The story of David Isaacs, Nancy West, and their family is one that brings together aspects of Virginia’s Jewish history, Black history, and the history of Monticello. Learn more about the challenges of interracial relationships and how this family navigated the color line and the laws that restricted them.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new. 

Olivia Brown: How did an Orthodox Jewish merchant from Germany and a free woman of color from Charlottesville navigate their lives on opposite sides of the color line? How does the story of one family span Virginia's Jewish history, Black history, and the history of Monticello? Today, we find out through the incredible story of David Isaacs, Nancy West, and their family. 

David Isaacs was a prominent merchant in Charlottesville, and he and his family became connected over the years with many people who called Monticello home. Isaacs was Jewish and he and his brother Isaiah emigrated from Germany to Richmond, where they helped found the first synagogue in Virginia, before moving to Charlottesville in the 1790s. At his shop, located on Charlottesville's Main Street, David Isaacs sold goods to many people, including Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, he sold food products to Jefferson, like meat, fish, butter, and cheese, but records also indicate that Isaacs alos sold Jefferson hops, a horse named Tecumseh, and a number of books. Jefferson, who drafted Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777, received books and information from Isaacs about Judaism, including a pamphlet translated from Hebrew called, "Elements of the Jewish Faith."

When David Isaacs first moved to Charlottesville, he and his brother lived on property rented from Thomas West, and just before West's death in 1796, David Isaacs was among the witnesses to his will. Isaacs fell in love with West's daughter Nancy, born to a white father and a formerly enslaved woman named Priscilla. Despite the law forbidding their relationship, Isaacs and West would live as husband and wife, had seven children together, and held a familial relationship for over forty years. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia as far back as 1691 and sexual relationships outside of marriage were punishable by law as well. Eventually, Isaacs and West found themselves in court in 1822, defending their rights to live together and have their family. While they ultimately evaded any criminal charges against them, their lives were tenuous at best, constantly seeking a stability and security that many aimed to take away from them. The court cases and proceedings took five years and went from the Albemarle County Court all the way to the General Court of Richmond. Eventually, all charges were dismissed in 1827, but this was not the last time Isaacs and West would be found in a courtroom. 

Interracial relationships were extremely difficult and for the first twenty years of their relationship, it seems as though David Isaacs and Nancy West were living in different homes, possibly to uphold appearances within their community. West was listed as her own head of household in the 1810 census, with four of her children, who were also recorded as free people of color, living with her. By 1820, this changed. David Isaacs was listed as the head of household with ten free people of color - including Nancy West and their seven children - living in his home on West Main Street. It's likely that this shift may have been what caused members of Charlottesville's white community to bring Isaacs and West to court. Historian Joshua D. Rothman wrote, "Throughout the early national and antebellum periods, interracial sexual activity, especially between slave owner and his female property but also between free people, could generally be tolerated so long as certain proprieties were observed, one of which was never to flaunt such relationships as if they were legitimate."

 Luckily for Isaacs and West, the presentments brought against them in court were contradictory, and the court failed to actually charge them with violating a specific statute. On the one hand, the presentments to the court were citing their violation of interracial marriage laws as they were living as man and wife. On the other hand, however, the presentments also cited their violation of anti-fornication laws against people who were not married. Both of these could not be true simultaneously, and eventually the court did not charge Isaacs or West with any crime. But that took five years of court cases to figure it out.

 Not six months later, Isaacs and West were back in court dealing with an entirely different problem. David Isaacs' nephew Hays Isaacs was being sued by a number of local creditors to whom he owed money. David Isaacs, who had been the executor of his brother Isaiah's will, received all of Hays' portions of the estate when they were signed over to him after Hays turned twenty-one. The members of the Charlottesville community suing Hays were jointly suing David Isaacs for payments as well, claiming he did not properly handle his brother's will or Hays' inheritance. These court proceedings were long, arduous, and complicated. People argued during this time that David Isaacs had a conflict of interest, and in trying to circumvent the problem, sold property to Nancy West so that it was not technically his. Due to the convoluted nature of the debt and property laws, the court eventually ruled against David Isaacs, finding that he still owed his nephew Hays a portion of Isaiah's estate. 

Though David Isaacs and Nancy West were not legally married, West owned significant property in the burgeoning town of Charlottesville. Her estate was estimated around $7,000 in value, making her the richest non-white person in Albemarle County at the time. This perhaps made her a target among certain members of the Charlottesville white community, but ultimately, it also helped her provide some sense of economic security for David Isaacs as he became responsible for Hays Isaacs debts and inheritance. Nancy West posted the money for David Isaacs to appeal the case, making her financially responsible should the appeal fail. This issue would not resolve during David Isaacs lifetime, and Nancy West spent nearly another twenty years in and out of the legal system fighting these battles. 

 In her own right, Nancy West's accomplishments are extremely significant. She was the matriarch of what became one of Charlottesville's most prominent free black families. While it is likely true that she was afforded opportunities to purchase property because of her relationship with her husband David Isaacs, who owned property and had family ties in many areas around the city, West eventually owned at least four lots of land in the heart of Charlottesville's downtown. Following David Isaacs' death in 1837, Nancy West sought to pass much of this property on to their children, thus securing a future for them by way of property ownership and a place to call home. Jane Isaacs West, who eventually married her cousin Nathaniel West, was the oldest of the Isaacs children, and contributed a second income in her mother's home as a milliner. Not much is known about three of David Isaacs' and Nancy West's children - sons Thomas, Hays, and Frederick - but the other three children all eventually moved to the free state of Ohio where their mother would join them.

Tucker Isaacs, the fourth child of Nancy West and David Isaacs, married a woman whose family had been enslaved at Monticello. Sometime around 1848 is when Tucker Isaacs and Ann-Elizabeth Fossett officially filed for marriage papers in Ohio, but they had been living as a couple at least since 1837 when Ann-Elizabeth was manumitted through her father's efforts to purchase freedom for his wife and children. Her father, Joseph Fossett, was freed in Thomas Jefferson's will and spent ten years working toward freedom for his wife, Edith Hern, and their eight children who remained enslaved. Ann-Elizabeth Fossett, like her mother and siblings, was also subject to the increasingly strict laws in the state of Virginia surrounding enslaved people who gained their freedom. Because she did not have a special dispensation from the Virginia legislature, she and her family had only one year to remain in the state after legal manumission. Most of the Fossett family, including Ann-Elizabeth and her husband Tucker Isaacs, then moved to Ohio and were recorded living in freedom around Cincinnati by 1840. The home of Tucker Isaacs and Ann-Elizabeth Fossett was a known stop on the Underground Railroad. The couple helped enslaved people from the South escape the life that Fossett's family had known for all too long. 

Julia Ann Isaacs, the couple's sixth child, was actually the first to leave Virginia. It's unclear when or how Julia Ann Isaacs met Eston Hemings, the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Eston Hemings was among the five people freed in Thomas Jefferson's will, and he and Julia Ann Isaacs married in 1832, moving into a home on Main Street that had been owned by Nancy West. Living in the home with them were Eston Hemings' mother, Sally Hemings, and likely his brother Madison, who had also received his freedom in their father's will. When Sally Hemings died in 1835, Madison Hemings moved to Chillicothe, Ohio. His brother Eston and sister-in-law Julia Ann moved to Chillicothe sometime soon thereafter. By the 1840s, restrictive laws in Virginia stripped even free people of color the right to return if they had already left the state. So Julia Ann would not have been able to return to Charlottesville to see her aging mother by that point in time. 

In the early 1850s, the youngest of the Isaacs children, Agness Isaacs, also left the state of Virginia for Ohio with her husband Jerman Evans, a free man of color from Charlottesville. With many years of court woes behind her and three children who had moved away, Nancy West chose to finally leave Charlottesville in 1850 for Chillicothe, Ohio. She lived out her remaining six years in a state where she could more freely travel to see her children, and when she died in 1856, she left her property in Chillicothe to her daughter Agness.

The lives of David Isaacs and Nancy West weave a story through the history of Charlottesville and Monticello that shows how complicated life could be for an interracial couple. They purchased property, owned shops and sold goods, and amassed capital individually and as a couple throughout their lives. They were two parents who constantly sought to secure a future for their children and to pass on their own financial success. They were, ultimately though, a husband and a wife who were never able to file legally as a married couple, who lived at times in separate homes, and who had to go to court to defend every right that should have been inherently theirs. Though these were their realities, they also navigated the color line in a way that gave them a portion of the freedoms they hoped for, and they were able to circumvent racist laws that aim to take rights away from them. In the case of Isaacs and West, love between two people, regardless of race, regardless of background, transcended the laws of their time.

 This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at 

Tucker Isaacs

Read more about Tucker Isaacs and his family in the Getting Word African American Oral History Project.

A Plan of the Town of Charlottesville by William Woods, 1818, courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


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