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Edith Hern Fossett
Edith Hern Fossett (1787-1854), learned French cookery at the President's House in Washington, D.C., and served as the enslaved chief cook at Monticello during the period of Thomas Jefferson's retirement. Daniel Webster was speaking of her cooking when he described the meals at Monticello as "in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance."1
Fossett was the daughter of David Hern, an enslaved carpenter, and Isabel, a house slave and farm laborer. She married Joseph Fossett, an enslaved blacksmith at Monticello; together they had ten children.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson decided that fifteen-year-old Fossett should train to be a cook at the President's House with Honoré Julien, who had been George Washington's chef. For almost seven years, Fossett worked in the President's House kitchen. Jefferson’s guests noted: "never before had such dinners been given in the President's House."2 The meals were "cooked rather in the French style" and the dessert was "extremely elegant."3 For her service, Edith received a monthly two-dollar gratuity, but not a wage.
In 1809, Jefferson retired from the presidency and left Washington, D.C. Fossett returned to Monticello to be the head cook. She and Frances Hern, her sister-in-law, prepared vegetables, roasted meat, and churned ice cream, a favorite dessert at Monticello. Their cooking was prized by Jefferson's family members and Monticello visitors described the meals they prepared as "always choice."4
Edith's husband, Joseph Fossett, was freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will, but she and their ten children remained slaves. When Jefferson died and Monticello was sold, Fossett and two of her children were bought for $505 by Joseph Fossett's brother-in-law, Jesse Scott, a "free man of color." In 1837, Joseph freed his wife, five of their children and four grandchildren. The family resettled in the free state of Ohio sometime between 1837 and 1842. Through the continuous efforts of her husband and other family members, Fossett was able to see most of her children thriving in Ohio. Two of them, William and Peter Fossett, became prominent caterers. Fossett died in 1854.
Primary Source References
1803 January 28. "Pd. Thompson 5 D. for attending Edy in childbed."6
1803 May 9. "servant's wages to May 4 ... Edy 2."7
1804 January 2. "Edy 2."8
1804 October 2. "Edy 2."9
1805 May 2. "Edy 2."10
1806 July 31. (Jefferson to Joseph Dougherty). "... in pursuit of a young mulatto man, called Joe [Fossett], 26. years of age, who ran away from here [Monticello] 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. ... we know he has taken the road towards Washington ... 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."11
1806 August 7. "John Perry returns with Joe."12
1807 October 7. "Edy 2."13
1809 February 27. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "As the two cooks which are here, will take the place of Peter Hemings in the kitchen, it will be necessary that one of them should have his room next the kitchen, and that it should be vacant on their arrival."14
1809 May 6. (Étienne Lemaire to Jefferson). "Edy ought to remember the way I used vanilla sparingly .... Edy and Fanny are both good workers, they are two good girls and I am convinced that they will give you much satisfaction."15
1813 March 29. "Pd. the midwife (Rachael) 6.D. for attending Edy, Moses’s Mary and Esther."16
1816 January 22. "Pd. Rachael the midwife 10.D. to wit for Edy, Virginia, Ursula & Mrs. Marks’s Sally, the 2.D. overpd. on account."17
1820 December 12. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "If you receive this [letter] before I get home be so good as to send up immediately to Edy to have us some sort of a dinner ready; for I expect there is none of the white family at home."19
1821 December 9. "Rachael midwife for Edy 2 D."20
1824 February 19. "Pd. Rachael, midwife 6.D. for Fanny, Edy & Cretia."21
1825 September 11. " Rachael, midwife, 8.D. Ursula, Anne, Edy, Maria."22
1826. (1826 inventory). "Negro woman Edy & her child Daniel 200.00."23
1827. (Mary J. Randolph Memorandum Book). Edy listed among recipients of cloth rations.24
1827? July 5. (Mary J. Randolph Memorandum Book). "July 5 Edy sick & came out."25
1837 September 15. "Know all men by these presents that I Joseph Fossett of the County of Albemarle and state of Virginia have manumitted, emancipated and set free, and by these presents do manumit, emancipate and set free the following negro slaves to wit, Eady, Elizabeth Ann, William, Daniel, Lucy and Jesse and her grandchildren James, Joseph, Thomas and Maria Elizabeth an infant. And I heareby declare the said Eady, Elizabeth Ann, William, Daniel, Lucy and Jesse, James, Joseph, Thomas and Maria Elizabeth hereby emancipated are of the following description ages and height--viz.: Eady a woman of brown complexion 5 feet 2 inches and 44 years old."26
1862. (Edmund Bacon). "He had a French cook in Washington named Julien, and he took Eda and Fanny there, to learn French cookery. He always preferred French cookery. Eda and Fanny were afterwards his cooks at Monticello."27
- 1. Daniel Webster, The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, ed. Fletcher Webster (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1857), 365.
- 2. Smith, First Forty Years, 391.
- 3. Benjamin Latrobe to Mary Latrobe, November 24, 1802, quoted in John Edward Semmes, John H. B. Latrobe and His Times, 1803-1891 (Baltimore: Norman, Remington, 1917), 12.
- 4. George Ticknor to Elisha Ticknor, February 7, 1815, in Life, Letters and Journals of George Ticknor (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1876), 1:36.
- 5. PTJ, 39:405. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 6. MB, 2:1091. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 7. MB, 2:1100. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 8. MB, 2:1118. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 9. MB, 2:1137. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 10. MB, 2:1152. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 11. Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 12. MB, 2:1186. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 13. MB, 2:1212. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 14. Thomas Jefferson Papers, The Huntington Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 15. PTJ:RS, 1:188-89. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 16. MB, 2:1287. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 17. MB, 2:1318. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 18. PTJ:RS, 11:438. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 19. Thomas Jefferson Papers, The Huntington Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 20. MB, 2:1381. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 21. MB, 2:1402. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 22. MB, 2:1413. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 23. Society.
- 24. Privately owned.
- 25. Privately owned.
- 26. Albemarle County Deed Book, 35, 219, 220.
- 27. Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 113. See also Bear, Jefferson at Monticello, 104.