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Buying One's Children

One of the men making bids at the auction was local musician Jesse Scott, the son of an Indian woman and a white Virginian. He was the emissary of one branch of the Hemings family in an effort to mitigate a catastrophe.  Scott had married Sarah Jefferson Bell, daughter of Mary Hemings and Charlottesville merchant Thomas Bell, and thus had acquired a portion of Bell's property. Scott's mother-in-law, Mary Hemings Bell, had only one child remaining in slavery at Monticello, the blacksmith Joseph Fossett. Jefferson had bequeathed freedom to his skilled and industrious blacksmith, but Fossett's wife Edith and their seven children were separated into six lots and placed on the auction block.






While Fossett had spent much of his free time in his shop continuing to work to earn money, he could not have hoped to purchase his entire family, nor could he have been a bidder at the sale, since he was not entitled to his freedom until the following July. He did not stand by and wait, however.  It is clear that in the weeks before the sale, Joseph Fossett made strenuous efforts to find local men who would agree to purchase his family members, on the understanding that, as soon as he raised the money from his earnings as a blacksmith, he would buy them back. According to agreement, merchant John Winn bought fifteen-year-old  Ann-Elizabeth Fossett and John R. Jones bought Peter Fossett, age eleven. The purchaser of Fossett's wife, Edith, and their two youngest children was Jesse Scott. The sum Scott bid was $505, well above the $325 appraised value of the three slaves. A purchase of this magnitude was unquestionably dependent in part on the inheritance from Thomas Bell, but Jesse Scott's trip to Monticello mountain in 1827 also entangled his family in transactions that contributed to a partial loss of their patrimony. The debt to John Winn led to Winn's acquisition of a half-interest in the house and lots of Mary Hemings Bell and the Scotts and, in 1834, Winn's lawsuit forced a sale of much of their property. When Joseph Fossett had earned the funds to purchase his son Peter, John R. Jones refused to sell him.

Nevertheless, Joseph Fossett, with the help of his relatives, was eventually able to insure the security of most of his family members. At the time of the 1830 census, he headed a household containing five slaves: his wife and their four youngest children (two born since the 1827 sale).  He was compelled to keep his family in the safety of bondage because of an 1806 Virginia law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within a year.

Adapted from Lucia Stanton, "Monticello to Main Street: The Hemings Family and Charlottesville," Magazine of Albemarle County History 55 (1997), 94-126


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