Sally Cottrell Cole (d. 1875)


Sally Cottrell was an enslaved maid and seamstress. Born sometime around 1800, she served as a maid to Ellen Wayles Randolph at Monticello from 1809 until 1824, after which Randolph married and moved to Boston. Cottrell was then hired out to a University of Virginia professor, who later purchased her with the intention of freeing her. It is unclear whether Cottrell was ever officially freed, but by early 1828 she was working on her own as a seamstress. She was baptized in Charlottesville in 1841, married in 1846, and died in 1875. She had no children.

Cottrell was born enslaved sometime around 1800. Her tombstone reads that in 1875 she was “aged about 75 years,” but other documentary evidence points to birth years that vary widely, from 1790 to 1825. Nothing is known of her parents, although she is later described as being “mulatto.” She may have had only a first name at birth. In 1809, Cottrell began working at Monticello as a maid to Ellen Wayles Randolph, the daughter of Martha Jefferson Randolph and granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson. Randolph was about thirteen years old at the time.

Thomas H. Key

In the summer of 1825, Joseph Coolidge, the husband of Ellen Randolph and Cottrell’s owner, arranged to hire Cottrell to Thomas H. Key, a newly arrived Englishman and the University of Virginia’s first professor of mathematics. Key wanted Cottrell to serve his wife as a nurse and maid. In a letter to her mother, Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote that Cottrell should be allowed to choose for whom she would labor. Coolidge’s sister Cornelia Jefferson Randolph wrote to Coolidge on July 13, 1825, that Cottrell “objected to living at the University but agreed to stay until Mrs. K[ey] was out of her confinement.” In 1826, Coolidge’s sister Mary Jefferson Randolph wrote that Cottrell “makes a very good nurse and Mrs. Key seems to have perfect confidence in her ability & fidelity.”

Professor Key was unhappy at the university, however. His relations quickly soured with other faculty members, including George Blaettermann, the professor of modern languages. According to the faculty secretary William Wertenbaker, Key once kicked Blaettermann “under the faculty-table, and the latter told him that he kicked like an ass.” Joseph Coolidge described Key as “one of those Englishmen who have succeeded in making their nation hated in every part of the known world!”

In July 1827, while making preparations to return to England, Key engaged in a tense negotiation with Joseph Coolidge to purchase and then free Sally Cottrell. The parties reached agreement on July 21 and, at the relatively low price of $400, Cottrell was delivered to the custody of law professor John A. G. Davis. Davis retained power of attorney over Key’s property, and although he had agreed to manumit Cottrell, he faced an obstacle. Virginia law required any freed slave to leave the state within twelve months or forfeit his or her freedom. Rather than leave, Cottrell remained enslaved, at least technically. On July 29, Mary Randolph wrote Ellen Coolidge, “I do not know upon what grounds she [Cottrell] counts upon remaining in the state for the law forbidding it was expressly explained to her when she had her choice to make between freedom and continuing to belong to you.” It may be that Cottrell counted on the law not being enforced.

John P. Emmet

She went to work for the chemistry professor John Patten Emmet, but by February 1828 she was working on her own as a seamstress. In 1835, Ellen Coolidge wrote an associate requesting that she inquire with Cottrell about the possibility of Cottrell accompanying Coolidge to China, adding, “I could not promise that she should be home again under two or three years, but I dare say, if she can make up her mind to go, she will be very well off at Macao.” It is not known whether Cottrell made the trip.

On December 26, 1841, Cottrell was baptized at the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, the roll book listing her as a free black named Sally Cotterel. The first certain documentary appearance of her surname comes on November 21, 1846, when she applied for a contract to marry a free black man named Reuben Cole, who apparently could not write his name. Valentine W. Southall, a former speaker of the House of Delegates, served as the witness and received $188 from Cottrell for “safekeeping.” A marriage bond on November 26 lists her name as Sally Cotrall. The couple had no children together, although Cole brought four children of his own to the marriage. Cottrell likely worked at this time for the Southall family. Before her marriage, she had nursed their son, James C. Southall, who later edited the Charlottesville Chronicle.

In November 1850, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act and following “a general examination into the subject of Free Negroes remaining in this State,” Eugene Davis, a lawyer and the son of John A. G. Davis, wrote to Thomas Key in England. He expressed concern that “as a slave going at large, she [Cottrell] was liable to be taken up and sold.” Davis suggested various courses of action, including selling her to her husband, but all that is clear is that Cottrell remained in Albemarle County working as a seamstress in the Cole household with her husband and his children. The 1870 census lists her as a domestic servant working in Albemarle County for Jerry A. Early, a grocer.

Cottrell died on February 17, 1875, and is buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Charlottesville.

ca. 1800
Sally Cottrell is born enslaved in Albemarle County.
Sally Cottrell works at Monticello as an enslaved maid to Ellen Wayles Randolph.
April 16, 1826
Mary Jefferson Randolph writes a letter to her sister Ellen Randolph Coolidge and comments that Coolidge's former maid Sally is doing well as a maid to the wife of Thomas H. Key, a mathematics professor at the University of Virginia.
June 1825
Joseph Coolidge hires out his slave Sally Cottrell to Thomas H. Key, the University of Virginia's first professor of mathematics.
July 13, 1825
Cornelia Jefferson Randolph writes a letter to her sister Ellen Coolidge and comments that Coolidge's former maid Sally "objected to living at the University" of Virginia.
July 21, 1827
Joseph Coolidge sells the slave Sally Cottrell to Thomas H. Key, an outgoing professor at the University of Virginia who intends to free her immediately.
July 29, 1827
Mary Jefferson Randolph writes a letter to her sister Ellen Coolidge expressing concern that Coolidge's former maid Sally, if freed as planned, would be forced by law to leave Virginia within twelve months.
February 1828
After briefly working for John P. Emmet, a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia, Sally Cottrell is working on her own as a seamstress by this date.
April 26, 1835
Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge writes a letter to Jane N. Randolph requesting that she inquire with Coolidge's former maid Sally Cottrell about the possibility of Cottrell accompanying Coolidge to China for two to three years.
December 26, 1841
Sally Cotterel, likely Sally Cottrell, is baptized at the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville.
November 21, 1846
Sally Cottrell applies for a contract in Albemarle County to marry a free black man named Reuben Cole. Valentine W. Southall serves as a witness.
November 26, 1846
Albemarle County issues a marriage bond to Sally Cotrall, likely Sally Cottrell, and a free black man named Reuben Cole.
November 1850
A lawyer named Eugene Davis writes to Thomas H. Key in England about Sally Cottrell Cole, whom Key had owned and ordered free in 1827, but who may still technically be enslaved.
Census records in Albemarle County list Sally Cottrell Cole as working as a domestic servant for Jerry A. Early, a grocer.
February 17, 1875
Sally Cottrell Cole dies and is buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Charlottesville.
  • Stanton, Lucia. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Sally Cottrell Cole (d. 1875). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cole-sally-cottrell-d-1875.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Sally Cottrell Cole (d. 1875)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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