Stories

The participants in the Getting Word project tell stories that show the skills, values, and powerful bonds of family that have been passed down over more than seven generations.

“I Treasured It Up In My Heart”

Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a laborer would…
“I Treasured It Up In My Heart”

Israel Jefferson remembers the Marquis de Lafayette’s remarks about slavery and slave education.

“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 for, and consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom.

The private life of Thomas Jefferson, from my earliest remembrance, 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, ran 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 the colored people—the slaves.  Lafayette spoke English 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 rightfully 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 unusually 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 heart.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

Themes: Antislavery, Education, Monticello

“I Was Born At My Father’s Seat Of Monticello”

I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my…
“I Was Born At My Father’s Seat Of Monticello”

Madison Hemings discusses Jefferson, Monticello, and his own family history.

I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my greatgrandfather.  He was captain of an English trading vessel which sailed between England and Williamsburg, Va., then quite a port.  My grandmother was a fullblooded African, and possibly a native of that country.  She was the property of John Wales, a Welchman.  Capt. Hemings happened to be in the port of Williamsburg at the time my grandmother was born, and acknowledging her fatherhood he tried to purchase her of Mr. Wales, who would not part with the child, though he was offered an extraordinarily large price for her.  She was named Elizabeth Hemings.  Being thwarted in the purchase, and determining to own his flesh and blood he resolved to take the child by force or stealth, but the knowledge of his intention coming to John Wales’ ears, through leaky fellow servants of the mother, she and the child were taken into the “great house” under their master’s immediate care.  I have been informed that it was not the extra value of that child over other slave children that induced Mr. Wales to refuse to sell it, for slave masters then, as in later days, had no compunctions of conscience which restrained them from parting mother and child of however tender age, but he was restrained by the fact that just about that time amalgamation began, and the child was so great a curiosity that its owner desired to raise it himself that he might see its outcome.  Capt. Hemings soon afterwards sailed from Williamsburg, never to return.  Such is the story that comes down to me.

Elizabeth Hemings grew to womanhood in the family of John Wales, whose wife dying she (Elizabeth) was taken by the widower Wales as his concubine, by whom she had six children—three sons and three daughters, viz: Robert, James, Peter, Critty, Sally and Thena.  These children went by the name of Hemings.

Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia, and of course it was an aristocratic place, where the “bloods” of the Colony and the now State most did congregate.  Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was educated at William and Mary College, which had its seat at Williamsburg.  He afterwards studied law with Geo. Wythe, and practiced law at the bar of the general court of the Colony.  He was afterwards elected a member of the provincial legislature from Albemarle county.  Thos. Jefferson was a visitor at the “great house” of John Wales, who had children about his own age.  He formed the acquaintance of his daughter Martha (I believe that was her name, though I am not positively sure,) and an intimacy sprang up between them which ripened into love, and they were married.  They afterwards went to live at his country seat, Monticello, and in course of time had born to them a daughter whom they named Martha.  About the time she was born my mother, the second daughter of John Wales and Elizabeth Hemings was born.  On the death of John Wales, my grandmother, his concubine, and her children by him fell to Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, and consequently became the property of Thomas Jefferson, who in the course of time became famous, and was appointed minister to France during our revolutionary troubles, or soon after independence was gained.  About the time of the appointment and before he was ready to leave the country his wife died, and as soon after her interment as he could attend to and arrange his domestic affairs in accordance with the changed circumstances of his family in consequence of this misfortune (I think not more than three weeks thereafter) he left for France, taking his eldest daughter with him.  He had had sons born to him, but they died in early infancy, so he then had but two children—Martha and Maria.  The latter was left at home, but was afterwards ordered to follow him to France.  She was three years or so younger than Martha.  My mother accompanied her as her body servant.  When Mr. Jefferson went to France Martha was a young woman grown, my mother was about her age, and Maria was just budding into womanhood.  Their stay (my mother and Maria’s) was about eighteen months.  But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him.  He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred.  She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved.  So she refused to return with him.  To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years.  In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.  Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.  It lived but a short time.  She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them.  Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston—three sons and one daughter.  We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born.  We all married and have raised families.

Beverly left Monticello and went to Washington as a white man.  He married a white woman in Maryland, and their only child, a daughter, was not known by the white folks to have any colored blood coursing in her veins.  Beverly’s wife’s family were people in good circumstances.

Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons.  She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives.  I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive.  She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.

Eston married a colored woman in Virginia, and moved from there to Ohio, and lived in Chillicothe several years.  In the fall of 1852 he removed to Wisconsin, where he died a year or two afterwards.  He left three children.

As to myself, I was named Madison by the wife of James Madison, who was afterwards President of the United States.  Mrs. Madison happened to be at Monticello at the time of my birth, and begged the privilege of naming me, promising my mother a fine present for the honor.  She consented, and Mrs. Madison dubbed me by the name I now acknowledge, but like many promises of white folks to the slaves she never gave my mother anything.  I was born at my father’s seat of Monticello, in Albermarle county, Va., near Charlottesville, on the 19th day of January, 1805.  My very earliest recollections are of my grandmother Elizabeth Hemings.  That was when I was about three years old.  She was sick and upon her death bed.  I was eating a piece of bread and asked her if she would have some.  She replied: “No; granny don’t want bread any more.”  She shortly afterwards breathed her last.  I have only a faint recollection of her.

Of my father, Thomas Jefferson, I knew more of his domestic than his public life, during his life time.  It is only since his death that I have learned much of the latter, except that he was considered as a foremost man in the land, and held many important trusts, including that of President.  I learned to read by inducing the white children to teach me the letters and something more; what else I know of books I have picked up here and there, till now I can read and write.  I was almost 21½  years of age when my father died, on the 4th of July, 1826.  About his own home he was the quietest of men.  He was hardly ever known to get angry, though sometimes he was irritated when matters went wrong, but even then he hardly ever allowed himself to be made unhappy any great length of time.  Unlike Washington he had but little taste or care for agricultural pursuits.  He left matters pertaining to his plantations mostly with his stewards and overseers.  He always had mechanics at work for him, such as carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, coopers, &c.  It was his mechanics he seemed mostly to direct, and in their operations he took great interest.  Almost every day of his latter years he might have been seen among them.  He occupied much of the time in his office engaged in correspondence and reading and writing.  His general temperament was smooth and even; he was very undemonstrative.  He was uniformly kind to all about him.  He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children.  We were the only children of his by a slave woman.  He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood.  His daughter Martha married Thomas Mann Randolph by whom she had thirteen children.  Two died in infancy.  The names of the living were Ann, Thomas Jefferson, Ellen, Cornelia, Virginia, Mary, James, Benj. Franklin, Lewis Madison, Septemia and Geo. Wythe.  Thos. Jefferson Randolph was Chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore last spring which nominated Horace Greeley for the Presidency, and Geo. Wythe Randolph was Jeff. Davis’ first Secretary of War in the late “unpleasantness.”

Maria married John Epps, and raised one son—Francis.

My father generally enjoyed excellent health.  I never knew him to have but one spell of sickness, and that was caused by a visit to the Warm Springs in 1818.  Till within three weeks of his death he was hale and hearty, and at the age of 83 years he walked erect and with stately tread.  I am now 68, and I well remember that he was a much smarter man physically, even at that age, than I am.

When I was fourteen years old I was put to the carpenter trade under the charge of John Hemings, the youngest son of my grandmother.  His father’s name was Nelson, who was an Englishman.  She had seven children by white men and seven by colored men—fourteen in all.  My brothers, sister Harriet and myself were used alike.  They were put to some mechanical trade at the age of fourteen.  Till then we were permitted to stay about the “great house,” and only required to do such light work as going on errands.  Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation.  We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy.  We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used.  It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing, &c.

Provision was made in the will of our father that we should be free when we arrived at the age of 21 years.  We had all passed that period when he died but Eston, and he was given the remainder of his time shortly after.  He and I rented a house and took mother to live with us, till her death, which event occurred in 1835.

In 1831 I married Mary McCoy.  Her grandmother was a slave, and lived with her master, Stephen Hughes, near Charlottesville, as his wife.  She was manumitted by him, which made their children free born.  Mary McCoy’s mother was his daughter.  I was about 23 and she 22 years of age when we married.  We lived and labored together in Virginia till 1836, when we voluntarily left and came to Ohio.  We settled in Pebble township, Pike county.  We lived there four or five years, and during my stay in that county I worked at my trade on and off for about four years.  Joseph Sewell was my first employer.  I built for him what is now known as Bizzleport No. 2, in Waverly.  I afterwards worked for George Wolfe, Senior, and did the carpenter work of the brick building now owned by John J. Kellison, in which the Pike County Republican is printed.  I worked for and with Micajah Hinson.  I found him to be a very clever man.  I also reconstructed the building on the corner of Market and Water streets from a store to a hotel for the late Judge Jacob Row.

When we came from Virginia we brought one daughter (Sarah) with us, leaving the dust of a son in the soil near Monticello.  We have had born to us in this State nine children.  Two are dead.  The names of the living, besides Sarah, are Harriet, Mary Ann, Catharine, Jane, William Beverly, James Madison and Ellen Wales.  Thomas Eston died in the Andersonville prison pen, and Julia died at home.  William, James and Ellen are unmarried and live at home, in Huntington township, Ross county.  All the others are married and raising families.  My post-office address is Pee Pee, Pike county, Ohio. (Madison Hemings recollections, Pike County Republican, 13 Mar. 1873)

Themes: Family

“The Last I Heard Of Them”

During the interval of Mr. Jefferson’s death and the sale to Mr. Gilmer, I married Mary Ann Colter, a slave,…
“The Last I Heard Of Them”

Israel Jefferson speaks of the fate of his enslaved children and describes how he gained his freedom.

“During the interval of Mr. Jefferson’s death and the sale to Mr. Gilmer, I married Mary Ann Colter, a slave, by whom I had four children—Taliola, (a daughter) Banebo, (a son) Susan and John.  As they were born slaves they took the usual course of most others in the same condition in 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 Thacker.  Consequently, Elizabeth, (my present wife) was free-born.  She supposes that she was born about 1793 or ‘94.  Of her ten children, only two are living—Julia, her first born, and wife of Charles Barnett, who lives on an adjoining farm, and Elizabeth, wife of Henry Lewis, who reside 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 was 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 in 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 severed, 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 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 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 reside in the State beyond a year and a day.  Nor were the colored people not in slavery free; 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 Albermarle county, for my free papers.  When there, the clerk, Mr. Garrett, 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 of Jefferson, and have been known by it ever since.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

Themes: Family, Monticello, Ohio, Property, Slavery