“An affair of great uncertainty to us slaves”
Israel Jefferson recalls his boyhood and the effect of Thomas Jefferson’s death on Monticello’s African American families.
Dates: 1800–ca. 1879
Occupation: Household and personal servant; Postilion; Waiter; Farmer
Israel Gillette Jefferson, the son of Edward and Jane Gillette, worked as a boy in the Monticello house, the kitchen, and the textile shop. From age thirteen, he was also a postilion, riding one of the four horses that pulled Jefferson’s landau carriage. He was sold after Jefferson’s death to Thomas Walker Gilmer, who became Secretary of the Navy. The earnings of his second wife, a free seamstress, Elizabeth Farrow Randolph, helped him purchase his freedom from Gilmer.
At the suggestion of the clerk who wrote out his free papers in 1844, he adopted the surname Jefferson. He and his wife then moved to Ohio, where he first worked as a waiter on an Ohio River steamboat and then bought a farm in Pike County. The Jeffersons were active members of Eden Baptist Church, where Israel Jefferson was deacon and treasurer.
In 1873 Israel Jefferson’s recollections of his life at Monticello and in Ohio were published in a Pike County newspaper.
Israel Jefferson recalls his boyhood and the effect of Thomas Jefferson’s death on Monticello’s African American families.
“.… About the time Mr. Jefferson took his seat as President for the second term, I began the labors of life as a waiter at the family table, and till Mr. J. died was retained in Monticello and very near his person. When about ten years of age, I was employed as postillion. Mr. Jefferson rode in a splendid carriage drawn by four horses. He called the carriage the landau. It was a sort of double chaise. When the weather was pleasant the occupants could enjoy the open air; when it was rainy, they were protected from it by the closing of the covering, which fell back from the middle. It was splendidly ornamented with silver trimmings, and, taken altogether, was the nicest affair in those aristocratic regions. The harness was made in Paris, France, silver mounted, and quite in keeping with the elegant carriage. The horses were well matched, and of a bay color. I am now speaking of the years of my boyhood and early manhood. My brother Gilly, being older than I was, rode the near wheel horse, while I was mounted on the near leader. In course of time Mr. Jefferson rode less ostentatiously, and the leaders were left off. Then but one rider was needed. Sometimes brother Gilly acted as postillion; at other times I was employed. We were both retained about the person of our master as long as he lived. Mr. Jefferson died on the 4th day of July, 1826, when I was upwards of 29 years of age. His death was an affair of great moment and uncertainty to us slaves, for Mr. Jefferson provided for the freedom of 7 servants only: Sally, his chambermaid, who took the name of Hemmings, her four children—Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston—John Hemmings, brother to Sally, and Burrell Colburn, an old and faithful body servant. Madison Hemmings is now a resident of Ross county, Ohio, whose history you gave in the Republican of March 13, 1873. All the rest of us were sold from the auctioneer’s block, by order of Jefferson Randolph, his grandson and administrator. The sale took place in 1829, three years after Mr. Jefferson’s death.
I was purchased by Thomas Walker Gilmer, afterwards Governor of Virginia, and later, member of Congress from the district in which Monticello was situated. He was an attorney-at-law, and a most excellent gentleman.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)
Israel Jefferson speaks of the fate of his enslaved children and describes how he gained his freedom.
“During the interval of Mr. Jefferson’s death and the sale to Mr. Gilmer, I married Mary Ann Colter, a slave, by whom I had four children—Taliola, (a daughter) Banebo, (a son) Susan and John. As they were born slaves they took the usual course of most others in the same condition in life. I do not know where they now are, if living; but the last I heard of them they were in Florida and Virginia. My wife died, and while a servant of Mr. Gilmer, I married my present wife, widow Elizabeth Randolph, who was then mother to ten children. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Farrow. Her mother was a white woman named Martha Thacker. Consequently, Elizabeth, (my present wife) was free-born. She supposes that she was born about 1793 or ‘94. Of her ten children, only two are living—Julia, her first born, and wife of Charles Barnett, who lives on an adjoining farm, and Elizabeth, wife of Henry Lewis, who reside within one mile of us.
My wife and I have lived together about thirty-five years. We came to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we were again married in conformity to the laws of this State. At the time we were first married I was in bondage; my wife was free. When my first wife died I made up my mind I would never live with another slave woman. When Governor Gilmer was elected a representative in Congress, he desired to have me go on to Washington with him. But I demurred. I did not refuse, of course, but I laid before him my objections with such earnestness that he looked me in the face with his piercing eye, as if balancing in his mind whether to be soft or severed, and said,
‘Israel, you have served me well; you are a faithful servant; now what will you give me for your freedom?’
‘I reckon I give you what you paid years ago—$500,’ I replied.
‘How much will you give to bind the bargain?’ he asked.
‘Three hundred dollars,’ was my ready answer.
‘When will you pay the remainder?’
‘In one and two years.’
And on these terms the bargain concluded and I was, for the first time, my own man, and almost free, but not quite, for it was against the laws of Virginia for a freed slave to reside in the State beyond a year and a day. Nor were the colored people not in slavery free; they were nominally so. When I came to Ohio I considered myself wholly free, and not till then.
And here let me say, that my good master, Governor Gilmer, was killed by the explosion of the gun Peacemaker, on board the Princeton, in 1842 or 1843, and had I gone to Washington with him it would have been my duty to keep very close to his person, and probably I would have been killed also, as others were.
I was bought in the name of my wife. We remained in Virginia several years on sufferance. At last we made up our minds to leave the confines of slavery and emigrate to a free State. We went to Charlottesville Court House, in Albermarle county, for my free papers. When there, the clerk, Mr. Garrett, asked me what surname I would take. I hesitated, and he suggested that it should be Jefferson, because I was born at Monticello and had been a good and faithful servant to Thomas Jefferson. Besides, he said, it would give me more dignity to be called after so eminent a man. So I consented to adopt the surname of Jefferson, and have been known by it ever since.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)
Israel Jefferson describes his work in Ohio and his visit to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson after the Civil War.
“When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at ten dollars a month for the first month. From that time on I received $20, till I went on board a steamboat, where I got higher wages still. In time, I found myself in receipt of $50 per month, regularly, and sometimes even more. I resided in Cincinnati about fourteen years, and from thence came on to the farm I am now on, in Pebble township, on Brushy Fork of Pee Pee creek. Have been here about sixteen years.
“Since my residence in Ohio I have several times visited Monticello. My last visit was in the fall of 1866. Near there I found the same Jefferson Randolph, whose service as administrator I left more than forty years ago, at Monticello. He had grown old, and was outwardly surrounded by the evidences of former ease and opulence gone to decay. He was in poverty. He had lost, he told me, $80,000 in money by joining the South in rebellion against the government. Except his real estate, the rebellion stripped him of everything, save one old, blind mule. He said that if he had taken the advice of his sister, Mrs. Cooleridge [Ellen Coolidge], gone to New York, and remained there during the war, he could have saved the bulk of his property. But he was a rebel at heart, and chose to go with his people. Consequently, he was served as others had been—he had lost all his servants and nearly all his personal property of every kind. I went back to Virginia to find the proud and haughty Randolph in poverty, at Edge Hill, within four miles of Monticello, where he was bred and born. Indeed, I then realized, more than ever before, the great changes which time brings about in the affairs and circumstances of life.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)
Israel Jefferson remembers the Marquis de Lafayette’s remarks about slavery and slave education.
“Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a laborer would not permit me to acquire much of an education. But such as I possess I am truly thankful for, and consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom.
The private life of Thomas Jefferson, from my earliest remembrance, in 1804, till the day of his death, was very familiar to me. For fourteen years I made the fire in his bedroom and private chamber, cleaned his office, dusted his books, ran of errands, and attended him about home. He used to ride out to his plantations almost every fair day, when at home, but unlike most other Southern gentlemen in similar circumstances, unaccompanied by any servant. Frequently gentlemen would call upon him on business of great importance, whom I used to usher into his presence, and sometimes I would be employed in burnishing or doing some other work in the room where they were. On such occasions I used to remain; otherwise I retired and left the gentlemen to confer together alone. In those times I minded but little concerning the conversations which took place between Mr. Jefferson and his visitors. But I well recollect a conversation he had with the great and good Lafayette, when he visited this country in 1824 and 1825, as it was of personal interest to me and mine. General Lafayette and his son George Washington, remained with Mr. Jefferson six weeks, and almost every day I took them out to a drive.
On the occasion I am now about to speak of, Gen. Lafayette and George were seated in the carriage with him. The conversation turned upon the condition of the colored people—the slaves. Lafayette spoke English indifferently; sometimes I could scarcely understand him. But on this occasion my ears were eagerly taking in every sound that proceeded from the venerable patriot’s mouth.
Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightfully hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle—the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage, (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be unusually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived. To the latter proposition of Gen. Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented. He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation.
This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)
Israel Jefferson speaks of Madison Hemings as the son of Thomas Jefferson.
“I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello, that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife, on her death bed, that he would not again marry. I also know that his servant, Sally Hemmings, (mother to my old friend and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemmings,) was employed as his chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine. This I know from my intimacy with both parties, and when Madison Hemmings declares that he is a natural son of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that his brothers Beverly and Eston and sister Harriet are of the same parentage, I can as conscientiously confirm his statement as any other fact which I believe from circumstances but do not positively know.
I think that Mr. Jefferson was 84 years of age when he died. He was hardly ever sick, and till within two weeks of his death he walked erect without a staff or cane. He moved with the seeming alertness and sprightliness of youth.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)