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Isaac Granger Jefferson

Isaac Granger Jefferson (1775-c.1850) was an enslaved tinsmith and blacksmith at Monticello. His brief memoir, written down by an interviewer in 1847, provides important, fascinating information about Monticello and its people.1 Isaac was the third son of two very important members of the enslaved labor force at Monticello. His father, Great George, rose from foreman of labor to become, in 1797, overseer of Monticello — the only enslaved individual to reach that position, and received an annual wage of £20. Isaac's mother, Ursula, was a particularly trusted enslaved domestic servant whom Thomas Jefferson had purchased in 1773.2 Ursula was a pastry cook and laundress; her duties included the preservation of meat and bottling of cider.

IIsaac Granger Jeffersonsaac, thus, spent his childhood on the mountaintop near his mother and from a very young age, he would have performed light chores in and around the house. He himself speaks of lighting fires, carrying fuel, and opening gates.3 Because Ursula and Great George accompanied the Jefferson family to Williamsburg and Richmond when Jefferson was governor, Isaac was witness to dramatic events in the Revolution. In his reminiscences he recounted his vivid memories of 1781, including Benedict Arnold's raid on Richmond and the internment camp for captured slaves at Yorktown.4

Probably about 1790, Isaac began his training in the metalworking trades. Jefferson took him to Philadelphia, where he was apprenticed for several years to a tinsmith. His own account is the only source of our knowledge of this aspect of his working life. He learned to make graters and pepper boxes and finally tin cups, four dozen a day. A tin shop was set up at Monticello on his return, but he recalled that it did not succeed. Isaac also trained as a blacksmith under his older brother Little George and, sometime after 1794, he became a nailer as well, dividing his time between nailmaking and smith's work.5

By 1796, Isaac had a wife, Iris, and a son, Joyce. At this time he worked extra hours in the blacksmith shop, making chain traces for which Jefferson gave him threepence a pair. Also in 1796, according to Jefferson's records, Isaac was the most efficient nailer. In the first three months of that year he made 507 pounds of nails in 47 days, wasting the least amount of nail rod in the process and earning for his master the highest daily return — the equivalent of eighty-five cents a day.6

In October 1797, Jefferson gave Isaac and Iris, and their sons Squire and Joyce, to Maria and John Wayles Eppes as part of their marriage settlement.7 Thomas Mann Randolph was in need of a blacksmith at the time, so he hired Isaac from Eppes.8 Records are fragmentary and inconclusive on this point. Isaac and his family moved to Edgehill in 1798. A daughter, Maria, was apparently born soon after.9 As some of Isaac's memories indicate his presence at Monticello in Jefferson's retirement years, he may have accompanied the Randolphs to reside there in 1809.

Tragedy stuck in 1799 and 1800, when Isaac's parents and brother Little George all died within a few months of each other. The persistence of an African heritage at Monticello is indicated by the fact that, in their illness, the members of this family consulted a black conjurer living near Randolph Jefferson in Buckingham County.10 Shortly after Great George's death, Jefferson gave Isaac $11, the value of "his moiety of a colt left him by his father."11

In 1812 an Isaac belonging to Thomas Mann Randolph ran away and was caught and imprisoned in Bath County.12 We have as yet no way of knowing if this was Isaac the blacksmith. Randolph owned at least one other Isaac in this period.

How Isaac gained his freedom is also unknown. He reported that he left Albemarle County about four years before Thomas Jefferson's death. He met and talked with Lafayette in Richmond in 1824. In 1847, he was a free man in Petersburg, still practicing his blacksmithing trade at the age of seventy-two.13 His reminiscences, taken down by the Reverend Charles Campbell in that year, do not reveal whether he took the surname Jefferson by choice or whether it was imposed on him by a white official, as was the case with Israel Gillette Jefferson, his fellow member of the enslaved community.

The fates of Iris, Squire, and Joyce are unknown. Isaac had a wife, apparently not Iris, in 1847. Campbell wrote that Isaac Jefferson died "a few years after these his recollections were taken down. He bore a good character."14

Further Sources

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StatesManship's picture
If one reads Isaac Granger (Jefferson), it is clear NOT all work was done by negro slaves, as suggested by "so much of what happened on Jefferson's little mountain was only possible because of the work of slaves.". There are two Germans that Isaac mentions, certainly there were other white workers. Most significant is that in his draft for the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included criticism of the King promoting the slave trade, and on the VERY FIRST DAY POSSIBLE as provided by "this Constitution for the United States of America", Article I, Section 9, 1 January in the Year of Our Lord Jesus 1808, President Jefferson signed into law the abolition of the importation of slaves into the United States of America. Arguably, the other part of Article I, Section 9 was ignored, that being the "migration" of such persons. With the invention of the Cotton Gin, many slaves were "sold south" to where Cotton was King (King Cotton), a form of forced migration.
ksmeltzer's picture
I read Isaac Jefferson's interview from 1847 and found it so interesting to access a voice from the enslaved community at Monticello. I've since been interested in finding other first person narratives (or interviews) from those who had been enslaved--at Monticello and elsewhere. We're really lucky to have so much primary evidence about slave life at Monticello. I sometimes forget that so much of what happened on Jefferson's little mountain was only possible because of the work of slaves. It is easy for me in the present to judge slavery as an easy to discern evil--something that should never have happened, let alone continued so long. But the more research I do, the more I see how intertwined the institution of slavery was in the everyday life of many of the American people. Also I am learning how complicated an actual solution to ending slavery was, and the challenges freedom posed for formerly enslaved people.
Kristie Smeltzer


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