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Jefferson, Isaac (1775-1853)

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Isaac Jefferson, a slave of the third President of the United States, was born in December 1775 in Monticello, on the Thomas Jefferson plantation in Virginia. His family was an important part of the Monticello labor force. His father, Great George, was the only enslaved person on the Jefferson plantation to rise from foreman to overseer. His mother, Ursula, was requested by Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha because of her trustworthiness. Young Isaac Jefferson helped his mother and father by carrying wood and making fires. As he got older he was trained as a blacksmith.

In 1779 four year old Isaac Jefferson and other Jefferson slaves were captured by British forces while Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia government fled to Richmond.  Issac Jefferson and his family remained under the control of the British until the surrender of General Charles (Lord) Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.  The Jefferson slaves were then brought back to Monticello and Isaac, now six, was returned to his life as a slave.

Nine years later, in 1790, Isaac accompanied Thomas Jefferson to Philadelphia when he became Secretary of State.  There Isaac became the first black slave to learn the tinner’s trade, making cups, dippers and sheet iron. Thomas Jefferson was impressed by Isaac’s abilities and he sent him back to Monticello where Isaac started a tinning business which lasted two years, then he started a nail making business which continued until 1799.  It is unclear if Thomas Jefferson received any of the profits.

Isaac Jefferson did not accompany the President when he served in Washington between 1801 and 1809.  He did help care for Jefferson when the President retired to Monticello and continued in that capacity until Thomas Jefferson died in 1826.  Little is known of Isaac Jefferson until the late 1840s when Charles Campbell, a Petersburg teacher edited Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, As Dictated to Charles Campbell in the 1840s by Isaac, one of Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves.  The manuscript became one of the best known and most authentic of the antebellum slave narratives and provided valuable information about the former President.  

Little is known about the subsequent life of Isaac Jefferson except that in 1847 he worked as a blacksmith in Petersburg, Virginia where he had his own shop which was reported in Memoirs of a Monticello Slave.  There is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson freed Isaac Jefferson.  The former president did free five slaves in his will but Isaac Jefferson was not listed among them. Isaac Jefferson’s legal status was not reported by Campbell in Memoirs despite his rather elaborate description of Isaac’s personal description and characteristics.   Isaac Jefferson died in Petersburg in 1853. 

Sources:
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982); “Isaac Jefferson,” http://www.monticello.org/gettingword/isaac.html.

Contributor:

University of Washington

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