Fossett was born in Richmond in November 1780, the son of Mary Hemings and an unknown father, possibly William Fossett, a free carpenter who worked intermittently at Monticello late in the 1770s. Mary Hemings, the oldest child of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, was at the time an enslaved domestic servant in the household of Governor Thomas Jefferson. Three months later she and her children were carried off by British troops during Benedict Arnold’s raid on the capital. After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Fossett and his family were brought back to Monticello, Jefferson’s residence in Albemarle County.
During Jefferson’s absence in France (1784–1789), Fossett lived in Charlottesville with his mother and siblings. She had been hired to a white merchant, Thomas Bell, by whom she had two children. Unable to marry legally, Bell and Mary Hemings, described by her grandson Robert Scott as a “bright mulatto,” lived as husband and wife, an arrangement openly acknowledged by Bell and recognized by the local community. (She was called Mary Bell in some public records and described as Thomas Bell’s “widow” in an insurance policy.) When, in 1792, Mary Hemings Bell asked to be sold to her husband, Jefferson“with such of her younger children as she chose.” Thomas Bell purchased Mary and his own children by her, but Jefferson retained her older children, twelve-year-old Joseph and nine-year-old Betsy.
Joseph Fossett returned to Monticello, where he was soon a full-time worker, dividing his time between the main house—he made fires, fetched wood and water, or waited at table—and a smoky shop on Mulberry Row. There, from 1794, up to a dozen enslaved boys aged ten to sixteen wrought nails in six sizes. In the nailery’s first years Jefferson closely monitored the boys’ performance, calculating their efficiency according to the amount of iron lost in the nailmaking process. At sixteen, Fossett “wasted” only 19 pounds of iron per hundredweight, an efficiency rate better than the 22-pound average. By the age of twenty he was a foreman of nailers and had received some training in blacksmithing from George Granger, the enslaved smith and nailery manager. In a, Jefferson singled him out: “I think it will be best to put Joe to the anvil: as I have no doubt he will make the best smith.”
For six years he worked under William Stewart, a blacksmith hired by Jefferson in Philadelphia. In 1807, when Jefferson had tired of Stewart’s alcoholic binges, Fossett became Monticello’s head blacksmith. For two decades, he managed the blacksmith shop, shoeing horses, tiring wagon wheels, sharpening hoes and plows, building at least one carriage, and making tools for the nailers, carpenters, gardeners, and farm laborers.His services were in demand by Jefferson’s neighbors. Saddlers asked him to plate saddle trees, plantation mistresses called on his skills for metalworking projects, and farmers ordered plow chains. Jefferson monitored these extracurricular activities and allowed Fossett to keep one-sixth of his outside earnings. A fire probably burned in the forge on many nights and Sundays when the enslaved blacksmith continued to work to earn money to benefit his growing family. As the Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon, “Joe Fosset … was a very fine workman; could do anything it was necessary to do with steel or iron.” (Sometimes known as Joe Hemings, he adopted the surname Fossett at least by the 1820s and probably earlier.)
Marriage and Separation
Joseph Fossett married Edith Hern, the daughter of David and Isabel Hern and a house servant chosen by Jefferson for the important assignment of mastering the art of French cookery. In the autumn of 1802, fifteen-year-old Edith traveled to the nation’s capital and began to cook under the instruction of two Frenchmen in the President’s House. She spent six years in the presidential kitchen, often remaining there even during Jefferson’s two-month summer vacations at Monticello.
The strains of separation led Joseph Fossett to run away from Monticello in the summer of 1806, perhaps after he heard disturbing news from Washington. Jefferson sent a workman to the capital in pursuit of his runaway blacksmith, whom heas “strong & resolute.” Fossett was captured at the President’s House and brought back to Monticello, where he waited nearly three more years for Edith’s return in 1809, when Jefferson retired from public life. As head Monticello cook, she prepared meals described by visitors as “always choice” and “served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”Jefferson’s family members prized Edith Fossett’s recipes, including one for gingerbread.
Despite the years of almost total separation, Joseph and Edith Fossett built a strong union. At the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, they were living and working at Monticello together with seven of their eight children. (Jefferson gave their oldest child, James, to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph in 1812.) Joseph Fossett was one of the “good servants” bequeathed freedom—and the tools of his trade—in a codicil to Jefferson’s will, to take effect a year after Jefferson’s death. No provision was made for the freedom of Fossett’s wife and children. In January 1827, Jefferson’s furnishings, farm equipment, livestock, and 100 men, women, and children. Still enslaved, Fossett could only be a witness, not a bidder, as Edith and seven of their children were put on the auction block.
The resolute blacksmith had been making preparations for this devastating event. He knew he could count on the help of his free mother, who had inherited a life estate in Thomas Bell’s property. Her resources would be insufficient, however, for the purchase of eight people appraised for well over $1,000. Fossett had therefore negotiated agreements with local white men to purchase his children, on the understanding that he would buy them back when he had earned enough money. At the end of a bitterly cold day, his wife and two youngest sons were safe in his mother’s household in Charlottesville, purchased by his free brother-in-law Jesse Scott. Two local merchants purchased his daughter Ann-Elizabeth and son Peter, while Martha and, probably, Maria were bought by professors at the University of Virginia. The purchaser of Fossett’s daughter Isabella Fossett is not known.
Freedom and Relocation
On Independence Day, July 4, 1827, Joseph Fossett became a free man. For the next ten years he worked steadily at his trade—his customers included Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph and the—storing up his earnings in order to acquire both human and landed property. By 1831 he was working at his own forge on a lot he had purchased on Charlottesville’s main street, three blocks from his mother’s—and probably his own—residence. The current and future welfare of his still enslaved children was always a primary focus. Years later his son Peter Fossett recalled that his father made bargains with Peter’s owner for permission to instruct him in the blacksmithing trade and with the owner’s sons to teach him his letters. He encouraged his son with gifts such as a copy-book and a silver watch.
All did not go well, however, with the arrangements Joseph Fossett had been at such pains to negotiate. Brisk bidding at the 1827 sale, resulting in prices 60 to 70 percent higher than the slaves’ appraised values, may have played a part. Sixteen-year-old Martha Fossett soon ran away from her new owner, an action that suggests he may not have been one of the designated purchasers. The re-purchase of Ann-Elizabeth involved Fossett and his relatives in protracted legal and financial difficulties. And Peter Fossett’s owner flatly refused to sell him back to his father; he also threatened to whip Peter Fossett if he ever caught him with a book.
A Virginia law passed in 1806 required newly freed slaves to leave the state within a year or face re-enslavement. Thus, Joseph Fossett’s action in September 1837 signaled his intent to take his family beyond Virginia’s borders. He manumitted ten people—his wife, Edith, five children (two born since the 1827 sale), and four grandchildren. When they headed northward a few months later, the Fossetts left behind five of their children still locked in slavery. Their difficult decision to leave Virginia was evidently made in consultation with a large extended family. Their daughter Ann-Elizabeth had married Tucker Isaacs, member of a prominent mixed-race family in Charlottesville, and she thus was the sister-in-law of Eston Hemings, son ofand Thomas Jefferson. More than twenty members of the Fossett-Isaacs-Hemings family made the move to southern Ohio at about the same time.
After a few months in Chillicothe, the Fossetts and Isaacses settled in Cincinnati, then the nation’s largest inland metropolis, with its greater opportunities for men in the mechanical and building trades. As one of five African Americans among 100 blacksmiths in the city, Fossett worked for his first few years in partnership with another Virginian and then carried on his own blacksmith shop with his sons William, Daniel, and Jesse. In 1843 and 1846 he bought two lots in the western end of Cincinnati for more than $1,000, without needing a mortgage.
By 1844 Tucker and Ann-Elizabeth Isaacs had returned to live in Charlottesville. They and the Fossetts may have decided that it would be wise to have footholds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, to facilitate efforts to maintain family ties and to continue the struggle to free enslaved family members. Tucker Isaacs, a builder and painter, was active in the transformation of Charlottesville’s main street from a muddy thoroughfare with scattered wooden buildings to a busy street of substantial brick stores and dwellings. And he had a further calling: the liberation of slaves.
In February 1850, Tucker Isaacs was arrested for forging a free register for his brother-in-law Peter Fossett, who had just failed in his second attempt to run away. Isaacs was found not guilty, but nine months later, after the General Assembly tightened the restrictions of the 1806 removal law, his wife, three of their children, and his mother, were called before the court to justify their presence in the county. An ominous addition was made to the record of Joseph Fossett’s daughter Ann-Elizabeth Isaacs: “No permission has been granted her to remain in the Commonwealth.” Within a week the Isaacs family sold all their property in Charlottesville and were soon on the road back to Ohio.
After Peter Fossett’s failed effort to escape slavery, he had been jailed and then put on the auction block for a second time. His father and his brother-in-law combined their resources to make the purchase of his freedom possible. Despite his owner’s threats, Peter Fossett had perfected his reading and writing skills and secretly passed his knowledge on to his fellow slaves. He had forged free passes to help some escape, including his sister Isabella, who successfully reached Boston. Once free, he immediately joined his family in Cincinnati, and Isabella Fossett arrived from Massachusetts not long after.
Joseph and Edith Fossett had succeeded in establishing a refuge for almost their entire family. At least six of their ten children now lived within a block or two of their house on Stone Street. Ann-Elizabeth and Tucker Isaacs had settled 100 miles to the east on a farm in Ross County. James Fossett apparently died in slavery in Virginia. The adventures of the runaway Martha Fossett took her to Gold Rush–era California, where she made a fortune and married a white man. The fate of Maria Fossett is not yet known.
Edith Fossett died on September 10, 1854, and her husband on September 19, 1858, both in Cincinnati. There is a headstone memorial to them both in that city’s Union Baptist Cemetery.
Through several generations, members of the Fossett family demonstrated a striking commitment to the pursuit of equality and justice. In Cincinnati the whole family participated in the Underground Railroad, part of the cooperative network associated with Quakers Levi and Catherine Coffin. Likewise Tucker and Ann-Elizabeth Isaacs’s Ohio farmhouse was a well-known haven for fugitive slaves. Joseph Fossett’s sons became prominent figures in the political, educational, and religious life of the city. Jesse Fossett, a conspicuous example of the independent spirit in this family, was the most politically active. Described in his obituary as “a power among his own people,” he instigated several civil rights test cases and became a Democrat and an early advocate for exerting greater political leverage by dividing the black vote. His brother-in-law Tucker Isaacs was also an active campaigner for political independence. Peter Fossett’s wife, Sarah, after being forcibly ejected from a streetcar, sued the conductor and advanced the integration of Cincinnati’s streetcar system.
Peter and Jesse Fossett were members of the Colored School Board and vigorous proponents of equal educational opportunities. Peter Fossett founded a Baptist church and became a minister revered all across the state. He was a captain in the Cincinnati Black Brigade, when the Confederates threatened the city in 1862. His brother Daniel served in the 27th U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War.
Stories in the family and in newspaper accounts often feature the Fossett family’s antislavery activities and campaigns for equality and justice. They also evoke the virtues of thrift, industriousness, and enterprise. Joseph Fossett did not just get people out of slavery; he purchased their freedom. He practiced his blacksmithing trade into his seventies and watched his sons begin to rise in their professions. Starting out as whitewashers, Jesse Fossett went on to hold various positions in city and county government and Peter Fossett became a waiter and, eventually, one of the most successful caterers in Cincinnati.
Succeeding generations of the Fossett family, the women as well as the men, were also dedicated to the fight against injustice. Two of Joseph Fossett’s granddaughters married officers who had served in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. One of them, Virginia Isaacs Trotter, was a principal influence on her famous son, William Monroe Trotter, the crusading editor of a Boston newspaper and a key figure in the Niagara movement, precursor of the NAACP. He confronted presidents in the White House, presented petitions and led demonstrations, and was jailed more than once for his protests against discrimination and racial injustice. Other Fossett descendants also went to jail as activists in the civil rights movement. As Virginia Craft Rose, one of Joseph and Edith Fossett’s great-great-granddaughters, told her children, “Whatever you feel strongly about, fight for it because that’s part of your heritage.”