Joseph Fossett (1780-1858)1 was the son of Mary Hemings Bell, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Hemings. He was a skilled blacksmith "who could do any thing it was necessary to do with steel or iron," remembered Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon.2
Though some of Fossett's descendants have ascribed paternity to Thomas Jefferson, Joseph's surname suggests an alternative parentage. During the years immediately preceding Fossett's birth, a white carpenter named William Fosset was employed at Monticello.3 Fossett was born in Richmond, where his mother and other enslaved domestic servants were living while Jefferson served as Virginia governor.
During Jefferson's tenure in France, Mary Hemings was hired out to merchant Thomas Bell, and young Fossett lived with her on Charlottesville's Main Street. When Bell purchased Mary Hemings and his two children by her in 1792, twelve-year-old Fossett and his nine-year old sister Betsey were separated from their mother and returned to Monticello because Jefferson would not sell them.4 Between the ages of twelve and sixteen, 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 an enslaved house servant's clothing and began training as a blacksmith.5 He learned first from the enslaved smith George Granger and then from the hired white blacksmith William Stewart. In April 1796, Fossett was reported to be the third most profitable nail maker, earning for Jefferson an average daily profit of sixty cents.6 In 1800, he became an enslaved foreman in the nailery.
A Blacksmith Slips Away
In the summer of 1806, Fossett surprised Jefferson by running away from Monticello. Reuben Perry, a carpenter at Monticello, was sent "in pursuit of a young mulatto man, called Joe, 26. years of age, who ran away from here the night of the 29th. inst." Jefferson was stunned by such insubordination but suspected a possible motivation. "[W]e know he has taken the road towards Washington, ... perhaps he may make himself known to Edy only, as he was formerly connected with her."7 Fossett was not "running away" but was going to see his wife, Edith Hern Fossett, currently training as a cook in Washington. He was found by Joseph Dougherty "in the Presidents yard going from the Presidents House," and Jefferson was informed that "Mr. Perry will start with him tomorrow, for Monticello."8
Joseph Fossett continued to work with William Stewart, until the undependable smith was dismissed from service in 1807.9 From 1807 until 1827, Fossett ran the blacksmith shop. He shod horses and sharpened plows and hoes for the local farmers; he also made garden forks, spikes for a dam, and all the metal parts of an elaborate carriage that Jefferson designed in 1814. Fossett was allowed to keep one-sixth of the money earned for work "in his own time." He earned most of his money from making plow chain traces and plating saddle trees.
Edith Fossett returned from Washington in March 1809, when she and Joseph probably moved into the cook's room located in Monticello's south wing. Ultimately, they became the parents of ten children. During the years of Jefferson's final retirement to Monticello, Edith and Joseph Fossett filled two of the most important positions on the mountaintop. While Fossett ran the smithy, his wife prepared meals for the large Jefferson family and a flood of guests.
Following Thomas Jefferson's death in 1826, Fossett became a free man, one of five persons freed from slavery by the terms of Jefferson's will. In contrast, his wife Edith and their children were among the "130 valuable negroes" offered at the executors' sale in January 1827. Fragmentary records suggest that Fossett worked steadily at the blacksmith trade in order to purchase the freedom of his wife and as many children as possible. By September 15, 1837, Fossett had become the legal "owner" of Edith, five of their children, and four grandchildren, for on that date he manumitted them all. By the early 1840s, the family was settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Fossett pursued the blacksmithing trade with his sons. Through the continuous efforts of her husband and other family members, before her death Edith Fossett was able to see most of her children thriving in Ohio. Two of them, William and Peter Fossett, became prominent caterers.
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."10
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."11
1811 April 13. (Memorandum Book). "Pd. Joe 6.D. to wit 1/ in every dollar of the work done for Mr. Burnley, now amounting to 34.50 D."12
1811 November 18. (Notes on Joseph Fossett’s Account for Plating Saddle Trees). "Saddle trees plated for Mr Burnley ... the former acct given me by Joe was for 32. trees."13