Slavery at Monticello

Snippet from Lucia Stanton’s book, Slavery at Monticello:

On January 15, 1827, Monticello blacksmith Joseph Fossett may have left his anvil to watch the bidding begin. His wife Edith and their eight children were among the “130 valuable negroes” offered in the executor’s sale of the state of  Thomas Jefferson. “The negroes are believed to the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the State of Virginia,” declared the advertisement placed by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson and executor. Despite bitterly cold weather, a large crowd assembled for the five-day sale, and bidding was brisk. Surprising sums were paid for faded prints and old-fashioned table, while the slaves brought prices averaging 70 percent more than their appraised values.

By the terms of Jefferson’s will, Fossett would become a free man in July. Now, his wife, two infant sons, and two teenaged daughters were sold to three different bidders for a total of $1,350. “Thank heaven the whole of this dreadful business is over,” wrote Jefferson’s granddaughter on January 25, “and has been attended with as few distressing occurrences as the case would admit.” Her brother remembered that week over forty years later as “a sad scene” and likened it to “a captured village in ancient times when all were sold as slaves.”

The monumental debt kept in check by Jefferson’s presence overwhelmed all the residents of Monticello, both black and white. In the three years after his death the black families were dispersed by sale and the while family left the mountaintop and put the house on the market. The plantation “family” that Jefferson had nurtured and controlled for sixty years was no more. In the end, he had abandoned his “children.”

. . . Joseph Fossett joined this family in November 1780, born to Mary Hemings (b. 1753) and an unknown father. She was the oldest child of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (c1735-1807), who, with her ten children, became Jefferson’s property on January 14, 1774, on the division of the estate of his father-in-law John Wayles. On that date Jefferson acquired 135 slaves who, added to the 52 slaves derived from his inheritance from his father, made him the second largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. Thereafter, the number of slaves he owned fluctuated above and below the figure of two-hundred–with increases through births offset by the periodic slaves that were part of an attempt to pay off the almost 4,000 pound debt that accompanied the Wayles inheritance. Between 1784 and 1794, Jefferson disposed of 161 people by sale or gift.


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