Isaac Jefferson

Isaac Jefferson

Isaac Jefferson (1775 - ca. 1850) was a valued slave of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, serving him as a blacksmith, tinsmith, and nailer at Jefferson's Monticello plantation estate. Isaac's brief memoir, recorded by an interviewer in 1847, provides enlightening information about Monticello and the day to day activity of its people there, including that of US's third president and his family. Isaac's narrative is a collection of accounts detailing the life of a slave on the Jefferson Plantation. It includes descriptions of Jefferson as a master, and his involvement in the lives of his slaves. From these memoirs, it can be drawn that Jefferson was a kind and fair master who was even admired by his servants. Isaac was reported as saying, "Old Master was very kind to servants." Not incidentally, many of the accounts describe the integral role the Hemings family played as they completed many of Thomas Jefferson’s personal tasks.

Early life

Isaac Jefferson was the third son of two very important members of the Monticello slave labor force. His father, known as Great George, rose from foreman of labor to become overseer of Monticello in 1797--the only slave to reach that position, receiving an annual wage of £20. Isaac's mother, Ursula, was a particularly trusted domestic servant whom Jefferson had purchased in 1773. Ursula served as a pastry cook and laundress. Her duties also included meat preservation and the bottling of cider. Isaac, thus, spent his childhood on the mountaintop plantation near his father and mother, and from a very young age he would have performed light chores in and around the house. He himself speaks of carrying fuel, lighting fires, and opening gates. Because Great George and Ursula accompanied the Jefferson family to Williamsburg and Richmond when Jefferson was elected governor, Isaac was witness to dramatic events in the Revolutionary War. In his reminiscences he recounted his vivid memories of 1781, including Benedict Arnold's raid on Richmond and the internment camp for captured slaves at Yorktown.

ervice at Monticello

Probably about 1790, Isaac began his training in the metalworking trades. Jefferson took him to Philadelphia, where he was apprenticed for several years to a tinsmith. His own account is the only source of information on this aspect of his working life. He learned to make graters and pepper boxes and finally, tin cups, about four dozen a day. A tin shop was set up at Monticello on his return but, as he recalled, it did not succeed. Isaac also trained as a blacksmith under his older brother Little George and, sometime after 1794, he became a nailer as well, dividing his time between nail making and smithing. By 1796, Isaac had a wife by the name of Iris, and a son, Joyce. At this time he worked extra hours in the blacksmith shop, making chain traces for which Jefferson gave him three pence a pair. Also, according to Jefferson's records, Isaac was a most proficient nailer. In the first three months of that year he made 507 pounds of nails in 47 days, wasting the least amount of nail rod in the process and earning for his master the highest daily return--the equivalent of eighty-five cents a day.

The Eppes family at Edgehill

In October 1797, Jefferson gave Isaac, his wife Iris, and their sons Joyce and Squire to his daughter Maria and John Wayles Eppes as part of their marriage settlement. Thomas Mann Randolph was in need of a blacksmith at the time, so he hired Isaac from Eppes. Isaac and his family moved to Edgehill in 1798. A daughter, Maria, was apparently born soon thereafter. As some of Isaac's memories seem to indicate his presence at Monticello during Jefferson's retirement years, he may have accompanied the Randolphs to reside there in 1809. Tragedy stuck in 1799 and 1800, when Isaac's parents and brother Little George all died within a few months of each other. The persistence of an African heritage at Monticello is indicated by the fact that, in their illness, the members of this family consulted a black conjurer living near Randolph Jefferson in Buckingham County. Shortly after Great George's death, Jefferson gave Isaac $11, the value of "his moiety of a colt left him by his father."

In 1812 an Isaac belonging to Thomas Mann Randolph ran away and was caught and imprisoned in Bath County. It is unknown whether this was Isaac the blacksmith. Randolph owned at least one other Isaac in this period.

Freedom and memoir

How Isaac gained his freedom is also unknown. He reported that he left Albemarle County about four years before Jefferson's death, or around 1822. He met and talked to Lafayette in Richmond in 1824. In 1847, he was a free man in Petersburg, still practicing his blacksmithing trade at the age of seventy-two. His recollections, taken down by the Rev. Charles Campbell in that year, do not reveal whether he took the surname Jefferson by choice or whether it was imposed on him by a white official, as was the case with his fellow Monticello slave Israel Jefferson. In his recorded narrative, Isaac helps to shed light on a very controversial subject: the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings (or Hemmings) family. Isaac claimed that Sally Hemings and at least some of her siblings "was old Mr. Wayles’ children”, referring to Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles, and thus adding weight to the belief that Sally Hemings was the half sister of the presidents wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.The fate of his wife Iris and their two sons is unknown. Isaac had a wife, apparently not Iris, in 1847. Rev. Campbell wrote that Isaac Jefferson died "a few years after these his recollections were taken down. He bore a good character."



*"Jefferson at Monticello", Recollections of a Monticello Slave and a Monticello Overseer. Edited by James Adam Bear, Jr., Charlottesville, Virginia, 1967, pg. 4. Includes recorded recollections of Isaac Jefferson, c. 1847.
*"The family letters of Thomas Jefferson", by Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826. Edited by Edwin Morris Betts, and James Adam Bear, Jr.
*"The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia", by Edna Bolling Jacques, 2002.

External links

* [ Thomas Jefferson Wiki; Isaac Jefferson]
* [ The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia]
* [ The Thomas Jefferson Portal]
* [ Home Page]

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