Monticello's Enslaved Community and the Underground Railroad
Members of Monticello’s enslaved community were constantly fighting for freedom. Learn more about how they were involved in the Underground Railroad and attempts at helping others reach freedom in the northern states.
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: "I wrote her a free pass, sent her to Boston, and made an attempt to gain my own freedom." These were words dictated by Peter Fossett to a journalist for the New York World newspaper in 1898. Fossett was born enslaved at Monticello in 1815, but spent his whole life fighting for freedom. Freedom for himself and freedom for others.
Some historians estimate that as many as 100,000 enslaved people escaped and found freedom through the Underground Railroad. Starting in the late-18th century, free people in both Black and white communities created networks for enslaved people in the South to make their way to free states. Through safehouses, treacherous routes, and specialized codes, the Underground Railroad helped many people get out of the system of forced labor that oppressed them. While we do not know if any enslaved people from Monticello successfully escaped through the Underground Railroad, we do know that formerly enslaved people from Monticello worked on the other side, aiding and assisting others who sought that freedom for themselves.
In 1826, when Thomas Jefferson died, only five people received freedom in his will. Two of his own sons, Madison and Eston Hemings, whose freedom was negotiated by their mother, Sally Hemings; Monticello's Head Joiner John Hemmings; Head Butler Burwell Colbert; and Head Blacksmith Joseph Fossett. Each of these men, though they received their freedom, watched as members of their families were sold and separated by the auction block at dispersal sales in 1827 and 1829. Joseph Fossett's son, Peter, recalled in his later memoir about that date, July 4, 1826. He said, "Sorrow came not only to the homes of two great men who had been such fast friends in life as Jefferson and Adams, but to the slaves of Thomas Jefferson."
Over the course of ten years, Joseph Fossett worked to purchase freedom for members of his family: his wife Edith, five children, and four grandchildren. Those he was able to free moved to Cincinnati, Ohio by 1840. Joseph and Edith Fossett's son Peter was not among them. It perhaps would not be a surprise that later in life Peter Fossett was involved in the Underground Railroad. Learning to read and write from a young age, initially being taught by one of Thomas Jefferson's grandsons and later on his own, Fossett used any ounce of his own power to help others. The man who purchased Peter Fossett at the 1827 dispersal sale, Colonel John R. Jones, originally agreed to sell Peter Fossett back to his father Joseph when Joseph had the money. When that day came in 1833, Jones, however, went back on the agreement. Peter Fossett later explained that John Jones and his wife refused the sale.
"They had become very attached to me, and then I was a very valuable servant, notwithstanding that all the time I was teaching all the people around me to read and write, and even venturing to write free passes and sending slaves away from their masters. Of course they did not know this, or they would not have thought me so valuable."
Peter Fossett wasn't the only member of his family left in slavery when the rest of the Fossetts moved to Ohio. His sister Isabel, also still enslaved, eventually found freedom in Boston. She was able to escape using a free pass forged by her brother. Peter Fossett attempted his own escape twice failing both times, though he said he would, "get free or die in the attempt." After a second escape attempt, he was arrested and jailed in Richmond. This was when Jones put him on the auction block again, where he was "sold like a horse." Those who purchased Peter Fossett that day in 1850 did so to secure his freedom. They sent him to Ohio where he was reunited with his family.
In Cincinnati, Peter Fossett joined Union Baptist Church, a church that had been founded in 1831 and had always opposed the institution of slavery. It was the first African American church in Cincinnati and famous abolitionists gave speeches there, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. It was possibly at Union Baptist where Peter Fossett first encountered the Underground Railroad, as the church had functioned as a sanctuary for those looking to escape enslavement in the South. Peter Fossett was later a founder of another church, First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, where he served as a reverend for over 30 years. Fossett himself worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at some point in the 1850s, he and his wife, Sarah Mayrant Fossett, met and worked with Levi Coffin, a prominent Quaker abolitionist and leader in the Underground Railroad network. Peter Fossett was not the only member of his family involved in helping others get to freedom though.
Prior to Peter Fossett's arrival in Cincinnati, other members of the Fossett family arrived in Ohio as well. When Joseph Fossett purchased freedom for some members of his family, it included his daughter Ann-Elizabeth. Ann-Elizabeth Fossett married Tucker Isaacs, who was the son of a Jewish merchant and a free woman of color. Fossett and Isaacs also moved to Ohio and kept up the fight for other members of the Fossett family. It's believed that Peter Fossett's second escape attempt was with papers forged for him by his brother-in-law Tucker Isaacs. The Albemarle County minute books for February 1850 recorded that Tucker Isaacs was arrested for "falsly, wilfully and feloniously forging and counterfeiting a certain register of freedom" for an enslaved man named Peter, property of John R. Jones. After learning that Fossett was literate and had the ability to forge papers himself, it's possible they believed that he made his own papers, so Isaacs wasn't kept in jail. While Isaacs was released from jail the next day, Fossett was placed on the auction block by his owner.
Ann-Elizabeth Fossett and Tucker Isaacs had been back in Charlottesville where members of the Isaacs family still lived, but in 1850 they too officially moved to Ohio. They settled in Ross County, Ohio and purchased a 158-acre farm. The home they had on the farm was known as a safehouse on the Underground Railroad, and historian Lucia Stanton writes, "Stories are still told in Ross County about the light shining from their farmhouse as a beacon to fugitive slaves."
The town closest to the Fossett-Isaacs home was no stranger to the Underground Railroad either. It was also well known to those who were formerly enslaved at Monticello. In the town of Chillicothe, Ohio, formerly enslaved people like Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette settled in freedom. Both Hemings and Gillette belonged to Eden Baptist Church, Gillette even served as a deacon there. The church itself was established on anti-slavery principles and a number of its members worked with the Underground Railroad as conductors and station keepers. We don't know if Hemings or Gillette were among those who worked directly with helping others escape slavery, but it is likely that they were part of a community that did.
Throughout the South, but especially in places like Virginia that had closer access to the free states of the North, enslaved people worked with free communities of color and white abolitionists to circumvent the system of slavery. Those enslaved at Monticello were among the many brave men and women who never stopped fighting. People like Peter Fossett, Ann-Elizabeth Fossett, and even perhaps Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette, knew the price they paid for freedom was something they wanted to help others achieve as well.
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 Monticello.org.