Discovering More About the Fossett Family

Peter Fossett

Because of striking achievements or recorded recollections, one member of a historic family often shines so brightly that his brothers and sisters are left in the shadows. This is the case with Peter Fossett (1815-1901), whose story—so full of adventures and accomplishments—has captured the imagination of many of our guides and visitors. Here we can cast a bit of light on some of his overlooked siblings.

Seven of the children of Monticello's head blacksmith Joseph Fossett and his wife, Edith, chief cook, were sold at the estate sale after Jefferson's death in 1827. Through his own efforts and with the financial help of free family members, Fossett was able buy his wife and three of their children out of slavery, including their two youngest sons, William and Daniel.

About 1840 the Fossetts moved from Charlottesville to Cincinnati, Ohio, with William and Daniel and children born in the interim, Lucy and Jesse.  Fossett purchased a house and pursued his blacksmithing trade, assisted by his three sons as they became old enough.  Despite our research visits to Cincinnati, we lost the trail of these sons.  All we knew of William Fossett (1821-1901)--from a 1954 article in Ebony--was that he had married an "Indian woman."  Then we were contacted by Vicki S. Welch, a professional genealogist in Connecticut specializing in Native and African-American lineages.  She had found the Getting Word project while researching the family of Fossett's wife and generously shared what she had learned about him, including his obituary.William Fossett's wife, Dorothy Condol, was indeed a mostly Native-American woman, from the Niantic and Narragansett tribes of New England.  They had met and married in upstate New York, where Fossett was pursuing a new occupation.  As his obituary stated:  "He came to Cincinnati and worked in the blacksmith shop with his father.  He later worked as a caterer with his brother, Peter Fossett, until he was given charge of the service at a hotel at Niagara Falls.  He held this position for  a number of years,  and then returned to Cincinnati and entered into the catering business for himself."  As one 1926 account said of both Fossett establishments, "royal were the receptions and banquets they served." William Fossett's firm catered dinner for 15,000 at the opening of the Southern Railway.  After his death in 1901, his business was carried on by his daughter Edith and her husband, John Miller.

William Fossett's concern for racial justice paralleled that of his wife's family as well as his more famous brother.  The Condols were avid abolitionists, acting as subscription agents for Frederick Douglass's newspapers and playing an active role in the Underground Railroad, in which both Peter and William Fossett were also involved: "Many and many a time he [William] hid a fugitive in some secret corner until he could take him on to Levi Coffin or have him forwarded to John Van Zandt's station."

Jesse Fossett (1830-1900), fifteen years younger than his brother Peter, carried on his father's blacksmithing trade for many years.  He also held a series of appointments in city government offices and in 1885, when he was "turnkey" at Central Police Station, he was featured in an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer.  He and his wife, Sarah, had nine children. A school board member and strong churchman, Jesse Fossett was clearly the most boldly political of the Fossetts and became the leading black Democrat in Ohio, after leaving the Republican party.  His obituary in 1900 referred to this "remarkable man" as "a power among his own people."

The three brothers, none of whose descendants have yet been located, all died in the same twelve-month period.

For years all we knew of Isabella Fossett was that her brother Peter forged free papers so she could escape to Boston. Eventually, census records revealed that she had joined her family in Cincinnati by 1860. Again, it was Vicki Welch who helped to locate Isabella Fossett's descendants in California. Through them, we learned of her granddaughter Pauline Powell Burns (left), an accomplished artist, musician, and music teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.

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