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Joseph Fossett (1780-1858) was the son of Mary Hemings, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings. Though some of Fossett's descendants ascribe paternity to Thomas Jefferson, Joseph's surname suggests an alternative parentage. During the years immediately preceding Joseph's birth, a white carpenter named William Fosset was employed at Monticello.1
Between the ages of twelve and sixteen, Joseph Fossett worked both in the Monticello nailery and in the main house, where he hauled wood, made fires, and waited at table. On turning sixteen, Fossett was issued overalls instead of a house servant's clothing and began training as a blacksmith. He learned first from George Granger and then from William Stewart.
In 1807, Fossett became foreman of the Monticello blacksmith shop. "Joe Fossett made the iron-work; he could do any thing it was necessary to do with steel or iron," remembered overseer Edmund Bacon.2
Fossett was one of only five enslaved persons freed by Jefferson in his will. He was later able to purchase the freedom of his wife and some of his eight children and move with them to Ohio in about 1840.
Primary Source References
1800 February 17. (Jefferson to Richard Richardson). "I think it will be best to put Joe to the anvil: as I have no doubt he will make the best smith."3
1806 July 31. (Jefferson to Joseph Dougherty). "mr Perry ... comes in pursuit of a young mulatto man, called Joe, 26. years of age, who ran away from here the night of the 29th. inst. without the least word of difference with any body, & indeed having never in his life recieved a blow from any one. he has been about 12. years working at the blacksmith’s trade. we know he has taken the road towards Washington, & probably will be there before the bearer. he may possibly trump up some story to be taken care of at the President’s house till he can make up his mind which way to go; or perhaps he may make himself know to Edy only, as he was formerly connected with her. I must beg of you to use all possible diligence in searching for him in Washington & George town, and if you can find him, have aid with you to take him as he is strong & resolute; & have him delivered to mr Perry."4
- Landscape of Slavery, Mulberry Row at Monticello, Joseph Fossett.
- Getting Word, African American Families of Monticello, Joseph Fossett.
- 1. MB, 1:390, 1:390n63 (transcription available at Founders Online); 1:483, 1:486 (transcription available at Founders Online).
- 2. Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 109.
- 3. PTJ, 31:384. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 4. Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.