I was born at Monticello, the seat of Thos. Jefferson, third President of the
United States, December 25--Christmas day in the morning. The year, I suppose
was 1797. My earliest recollections are the exciting events attending the
preparations of Mr. Jefferson and other members of his family on their removal
to Washington D.C., where he was to take upon himself the responsibilities of
the Executive of the United States for four years.
Israel Jefferson, born in 1800, worked as a slave at Monticello. His parents, Edward
and Jane Gillett, also served Jefferson as Monticello slaves. This memoir, assembled from Jefferson's interview
with newspaperman S. F. Wetmore, was originally published in the Pike County
Republican in December of 1873.
My mother's name was Jane. She was a slave of Thomas Jefferson's and was born
and always resided at Monticello till about five years after the death of Mr.
Jefferson. She was sold, after his death, by the administrator, to a Mr. Joel
Brown, and was taken to Charlottesville, where she died in 1837. She was the
mother of thirteen children, all by one father, whose name was Edward Gillet.
The children's names were Barnaby, Edward, Priscilla, Agnes, Richard, James,
Fanny, Lucy, Gilly, Israel, Moses, Susan, and Jane--seven sons and six
daughters. All these children, except myself, bore the surname of Gillett. The
reason for my name being called Jefferson will appear in the proper place.
After Mr. Jefferson had left his home to assume the duties of the office of
President, all became quiet again in Monticello. But as he was esteemed by both
whites and blacks as a very great man, his return home, for a brief period, was
a great event. His visits were frequent, and attended with considerable
ceremony. It was a time looked forward to with great interest by his servants,
for when he came home many of them, especially the leading ones, were sure to
receive presents from his hands. He was re-elected President in 1804, and took
his seat for the second term in 1805. Of course, his final term dosed in March
1809, when he was succeeded by James Madison. At that time I was upwards of
twelve years of age.
About the time Mr. Jefferson took his seat as President for the second term, I
began the labors of life as a waiter at the family table, and till Mr. J. died
was retained in Monticello and very near his person. When about ten years of
age, I was employed as postillion. Mr. Jefferson rode in a splendid carriage
drawn by four horses. He called the carriage the landau. It was sort of a
double chaise. When the weather was pleasant the occupants could enjoy the open
air; when it was rainy, they were protected from it by the dosing of the
covering, which fell back from the middle. It was splendidly ornamented with
silver trimmings, and, taken altogether, was the nicest affair in those
aristocratic regions. The harness was made in Paris, France, silver mounted,
and quite in keeping with the elegant carriage. The horses were well matched,
and of a bay color. I am now speaking of the years of my boyhood and early
manhood. My brother Gilly, being older than I was, rode the near wheel horse,
while I was mounted on the near leader. In course of time, Mr. Jefferson rode
less ostentatiously, and the leaders were left off. Then but one rider was
needed. Sometimes brother Gilly acted as postillion; at other times I was
employed. We were both retained about the person of our master as long as he
lived. Mr. Jefferson died on the 4th day of July, 1826, when I was upwards of
29 years of age. His death was an affair of great moment and uncertainty to us
slaves, for Mr. Jefferson provided for the freedom of 7 servants only: Sally,
his chambermaid, who took the name of Hemings, her four children-- Beverly,
Harriet, Madison and Eston--John Hemmings, brother to Sally, and Burrell
Colburn [Burwell Colbert], an old and faithful body servant. Madison Hemings is
now a resident of Ross county, Ohio, whose history you gave in the Republican
of March 13,1873. All the rest of us were sold from the auction block, by order
of Jefferson Randolph, his grandson and administrator. The sale took place in
1829, three years after Mr. Jefferson's death.
I was purchased by Thomas Walker Gilmer, I married Mary Ann Colter, a slave, by
whom I had four children--Taliola (a daughter), Banobo (a son), Susan and John.
As they were born slaves they look the usual course of most others in the same
condition of life. I do not know where they now are, if living; but the last I
heard of them they were in Florida and Virginia. My wife died, and while a
servant of Mr. Gilmer, I married my present wife, widow Elizabeth Randolph, who
was then mother to ten children. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Farrow. Her
mother was a white woman named Martha Thackey. Consequently, Elizabeth, (my
present wife) was free-born. She supposes that she was born about 1793-1794. Of
her ten children, only two are living--Julia, her first born, and wife of
Charles Barnett, who live on an adjoining farm, and Elizabeth, wife of Henry
Lewis, who resides within one mile of us.
My wife and I have lived together about thirty-five years. We came to
Cincinnati, Ohio, where we were again married in conformity to the laws of this
State. At the time we were first married I was in bondage; my wife free. When
my first wife died I made up my mind I would never live with another slave
woman. When Governor Gilmer was elected a representative to Congress, he
desired to have me go on to Washington with him. But I demurred, I did not
refuse, of course, but I laid before him my objections with such earnestness
that he looked me in the face with his piercing eye, as if balancing in his
mind whether to be soft or severe, and said,
"Israel, you have served me well; you are a faithful servant; now what will you
give me for your freedom?"
"I reckon I will give you what you paid years ago--$500," I replied.
"How much will you give to bind the bargain?" he asked.
"Three hundred dollars," was my ready answer.
"When will you pay the remainder?"
"In one and two years."
And on these terms the bargain was concluded, and I was, for the first time, my
own man, and almost free, but not quite, for it was against the laws of
Virginia for a freed slave to remain in the State beyond a year and a day. Nor
were the colored people not in slavery freed they were nominally so. When I
came to Ohio I considered myself wholly free, and not till then.
And here let me say, that my good master, Governor Gilmer, was killed by the
explosion of the gun Peacemaker, on board the Princeton, in 1842 or 1843, and
had I gone to Washington with him it would have been my duty to keep very close
to his person, and probably I would have been killed also, as others were.
I was bought in the name of my wife. We remained in Virginia several years on
sufferance. At last we made up our minds to leave the confines of slavery and
emigrate to a free State. We went to Charlottesville Court House, in Albemarle
county, for my free papers. When there, the clerk, Mr. Garret, asked me what
surname I would take, I hesitated, and he suggested that it should be
Jefferson, because I was born at Monticello and had been a good and faithful
servant to Thomas Jefferson. Besides, he said, it would give me more dignity to
be called after so eminent a man. So I consented to adopt the surname
Jefferson, and have been known by it ever since.
When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at
ten dollars a month for the first month. From that time on I received $20, till
I went on board a steamboat, where I got higher wages still. In time, I found
myself in receipt of $50 per month, regularly, and sometimes even more. I
resided in Cincinnati about fourteen years, and from thence came on to the farm
I am now on, in Pebble township, on Brushy Fork of Pee Pee creek. Have been
here about sixteen years.
Since my residence in Ohio I have several times visited Monticello. My last
visit was in the fall of 1866. Near there I found the same Jefferson Randolph,
whose service as administrator I left more than forty years ago, at Monticello.
He had grown old, and was outwardly surrounded by the evidence of former ease
and opulence gone to decay. He was in poverty He had lost, he told me, $80,000
in money by joining the South in rebellion against the government. Except his
real estate, the rebellion stripped him of everything, save one old blind mule.
He said that had he taken the advice of his sister, Mrs. Cooleridge [Ellen
Coolidge], gone to New York, and remained there during the war, he could have
saved the bulk of his property. But he was a rebel at heart, and chose to go
with his people. Consequently, he was served as others had been--he had lost
all his servants and nearly all his personal property of every kind. I went
back to Virginia to find the proud and haughty Randolph in poverty at Edge
Hill, within four miles of Monticello, where he was bred and born. Indeed, I
then realized more than ever before, the great changes which time brings about
in the affairs and circumstances of life.
Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a
laborer would not permit me to acquire much of an education. But such as I
possess I am truly thankful, and consider what education I have as a legitimate
fruit of freedom.
The private life of Thomas Jefferson, from my earliest remembrances, in 1804,
till the day of his death, was very familiar to me. For fourteen years I made
the fire in his bedroom and private chamber, cleaned his office, dusted his
books, run of errands and attended him about home. He used to ride out to his
plantations almost every fair day, when at home, but unlike most other Southern
gentlemen in similar circumstances, unaccompanied by any servant. Frequently
gentlemen would call upon him on business of great importance, whom I used to
usher into his presence, and sometimes I would be employed in burnishing or
doing some other work in the room where they were. On such occasions I used to
remain; otherwise I retired and left the gentlemen to confer together alone. In
those times I minded but little concerning the conversations which took place
between Mr. Jefferson and his visitors. But I well recollect a conversation he
had with the great and good Lafayette, when he visited this country in 1824 and
1825, as it was of personal interest to me and mine. General Lafayette and his
son George Washington, remained with Mr. Jefferson six weeks, and almost every
day I took them out to a drive.
On the occasion I am now about to speak of, Gen. Lafayette and George were
seated in the carriage with him. The conversation turned upon the condition of
colored people--the slaves. Lafayette spoke indifferently; sometimes I could
scarcely understand him. But on this occasion my ears were eagerly taking in
every sound that proceeded from the venerable patriot's mouth.
Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no
man could rightly hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best
services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he
felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle--the freedom of
mankind) that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which
seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to
masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. Mr. Jefferson
replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but
did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed
to think that the time had not then arrived. To the latter proposition of Gen.
Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented. He was in favor of teaching the
slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to
forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation.
This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my
I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello,
that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife, on her death bed, that he would not again
marry. I also know that his servant, Sally Hemmings, (mother to my old friend
and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemmings,) was employed as his
chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her;
that, in fact, she was his concubine. This I know from my intimacy with both
parties, and when Madison Hemmings declares that he is a natural son of Thomas
Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that his brothers
Beverly and Eston and sister Harriet are of the same parentage, I can as
conscientiously confirm his statement as any other fact which I believe from
circumstances but do not positively know.
I think that Mr. Jefferson was 84 years of age when he died. He was hardly ever
sick, and till within two weeks of his death he walked erect without a staff or
cane. He moved with the seeming alertness and sprightliness of youth.
"Life among the Lowly, No. 3," Pike County (Ohio) Republican,
December 25, 1873.
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