Scott (Hemings)

Mary Hemings Bell, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest child, became the first in her family to gain her freedom. In 1792 she asked to be sold to her common-law husband, white merchant Thomas Bell, who left his considerable property in Charlottesville to their two children, Sarah Jefferson Bell and Robert Washington Bell. Sarah Bell married Jesse Scott, a talented musician, the son of a white man and Annika Cumba, a Pamunkey Indian.

Jesse Scott’s receipt for purchase of the Fossett family at 1827 Monticello auction / University of Virginia Library

In  January 1827, it was Jesse Scott who represented the family at the Monticello dispersal sale, at which he purchased the wife and youngest children of his brother-in-law Joseph Fossett. Mary Hemings Bell lived in the oldest house on Charlottesville’s main street with the Scotts and their sons Robert, James, and Thomas. Father and sons traveled throughout Virginia, providing music for dances. One Charlottesville resident recalled “the famous Scotts” years later: “Such music they made as the gods of Terpsichore will never hear again.”

Robert Scott married into another branch of the Hemings family. His wife, Nancy Colbert Scott, was the granddaughter of two of Elizabeth Hemings’s daughters, Betty Brown and Nance. The Scotts, with their mixed ancestry, occupied a kind of middle ground in Charlottesville. Robert and James Scott attended white schools and, according to one contemporary, their musical talent and “prepossessing appearance and fine manners” gave them social advantages. In 1857 they obtained a kind of legal recognition of this intermediate position between black and white by successfully petitioning the court to be declared “not negroes.” Jefferson’s grandson Thomas J. Randolph vouched for the fact that they had more than three-quarters white ancestry.

Jesse Scott with his violin by an unknown artist (Courtesy of Olivia M. Dutcher)
Robert Scott


“He Measured Half An Inch More Than I Did”

At Monticello I myself never played - that was a privilege Mr. Jefferson allowed to my father only; but I went…
“He Measured Half An Inch More Than I Did”

In old age, Robert Scott reminisces about Thomas Jefferson, who died when Scott was twenty-three.

At Monticello I myself never played – that was a privilege Mr. Jefferson allowed to my father only; but I went there very often, and saw and talked with him nearly every day. He always had a kind word to say whenever I met him; indeed, he was a universal favorite. He was rather a thin man, and his legs looked very small arrayed in stockings and knee-breeches, but he stood perfectly solid and straight on them till his last illness. He was never a complainer, and only alluded to his great age in a laughing way. I recollect he and I once stood up together to compare our heights, and we found he measured half an inch more than I did, and I am six feet two inches. When the university was being built he rode on horse-back to it, sometimes every day, and then again only two or three times a week. He would start from home at nine and stay at the university till two, when he would return home to dinner, and after dinner go back and stay till dark, looking after the workmen and directing the operations. When he remained at home all day he would frequently look through a telescope at the building, which was his pet scheme towards the end of his life. I was present at its opening in 1825. He was very anxious about its future when he died, and directed by his will that his monument should bear the words, Father of the University of Virginia. (“Virginian Reminiscences of Jefferson,” Harper’s Weekly, 19 Nov. 1904)