The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

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Monticello

An entire community of enslaved people—around 120 individuals in several family lines—lived at Monticello and its affiliated farms. Some worked in the main house and their lives were closely intertwined with those of Thomas Jefferson and his family. Along Mulberry Row and elsewhere on the plantation skilled workers shaped wood, metal, wool, and linen into useful products. Most of the others in their laboring years—about 30 to 40 people—worked in agriculture at Monticello and affiliated farms.

For the past fifteen years, Thomas Jefferson Foundation historians have investigated and reconstructed the lives of enslaved people at Monticello and traced their descendants. Among them they discovered emigrants to Liberia and the western United States, Underground Railroad activists, Union soldiers and their wives, and founders of churches. In a project called “Getting Word,” they interviewed living descendants. One interviewee recalled her grandmother telling her “about the beauty of Monticello and the ugliness of slavery.”

Today, visitors can easily learn more about African Americans at Monticello and beyond. Docents include them in the historical interpretation of the main house. Guided tours of Mulberry Row, where enslaved people lived and worked, include stories of their lives. The Monticello website contains information about Mulberry Row, biographical sketches, an interactive database on more than 600 enslaved people at Monticello, and information about descendants and their reunions.

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Wormley Hughes (1781-1858)

Even as a boy, born and raised in slavery at Monticello, Wormley Hughes demonstrated versatility and diligence. He worked in the house and yard and, at age thirteen, was the second highest producer in Thomas Jefferson’s prized and profitable nailery on Mulberry Row. At nineteen, Hughes blasted rock for Jefferson’s canal. He learned gardening, probably from Scotsman Robert Bailey, whom Jefferson hired in 1794 to help establish the ornamental gardens at Monticello. Afterward, Hughes’s work was cited often in Jefferson’s journal, as he prepared beds, planted seeds, bulbs, and shoots, and prepared the beds for winter. In between he performed a wide variety of other tasks. His passion for horses was foremost, however, and eventually Jefferson appointed him head hostler. As such, he managed the stables at Monticello. Hughes enjoyed the deep trust of Jefferson and his family and was “given his time,” or unofficially freed after his master’s death, apparently at his behest. His wife and children were sold, but by their efforts and those of sympathetic whites, most of the family reunited at Edgehill, the home of Thomas Jefferson Randolph.

Wormley Hughes’s wife was Ursula, a member of another enslaved family at Monticello. She was a farm laborer and cook who studied under French chef Honoré de Julian for a year in Washington, D.C. while Jefferson served as president. Wormley and Ursula Hughes had at least thirteen children. One son, Rev. Robert Hughes, established a church in Albemarle County, and Robert’s son Rev. Wormley Hughes founded churches in Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Karen Hughes White, a descendant, co-founded the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County in 1992.

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Edith Hern Fossett (1787-1854)

Edith Fossett contributed notably to rich culinary traditions in the mid-Atlantic region. Born at Monticello, Edith was among the enslaved servants who accompanied Thomas Jefferson to the White House in Washington, D.C. There she received a small monthly stipend and trained for 6 1/2 years under French chef Honoré de Julien. Dinner guests raved about the food, especially a dessert of ice cream “inclosed in covers of warm pastries.” When Jefferson retired at Monticello, he installed her as head cook. Guests there continued to record their compliments. Daniel Webster, who visited Monticello in 1824, noted that “dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”

Edith Fossett’s tenure in Washington entailed hardship for her and her family, as her husband Joseph Fossett remained in Charlottesville. He managed the blacksmith shop at Monticello. Jefferson did not acknowledge their marriage, although her first child was born a few months after her arrival in Washington. About midway in her tenure, possibly after receiving distressing news about his family, Joseph left Monticello and hastened to Washington without permission. He was captured there and returned to Charlottesville the following day. Joseph Fossett was one of the few bondmen whom Jefferson freed in his will.

Edith Fossett and the couple’s eight children were sold at auction in 1827. With the help of free family members, Joseph managed to purchase Edith and some of children out of slavery. The family moved to Ohio around 1840. Their son Peter’s owner refused to sell and he was left behind. Ten years later, after two foiled escape attempts, he was put on the auction block and bought out of slavery through the combined efforts of family and friends. Peter Fossett settled in Cincinnati where he became a caterer, minister, and Underground Railroad agent.

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