After Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826, the indebtedness of his estate compelled his executors to sell his books and furniture, house and land, and the people he had considered his property. At auction sales in 1827 and 1829, 130 men, women, and children were sold away from their home and families. Children as young as nine were sold separately from their parents. Although Jefferson’s granddaughter reported that only one slave was sold outside Virginia, even those who had new masters in Albemarle or adjacent counties could not count on remaining near their relatives.
In the forty years until Emancipation, most of Monticello’s African Americans remained in slavery, and many lived close to Monticello. Others left, either involuntarily or by choice. A stream of Virginians was moving westward to new pastures, taking their enslaved property with them. We probably know of only a fraction of them. William Smith was taken to Kentucky, Wormley Hughes’s daughters to Missouri and Mississippi, Martha Ann Colbert to Arkansas Territory, and Susan Scott to northern Alabama.
Seven people (all Hemings family members) were freed by the terms of Jefferson’s will or received unofficial freedom from his heirs. Others, among them Israel Gillette Jefferson and the children of Joseph Fossett, obtained their freedom by purchase. Almost all of these free people left the land of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s for the free state of Ohio. The Fossetts and Israel Jefferson chose to settle in Cincinnati, the nation’s largest inland metropolis, while Madison and Eston Hemings went to more rural Ross and Pike counties, where many free people of color from central Virginia had already settled.
At least two people made courageous gambles for freedom. Isabella Fossett ran away successfully to Boston, but Brown Colbert had to travel to a new continent with a dangerous climate to become a free man.
In 1833 Brown Colbert made the courageous decision to become free, even though that meant leaving Virginia. He and part of his family sailed to Liberia on the west coast of Africa, only to die tragically within weeks of their arrival.