Joseph Fossett was a son of Mary Hemings Bell (daughter of Elizabeth Hemings). Bell lived in Charlottesville as a free person after Jefferson sold her to her white common-law husband, though he was unwilling to sell Joseph and his sister Betsy. Fossett’s efficiency as a nail-maker and house servant led to his training as a blacksmith at age 16. As head blacksmith during Jefferson’s retirement, Joseph Fossett worked at an anvil in the blacksmith’s shop.
During Jefferson’s presidency, Fossett’s wife, Edith Hern, lived in Washington to learn French cooking. Three of the Fossetts’ ten children were born in the White House. In 1806, Jefferson reported that Joseph Fossett had run away from Monticello, failing to realize he was running to his wife in Washington. When Jefferson retired, the Fossetts became head cook and blacksmith at Monticello. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.
Learn more about the lives and stories of the Fossett family at our related family history website.
Hearth in the kitchen at Monticello where Edith Fossett worked.
Hearth in Monticello’s restored kitchen. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Shoeing horses was a basic activity for blacksmiths.
Iron horseshoe fragment. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Fragment of a heading clamp for nail making.
Fragment of a heading clamp for nail making. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Monticello blacksmiths like Joseph Fossett had to make all metal objects needed on the plantation.
Iron Tool, possibly a skewer. Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Peter Fossett (son of Joseph and Edith) recalled: “Mr. Jefferson allowed his grandson to teach any of his slaves who desired to learn, and Lewis Randolph first taught me how to read.” Literacy later caused problems for Fossett: “When I was sold to Col. Jones I took my books...
Slate pencils and slate fragment. Thomas Jefferson Foundation