The desk was owned by UR for approximately 14 years when Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home, approached the University to ask to loan the desk to them. Given that Jefferson's entire estate was broken up in the estate sale, the historical home needed to source the furniture that had once belonged in the home.  

Waller said the interesting part was that UR did not know the desk was on loan. 

“We didn’t have the records. They let us know,” Waller said. “Jefferson’s house is interesting because there is no documentation of where things were placed, there wasn’t any record of ‘this was the living room, the sofa was here and the desk was here,’ that kind of thing. They were just conjecturing some of it... so they had used [the desk] in the bedroom or guestroom and at that point in 1964, they had a lot of things on loan to make it feel like it was lived in. And so, they were thrilled to get the desk to use.” 

Dean Patrice Rankine also saw the desk and said it was amazing to see a piece of American history on display at the museum. 

“UR Museums enhance academic life on campus, deepening in-classroom learning and extending artifacts and artistic perspectives across campus – and indeed across the city of Richmond,” Rankine said. “At a time when the campus is exploring our role in the desecration of the remains of enslaved Africans, the artifact from slaveholder Thomas Jefferson is a nearly-sacred object that should give us purpose for pause and reflection.” 

Jefferson’s desk will be on display in the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature.

If you would like to learn more information about Jefferson’s desk and University Museums, please contact as@richmond.edu or visit the Center for Civic Engagement and University Museums.