Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:
When oral traditions, DNA, and
corroborating evidence collide
Joelene McDonald Setlock
Over the last two centuries a debate has persisted concerning the level of intimacy Thomas Jefferson shared with Sally Hemings. To wit, was she a just another houseslave or, as Madison Hemings put it, "Jefferson's concubine"? The recent publication of the results of DNA tests implies that Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest child, was Thomas Jefferson's son. This agrees with the interview that Madison Hemings gave the Pike County Republican in 1873, in which he claims that his mother, Sally Hemings, ". . . 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."
Simultaneously, however, the results of the DNA test have dismantled the family history of the descendants of Thomas Woodson. According to the article published in Nature and written by Eric Lander and Joseph Ellis: "Interestingly, Jefferson's haplotype does not match male descendants of Sally's first son, Tom Woodson. The simplest explanation is that Jefferson was not Tom's father. An alternative explanation would require non-paternities among [Tom Woodson's] offspring." Nonetheless, the oral history of the Woodson family has maintained that they were the descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Further, they believed that Tom Woodson was the first child born to Jefferson and Hemings (the one that Madison believed died shortly after birth). So in essence, this new DNA evidence has cut a whole family adrift from their identity and oral history.
The above quote from Lander and Ellis does not just eliminate Tom Woodson from Jefferson's bloodline, but, by assuming that Tom Woodson was a son of Sally Hemings, calls into greater question the paternity of Beverly, Harriet, and Madison Hemings for whom currently no DNA evidence exists that might verify or eliminate them from Jefferson's bloodline. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to compile and evaluate evidence concerning the parentage of Thomas Woodson and Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings.
The Woodson Account
The essence of the Woodson family history as recounted by Minnie Shumate Woodson is that:
Young Tom told the fact that he was the son of President Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's dead wife's half-sister. Young Tom had a misunderstanding with his father so he was sent with other slaves to live away from Monticello to John Woodson's farm. When he came of age, he received money from Jefferson or Woodson to buy a farm. Young Tom, who was never a slave, bought the freedom of his wife and children. He took the name Thomas Woodson and went to Ohio to live. He bought a farm and coal was discovered on it. He sold the farm that had coal on it and invested the money in businesses in Pittsburgh.
M. S. Woodson notes that, "[t]he text before the reader is a composite of all versions of the family's oral history. Descendants of four of the male lines recount versions that differ in some specifics but the underlined phrases above are in each." Further, the Woodson family tradition indicates that Tom was born in about 1790. This aligns with Madison Hemings recounting of his mother's story that while in Paris, she "became Mr. Jefferson's concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente by him." The date for their return to America is set by Jefferson who recorded that on October 23, 1789, he and his party "landed at Norfolk a quarter before one P.M." At this point the Woodsons' story diverges from the account of Madison Hemings. The Woodsons explain that "[Madison] stated that the child, named Tom, had died. Madison, however, was born in 1805, after Tom had left Monticello possibly in 1803. He may not have been informed of Tom's whereabouts or he may have kept Thomas Woodson's request for secrecy when he learned of it later in life."
Excluding the recent DNA evidence, there are some incongruities in the Woodson story. For instance, barring Madison Hemings's hearsay account that the child his mother bore after her return from Paris did not survive, there are two other disconcerting pieces of information. The first, and possibly lesser of the two, is "the fact that Jefferson did not list Tom's birth in his Farm Book. Again, if the boy was his son, one could easily understand why Jefferson would not have listed the child's birth" among his slaves. Also, the Madison Hemings interview does not indicate that the first child born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was named Tom. Additionally, the question arises why would Madison not mention Tom's existence almost fifty years after Jefferson's death. He did mention his sister, Harriet, without violating her privacy. "Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons." The most likely answer is that Madison Hemings was not cognizant of a brother older than, his brother, Beverly that survived.
Further, the Woodson account of "Young Tom" never claims to identify the source of the information from which Woodson learned of his paternity. There is no way to ascertain the reliability of Tom's source; it might have been other slaves, the white Woodson's, or Tom, himself, may have made some assumptions by piecing together Federalists' newspaper reports (Callender, Croswell, et. al.). Further, only some of the family members recount that Tom was the son of "Jefferson's dead wife's half-sister". If Woodson was Jefferson's son, nowhere in this core account does it claim that Sally Hemings was his mother. At most, Sally and two other Hemings sisters, Thenia and Critta, were thought to have been the offspring of Elizabeth Hemings and her master, John Wayles (the father of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson). Also, Sally had three half-sisters on her mother's side who, although not Wayles, could be described as step-sisters of Martha Jefferson, a relationship that might easily have been confused (Martha's half-sister's half-sister is, also, her step-sister, even though none of these relationships would be legally recognized). So, if indeed, Tom's mother was one the Hemings women, there were an assortment to choose from who were in their childbearing years during the late 1780's to early 1790's. The assumption of Sally's parentage of a older son named Tom is neither evidenced by the core report of the Woodsons, nor in the Pike County Republican interview of Madison Hemings, nor, lastly, in the recordings made in the Farm Book (whereas, all of Sally's other surviving children were listed, of which genetic evidence demonstrates that at least one of these could have been Jefferson's).
Tom Woodson and Newspaper Accounts
During Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, published reports about Thomas Jefferson, "Dusky Sally," and a child named Tom begin to appear. The earliest of these stories was printed in the August 1802 edition of The New York Wasp published in Hudson, New York, by Harry Croswell. The most famous and frequently quoted report appeared almost simultaneously in the September 1, 1802 issue of the (Richmond, Virginia) Recorder written and edited by James Thomson Callender. The poems, songs, and succeeding reports seem to evolve from these sources. Of course, these newspapers were Federalist and, therefore by definition, anti-Jefferson; however, while one should not ignore this predisposition, it would be more productive to analysize their reports separately from their prejudice. From this perspective, the reports of these newspapers essentially agree with the account as handed down in the Woodson family oral tradition.
These reports, however, do contain some factual errors. For instance, the first of the aforementioned newspapers, The New York Wasp, described Sally as Jefferson's "wooly headed concubine". Characterizing Sally as woolly headed was an assumption based on racial prejudice. Isaac Jefferson, a slave born at Monticello on about the same year as the toddler Sally Hemings arrived with her family, in his memoirs, described Sally in the following way:
Folks said that these Hemingses was old Mr. Wayles's children Sally Hemings' mother Betty was a bright mulatto woman, and Sally mighty near white; she was the youngest child. Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.
The second, and more infamous, Callender article states Tom's "features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself." Although the term "sable resemblance" is ambiguous, any child of a Jefferson-Hemings interlude would have been only one-eighth African and had very light skin. Correspondingly, at least two of Sally's children, Beverly and Harriet, married into white families and transitioned into the white world unnoticed. In short, Sally's children could not be depicted as "sable". So, if the "Tom" described by Callender was Thomas Woodson and he was "sable", then, in all probability, he either wasn't Jefferson's son or wasn't Sally's, since by all outward appearances their children would be perceived as white or `high yellow'.
Although, the standards of journalism of the day did not compel either journalist to go to Monticello and verify their stories, one cannot disregard the reports wholesale. Michael Durey, Callender biographer, reflected that:
Callender was not an incorrigible liar. His interpretations of facts frequently were strained and exaggerated, but there is little, if any, evidence of his purposeful invention of stories or falsification of facts. . . This is not to deny Callender's reputation as a scandalmonger, for he evidently obtained most of his information secondhand and published what most other would have ignored.
James Thomson Callender was among the most renown American journalist of his time, but he could at times take liberties with the truth. However, truth was at the core of Callender's reports. Thus, referring to the actors as "wooly headed", "sable", or even choosing the name "Tom" were a form of poetic license. Indeed, for a writer describing the son or offspring of such a relationship, "Tom" would be the obvious name of choice.
Additionally, the political attacks of Federalists newspapers, such as Callender, which brought attention to an alleged relationship between Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800's, are the commonly accepted rationale for the politician Jefferson to send Woodson away. "Had `Yellow Tom' existed, proof of his identity would have gone far toward confirming that `Black Sally' was the president's concubine. . . And so Thomas Jefferson banished his . . . son . . . and never saw him again simply in order to conceal the proof of his own guilt and to continue his illicit love affair with Sally Hemings without interruption." This scenario raises some questions, if Tom Woodson was Jefferson's first son (black or white) to survive infancy--regardless of who his mother was--would Jefferson have been able to part with him? But if Tom was not Jefferson's son, then why would he have failed to list him in the Farm Book as noted above?
Potential Jefferson-Woodson Connections
It would be irresponsible for this discourse to look for the flaws in the Woodson family's oral history without trying to postulate what events might make their story true. Although, this paper does not support the contention that Sally Hemings was Thomas Woodson's mother, this point is not central to the Woodson oral tradition. The most vital point of their story is Woodson's sire. The genetic evidence reported by Lander and Ellis provides one ". . . alternative explanation [which] would require non-paternities among Tom's [male line] offspring" in particular Lewis and James (sons of Thomas Woodson whose male line descendants were part of the DNA study) . The Woodson family history does not eliminate this possibility. Indeed, the gravestone which they believe marks the grave of Thomas Woodson's wife states as follows:
Wife of Thomas
DIED: MARCH 18,
Age: 85 years 10 mos
That would establish the date of her birth as May 12th 1782, making her easily seven or eight years older than her husband. Therefore, a possibility exists that her eldest children were raised by Woodson as his children without actually being his biologically. Lewis, Tom's oldest son was married in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1823. Allowing a year for pregnancy between the time Thomas and Jemima married, and Lewis's birth, if Thomas was Lewis's biological father, that would mean that on average Thomas and Lewis were each sixteen years old when they got married. While this is not an impossibility, even a small shift in the age of one of them would significantly affect the age of the other (for example, if Lewis was eighteen when he married that would make Tom fourteen when he married Jemima). Also, if Tom was sixteen when he married, then Jemima would have been twenty-four. This may not be exactly a May-December romance, but at these ages the differences can be stark. The Woodson descendants have, also, uncovered a youngest daughter born in 1825. Therefore, if Lewis, who was the oldest son, and James, whose order of birth I couldn't ascertain, were actually Thomas Woodson's sons by adoption (legal or informal), the results of the genetic tests would not reflect Jeffersonian lineage. Unfortunately, the reason these genetic tests can achieve their level accuracy is because they follow a gene which is gender particular and, therefore, must follow an unbroken male line. So, knowledge of younger children whose descent does not strictly follow male lines (i.e., sons of sons, etc.) might yet be descendants of Thomas Jefferson but would not be testable because of the break in the Y-chromosome (which by definition must come from a son's father). Although the probability of this conjecture is dubious, it does have the distinction of leaving the Woodson family history relatively intact.
A possibility which the Woodsons' would find less appealing evolved strictly during the course of a series of e-mail exchanges I had with Dr. Foster, the pathologist who headed the Jefferson DNA test team. Looking at the haplotypes that were examined for the genetic test purposes, one can observe a rather distinct similarity between the Woodsons' and the Carrs' (the sons of Thomas Jefferson's sister, Martha). Following the genetic fingerprint of the three Carrs and the four Woodsons it can be seen that all seven bi-allelic markers match. However, there are three between group variations, which could be problematic for the purposes of connecting these two families. Therefore, in correspondence with Dr. Foster, I posited the following question, "What is the statistical probability that the Woodsons could be descendant from the Carr line?" This proved to be a genetic blind alley, however, because it turns out the mutation rate has "the upper limit of 4.4% [chance] per microsatellite haplotype per generation". With the results of the DNA tests showing at least three microsatellite mutations that would mean that the chance that Woodson was one of the Carrs' descendants becomes .044^3 or approximately 8.5 chances per 100,000 births. Nevertheless, the research demonstrated that there was, in all likelihood a common male-line European ancestor (albeit 106 generations back, more or less), but moreover, that the shared bi-allelic marker as shown in the Nature article (0000011) is "a typical European one". Clearly, the DNA tests show that one of Thomas Woodson's male-line progenitors was of European origin. Add to this that the family of "Young Tom" conjecture that the Woodsons that he went to live with were one of the sons of "Jefferson's maternal aunt . . . Dorothea Randolph, [who] married Colonel John Woodson of Goochland on October 28, 1751," and the sons that Tom Woodson's family are referring to are Josiah or John, who would be Thomas Jefferson's first cousins. Further, Woodson may have been named after this illustrious relative of the Woodson's. In particular, if Woodson was the son of one of Jefferson's cousins (i.e., Josiah or John), he would be both the namesake and first cousin once removed of Thomas Jefferson. Of course, this would be another instance where close blood ties with Jefferson may have confused the issue of lineage to a "Young Tom," who may have been kept uninformed as to the reality of his parentage and left to his own devices to determine the identity of his father.
Jefferson as Father of Sally's Children
The earliest records of Sally Hemings having a relationship with her master, Thomas Jefferson, appear to be the previously mentioned Croswell and Callender reports with their obvious political bias. Moreover, any "facts" that these gentlemen of the press may have uncovered were plainly not based on first hand knowledge or observations, nor were the sources of these accusations identified. Nevertheless, these publications produced an avalanche of compositions in publications throughout the nation that varied from the subtle to the obscene. The editor of the Lynchburg, Virginia Gazette initiated one of the earliest rejoinders. The Gazette, a republican publication, sought a denial from Jefferson or his representative. When this was not forthcoming the editor wrote:
The story of Sally and the President, when I first saw it, afforded me considerable diversion, because I then believed it took its rise from the [virulence] of Callender's disposition; but when the truth had been so well attested as to admit of no doubt, I became seriously concerned for the welfare of our country.
When considering how poorly researched the accusations of Callender, et. al., were, one cannot help but wonder at Jefferson's lack of direct response to the accusations. However, failing to respond to these reports cannot be construed to infer guilt.
Other reports have been published that can be considered more reliable in that the authors demonstrate an accurate knowledge of the identity of the actors in question. An interesting example of this is a private letter written by Virginian Thomas Turner. This letter ended up in the hands of a newspaper called the Boston Repertory which published it on May 31, 1805. He indicted Jefferson by saying:
The affair of black (or rather mulatto) Sally is unquestionably true. They have cohabited for many years, and the fruit of the [connection] abundantly exists in proof of the fact--To crown this affair, an opinion has existed to which Mr. Jefferson, it is supposed, cannot be a stranger, that this very Sally is the natural daughter of Mr. [Wayles], who was the father of the actual Mrs. Jefferson--The eldest son (called Beverly) is well known to many.
This letter is of interest because Turner portrayed facts about the Hemings family that were not common knowledge. Specifically, Turner knew that Sally was a mulatto, that John Wayles was not just the father of Jefferson's wife (dead 23 years) but, also, of Sally, that she had more than one child, and that the oldest surviving child (in 1805) was a boy named Beverly. This agrees with the account of Madison Hemings, quoted previously. Moreover, Madison Hemings's narrative was corroborated by another slave born and raised on Monticello, Israel Jefferson. Israel Jefferson's interview appeared in the Pike County Republican, on December 25, 1873, wherein he stated:
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 statements . . .
Finally, consider the entries of John Hartwell Cocke to his diary, a man who "was often at Monticello", was a friend of Jefferson's and "worked closely with Jefferson as a founder of the University of Virginia". While Cocke did not identify children that Jefferson fathered outside of his marriage, he did lament his old friend's behavior in his diary:
Writing in 1853 Cocke bemoaned the fact that many slave owners had children by slave women on their plantations. He went on to say that there was no wonder that this should be so when "Mr. Jefferson's notorious example is considered." In an 1859 entry Cocke complained about . . . the common practice of unmarried slave owners keeping a slave woman "as a substitute for a wife. . . In Virginia . . . this damnable practice prevails as much as anywhere--probably more--as Mr. Jefferson's example can be pleaded for its defense."
Although Turner's motives remain unknown, his detailed knowledge of the Hemings family demonstrate a reliable familiarity with the relationships at Monticello. Thus, it is reasonable that the same level of accuracy exists in the information he expressed concerning a Jefferson-Hemings liaison. Additionally, Israel Jefferson, having been born and raised at Monticello, was privy to the intrigues and relationships on the estate. His views were expressed from this perspective. Meanwhile, John H. Cocke held the position of longtime friend, close associate, and frequent visitor to Jefferson. Moreover, both Israel Jefferson and John Cocke expressed esteem and admiration for the former president. In short, they appear to have no vendetta to serve and no obvious profit to make from expressing their opinions. Unfortunately, the statements of former slaves, such as Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, have generally not received equal weight with the assertions of traditional (white) family members. Additionally, until the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed's book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the quotes of Turner and Cocke, as third parties to corroborate Madison Hemings's and Israel Jefferson's statements, were unreported. Their addition to the ongoing debate is inestimable. The DNA evidence combined with the comments described above form a compelling body of evidence that supports the argument that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings and parented children with her.
Denials from Jefferson's Legal Heirs
The legal descendants of Thomas Jefferson through his daughters Martha (a.k.a. "Patsy") and Maria (a.k.a. "Polly") have for the most part over the years denied the possibility of an affair between their progenitor and Sally Hemings. In a letter that Jefferson biographer, Henry S. Randall wrote to James Parton on June 1, 1868, Randall claimed that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, oldest grandson of Thomas Jefferson, swore him to secrecy and then revealed to him that Peter Carr (favorite nephew of the president) was the father of Sally's children. On October 28, 1858, Randolph's younger sister, Ellen Randolph Coolidge while visiting this same brother, wrote home to her husband that her brother and she had a candid conversation in which he informed her that the father of Sally's children was Samuel Carr (Peter's brother). She describes:
That my brother, then a young man certain to know all that was going on behind the scenes, positively declares his indignant belief in the imputations and solemnly affirms that he never saw or heard the smallest thing which could lead him to suspect that his grandfather's life was other than perfectly pure.
Even with the lack of agreement as to which Carr--Peter or Samuel--was the responsible party, these letters have been the cornerstone of biographers' denials, for surely, if Jefferson had been entangled in a long term, sexual liaison with any of his slaves his children or his grandchildren who lived with him would have been aware.
Additionally, Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer reinforced the family's stance when he suggested that Harriet "was not [Jefferson's] daughter; she was --'s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early." One can only speculate why Bacon named no names in his statement. Further, Bacon's contention that he knew that Harriet could not be Jefferson's daughter due to his observations that he saw a man that was not Jefferson leave her mother's room some mornings is unconvincing. This because, in a letter dated August 18, 1818, Jefferson states "Mr. Edmund Bacon, has lived with me twelve years as manager of my farm at Monticello." But, Harriet was born in May of 1801, five years before Bacon began work as Jefferson's overseer. If he did see a man other than Jefferson leaving Sally's room in the morning that would not eliminate the president from having had an intimate relationship with Sally before Bacon's arrival at Monticello in 1806. Nevertheless, his testimony has the overall effect of supporting the contentions promoted by Jefferson family members, in particular those advanced by Martha Jefferson Randolph's children.
Therefore, the legal family and biographers of Jefferson submit these accounts not only as a denial of a relationship between Jefferson and Sally, but, also, used these sources to promote explanation that one of the Carr brothers was the culpable party in Sally's pregnancies. Of course, the research recently completed by Dr. Foster and his associates and reported in of Nature has conclusively eliminated the any male line descendants of Dabney Carr (i.e., Peter, Samuel, and Dabney II) as potential patriarchs of Sally's branch of the Hemings family tree. Naturally, genetic tests demonstrating that the Carrs could not have sired Sally's children does not prove that Jefferson did.
Birth Dates of Sally's Children and Jefferson's Proximity
According to the aforementioned Parton letter, Col. T. Jefferson Randolph described an incident that proved absolutely that Jefferson had not fathered the Hemings child most frequently credited to him:
Mr. Jefferson's oldest daughter, Mrs. Gov. Randolph, took the Dusky Sally stories much to heart. But she never spoke to her sons but once on the subject. Not long before her death she called two of them--the Colonel and George Wythe Randolph--to her. She asked the Colonel if he remembered when "----- Henings (the slave who most resembled Mr. Jefferson ) was born." He said he could answer by referring to the book containing the list of slaves. He turned to the book and found that the slave was born at the time supposed by Mrs. Randolph. She then directed her sons attention to the fact that Mr. Jefferson and Sally Henings could not have met--were far distant from each other--for fifteen months prior to such birth.
If Jefferson were absent from Sally for fifteen months prior to the birth of which ever Hemings child that Randolph referred to, then Jefferson could not possibly have been the father. However, this premise has not been substantiated by the facts. Jefferson resided at Monticello during the appropriate time frame required for him to have fathered each of Sally's children including two that did not survive into adulthood. Jefferson was in residence at Monticello from January 1794 to February 1797, from July 11, 1797 to December 4, 1797, from March 8, 1799 to December 21, 1799, from late May 1800 to November 24, 1800, from April 4, 1804 to May 11, 1804, and from early August to October 3, 1807. Correspondingly, Harriet I (who died 1797) was born on October 5, 1795, William Beverly on April 1, 1798, a female child (who died in infancy) in early December 1799, Harriet II in May 1801, James Madison on January 19, 1805, and Thomas Eston on May 21, 1808 (see table below).
Sally's Known Children
Date of Birth
Jefferson in Residence at Monticello
Harriet I (died 1797)
Oct. 5, 1795
January 1794 - February 1797
Apr. 1, 1798
July 11, 1797 - December 4, 1797
Female Child (died in infancy)
early Dec. 1799
March 8, 1799 - December 21, 1799
late May, 1800 - November 24, 1800
Jan 19, 1805
April 4, 1804 - May 11, 1804
May 12, 1808
early August, 1807 - October 3, 1807
Statements made by Jefferson
Of course, the simplest manner by which to resolve questions as to who sired Sally's children would be to find an acknowledgment from Jefferson. Correspondingly, a denial from Jefferson would have less weight because of his position in as a politician who as such would need to salve the prejudices of the time and his constituency. Nevertheless, a denial would demand serious attention. In due course, Callender's accusations were not limited to stories about Sally. There were two other imputations that he made against Jefferson's character: that Jefferson" . . . had sought to seduce a friend's wife, . . . [and that], he had tried to pay a debt to a friend in depreciated currency." The situation concerning the first of these two issues, finally reached the point that Walker (Jefferson's friend and the husband of the woman to whom he had made improper advances) demanded satisfaction from Jefferson:
This was in the spring of 1805. In the summer Jefferson communicated the matter to particular friends because he wished "to stand with them on the ground of truth," and to one of them, speaking of the attacks of his enemies, he said: "You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I [acknowledge] its incorrectness. . . It is the only one founded in truth among all their allegations against me." [italics added]
Unfortunately, these quotes come from a short cover letter and the accompanying letter "which apparently contained a fuller statement has not been found". The "allegations against" him are assumed to be the three mentioned above. In such a case, then, by implication he denied, both, the "Dusky Sally" story and the attempt to repay a debt in depreciated currency. However, it can only be `assumed' that these were the issues to which Jefferson referred--possibly, from Jefferson's perspective, that was the point. Potentially, if the main body of the letter were available, then a certain understanding of which "charges" he referred to would be feasible. As recent events with President Clinton have demonstrated, there are dangers in reading too much into a vague denial.
Even prior to any possible relationship with Sally, Jefferson was aware of the moral pitfalls of being a slaveholder:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstance.
Miscegenation was common between slaves and their owners in the South. Moreover, this comment very likely reflects first hand information Jefferson had about such commerce. Fawn Brodie points out that two men whom Jefferson revered and to whom he was devoted, cohabited with and had children by slave women. The first of these men was his father-in-law, John Wayles, who after the death of his third wife "turned to Elizabeth Hemings, a slave on his plantation and the daughter of an English sea captain and an African slave woman." The other was George Wythe, Jefferson's former law teacher and a man whom he referred to as his "second father". While one does not necessarily plan to emulate people held in high regard, close proximity and exposure to alternative patterns of living frequently make modeling of such patterns easier to acquire.
Finally, on March 4, 1815, Jefferson in a letter interpreted that a "(quarteroon) being 1/4 negro blood . . .crossing [with a white] . . . their offspring will be . . . 1/8 only, [and] is no longer a mulatto, so that a third cross clears the blood." He continued and clarified that the standing of this offspring "does not re-establish freedom, which depends on the condition of the mother, . . . [b]ut if [the 1/8] be emancipated, he becomes a free white man, and a citizen of the United States to all intents and purposes." Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and John Wayles; Betty Hemings was the daughter of a "fullblooded African" and an Englishman named Hemings (the source of his family's name). Thus, Sally was one-fourth African heritage, and her children, if they were the result of a liaison with Jefferson or any other white man, fit Jefferson's definition of "white". One-eighth was not a common distinction to make (in Plessy v. Ferguson, Homer Plessy was one-eight African American, yet the laws in the state of Louisiana defined him as "colored"). According to the law that Jefferson quotes, any one "`who shall have one-fourth part or more of negro blood, shall in like manner be deemed a mulatto; L. Virga 1792, December 17" The law did not claim that less than one-fourth makes one "white," that interpretation was strictly Jefferson's. Indeed, Jefferson, the farmer, pointed out that "[i]t is understood in natural history that a fourth cross of one race of animals with another gives an issue equivalent for all sensible purposes to the original blood. . . having in fact 1/16 of the country blood." In nineteenth century, agricultural America, the standards of stock breeding would be the likely template. However, if the offspring of Sally Hemings were, also, his descendants, then this definition allowed their children, once freed, to become "white" and absolved Jefferson of any sense of guile, since he could logically and, by his interpretation, legally implement this description. If these were not his offspring, then one can't be sure why he defined the difference between mulatto and white at all (since it was not the question that had been asked), why he chose a definition that was so different from the trends of the time, or why he failed to use models of animal husbandry as the standards for his distinctions.
According to Madison Hemings, Jefferson "was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us [Hemings] children." Nevertheless, evidence exists that Jefferson treated Sally and her children differently than other slaves.
Brodie wrote that Hemings had another daughter named Edy in 1796, but this was actually a young girl who moved in with Hemings to look after Hemings's daughter, Harriet[I]. At some point Edy moved back in with her own parents, and her younger sister Aggey moved in with Hemings until Harriet died. Jack McLaughlin [Jefferson historian] cited the "private baby-sitter" arrangement for Hemings's children as "one of the few examples of Jefferson's giving [Sally] preferential treatment."
Providing private twenty-four hour per day baby-sitting seems an extreme measure for a master to provide for a slave woman's child. Further, Edmund Bacon mentions in his autobiography:
The house servants were Betty Brown, Sally, Critta, and Betty Hemings, Nance, and Ursula. . . These women remained at Monticello while [Jefferson] was President. I was instructed to take no control of them. They had very little to do.
With the exception of long trusted Jefferson slave Ursula, all of these women were Hemings. Betty Hemings was Sally's mother, Critta was Sally's sister, and Betty Brown (also called Bett) and Nance were Sally's half-sisters. Although, the private babysitter and the instructions to Bacon demonstrated some preference for Sally or Sally's family in general, it could have been simply a case of favorites.
In 1822, Beverly Hemings, Sally's oldest son ran away. Interestingly, there is no evidence that Jefferson ever made any effort to retrieve him. It is unlikely that he allowed Beverly to escape because he was a Hemings or even a Wayles, since Jamey Hemings, who was Beverly's cousin, Critta's son, and, also a grandson of John Wayles, ran away in 1804 and was retrieved, then ran away again in 1812, after which he was "sold to Reuben Perry." Furthermore, another slave to run away in 1822 was Harriet. Although, Jefferson officially listed Harriet's departure as running away, his overseer, Bacon described that Jefferson "freed one girl . . . When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson's direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars. . . She never did any hard work." That Jefferson allowed any slave to run away was noteworthy, that he arranged her transportation and funding was astonishing, but both of these actions are all the more extraordinary in view of Jefferson's attitudes toward women slaves:
Two years before Harriet Hemings left Monticello, Jefferson wrote a letter to his former son-in-law John Eppes in which he said that he considered female slaves to be far more valuable than male slaves. Why? Because female slaves had children and, thus, added to capital.
Finally, in Jefferson's will, he named five slaves to be freed. Among the five, he included John Hemings, a carpenter and Sally's younger brother, and into John's care he commended Sally's two youngest children, Madison and Eston, who would work as John's apprentices "until their respective ages of twenty one years, at which period respectively, I give them their freedom."
While Jefferson never exhibited any "fatherly affection" to the Hemings children, he displayed a preference for the Hemings, in general, and for Sally and her children, in particular. Both Beverly and Harriet were twenty-one when they left Monticello, and so, had reached peak productive and, especially in Harriet's case, reproductive years. He not only made no great efforts to restore his "properties," but according to Jefferson's overseer, arranged and financed Harriet's escape. Then of almost two hundred slaves, Jefferson chose to free only five in his will, two of whom were Sally's children, and the third to whom he assigned legal guardianship of Sally's two youngest children.
Modern Research and Interpretations
The November 5, 1998 issue of Nature exploded onto the evening news with the headline, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." Due to the fact that any males carry a XY chromosome (in order to be male) and females carry XX, the son of any union of two people must inherit his Y chromosome from his male parent. The test, in question, follows the Y-chromosome in an unbroken chain from father to son. However, since Jefferson had no surviving sons from his marriage, his Y-chromosome cannot be followed directly from Jefferson through his legal heirs. Nonetheless, Jefferson had to inherit his Y-chromosome from his father, Peter, who in turn, of course, inherited it from his father, also named Thomas. So, it became the task of the researchers to find an unbroken male line of Jeffersons originating from the same source as President Jefferson. To do this they followed unbroken male lines of Field Jefferson, President Jefferson's paternal uncle. The Y-chromosome that they followed had a bi-allelic marker that was typically European. Furthermore, the microsatellite haplotype was so rare that "it has not been found in 670 European men" and "it has never been observed outside the Jefferson family."
Do these results conclude absolutely that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's children? No, these results demonstrate that the most likely sire of Eston Hemings (the source for unbroken male line of the Hemings) was a male line descendent of Thomas Jefferson's grandfather, of whom Thomas Jefferson was but one. It is through this gap in the currently available scientific knowledge that Herbert Barger, Jefferson genealogist, has plunged. Barger promotes "seven other Jeffersons, any one of which could have fathered Eston Hemings." Apparently, six of these seven are "Thomas'[s] younger brother, Randolph Jefferson" and his five sons whom, Barger points out, "lived about 20 miles away . . . One of these sons, Isham, was `reared' by Jefferson according to the History of Todd Co., Ky." Further, Barger states that:
Thomas's first cousin, once removed, George Jefferson, Jr., educated by Thomas, his agent and manager in Richmond and who must have come to Monticello to discuss business when Thomas came home Could this possibly explain why Sally became pregnant only when Thomas was at Monticello.
Although Barger presents all seven men whose Y-chromosome genetic markers were the same as that of President Thomas Jefferson and Eston Hemings, he primarily champions Randolph Jefferson as the probable culprit in Sally's pregnancies:
My study indicates to me that Thomas Jefferson was NOT the father of Eston or any other Hemings child. The study indicates that Randolph is possibly the father of Eston and the others. Randolph, named for his maternal Randolph family, was a widower and between wives when shortly after his wife's death, Sally became pregnant with her first child, Harriet I. . . She continued having children until 1808 when Eston was born, Randolph Jefferson would marry his second wife the next year, 1809, and would have a child, John, born about 1810. Three of Sally Hemings'[s] children, Harriet, Beverly and Eston (the latter two not common names), were given names of the Randolph family who had earlier owned Randolph's plantation, "Snowden", and who had received it as his inheritance.
Barger, also, states, "I don't suppose there would be any reason for Randolph to visit Monticello except when Thomas would come home."
As to Randolph's sons, Randolph Jefferson married his first wife, Anne Jefferson Lewis, on July 30, 1780. If their first child was a male and was born nine months to a year later, his birthday would fall between late April and August 1781. In order for the oldest son of Randolph and Anne Jefferson to have fathered Sally's Harriet, he needed to have intercourse with the twenty-one year old Sally in January 1795 when he would have been at most thirteen. This scenario is not physiologically impossible, albeit distasteful. However, since this child, if he was the Isham to whom Barger refers, was the oldest of Randolph's children and was so young, one can feel fairly safe in eliminating, at very least, the rest of Randolph's sons as sources of the unique Jefferson Y-chromosome haplotype. Since this was the case, Barger's choice of Randolph as the likely father, appears to be the more reasonable candidate.
Also, Barger asserts that the names of three of Sally's children were Randolph family names. However, since Thomas and Randolph Jefferson were brothers, they shared this familial relationship with the Randolphs. Barger's implication that Randolph felt more bonded to the Randolphs via the fact that he inherited "Snowden" from the Randolphs is unfounded. That the Randolphs may have owned "Snowden" at some time is not readily apparent. However, that Randolph inherited "Snowden" is verifiable. Dumas Malone, in his Herculean biography of Thomas Jefferson, identified "Snowden . . . [as] the bulk of the Fluvanna estate" and that Peter Jefferson created the Fluvanna estate around 1755 "which ultimately went to [Randolph]." In other words, Randolph was no more likely to name children after the Randolphs than Thomas was. Further, Randolph was not in the position to name Sally's children, being neither their legal father nor their owner. Additionally, as to the names, Sally's third child was named after James Madison, whom Thomas Jefferson referred to in his will as one with whom he shared a "cordial and affectionate friendship . . . for nearly now a half century." Randolph did not share this relationship with James Madison.
Furthermore, Barger implies that Sally only got pregnant when her master was home, because this would be the only times that George Jefferson, Jr. and Randolph Jefferson would come visit. As to George Jefferson, Jr., Thomas Jefferson's account books (Jefferson's Memorandum Books Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany 1767-1826, Vols. I and II) failed to mention him once, but they do mention his father who was a partner in the firm of Gibson & Jefferson in Richmond. Apparently, it is this George Jefferson who periodically arranged business issues for the President. That he was a regular visitor at Monticello remains unconfirmed. However, "Snowden," Randolph's residence, was fairly close to Monticello (both were part of Peter Jefferson's original estate) and Randolph was a common visitor even when his brother wasn't home. Further, if either of these men were involved in an ongoing sexual liaison with Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's proximity would not be required and may have been a hindrance. Additionally, the opportunity to have intercourse would be sufficient motivation for most people to travel.
Finally, one cannot help but wonder why, when Jefferson's daughter and grandchildren so vehemently denied the possibility of a affair between the former President and his slave, they did not present the possibility of Randolph Jefferson or his sons or George Jefferson, Jr. as the progenitors of Sally's issue. Martha Jefferson Randolph was an adult during the time that Sally was having children, and Martha's elder children grew up in this same household. Surely if they suspected that someone other than Thomas Jefferson was accountable for Sally's offspring they would have promoted that theory. They were willing to sacrifice the reputations of Jefferson's favorite nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, in order to preserve the reputation of their famed patriarch. Additionally, Randolph Jefferson died in 1815. Therefore, assaults on his character would have the benefit of not being launched at a living family member. Of course, there is no reason to believe that Jefferson's children or grandchildren ever had any reason to think that George Jefferson, Jr., Randolph Jefferson or Randolph's sons ever had any trysts with Sally Hemings.
Even if one were to assume that Thomas Woodson was the child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, then Tom Woodson and the Hemings children would have grown up independently. Thus, in as much as the children would have been raised separately, likewise, the evidence concerning the paternities of Woodson and the Hemings should be severed and weighed separately. Additionally, the value of treating Tom Woodson and the Hemings as some sort of genetic amalgam would be a disservice to both families; each family is unique and important to history.
Ultimately, the combination of DNA and lack of corroborating evidence makes the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson was Thomas Woodson's father remote. Equally, if not more, questionable is the possibility that Sally Hemings was Thomas Woodson's mother. The Woodson oral tradition contradicts or, at very least fails, to be substantiated by Jefferson's Farm Book, Madison Hemings, or Turner. The Federalist's newspapers which published the accounts have no correlation with the known actors and seem to have reported rumors, without verification. Although it cannot be confirmed, there is a possibility that Thomas Woodson and, thereby, his progeny were the descendants of Thomas Jefferson's first cousin. Coincidentally, if this is the case then the Woodsons share the same relationship with Jefferson as the family of Barger's wife ("my wife, Evelyn, is a first cousin, six generations removed, from Thomas Jefferson").
William Beverly, Harriet, James Madison, and Thomas Eston Hemings present different controversies when historians attempt to identify their parentage, inasmuch as, their mother was Sally Hemings and they were born and raised at Monticello. Descendants of Sally Hemings for the most part lacked the historical evidence to back up their family's oral history. As Robert Cooley so succinctly stated the problem, at "Jeffersonian Legacies", the October 1992, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation conference:
Scholars could talk till doomsday about the absence of hard evidence or documentation. But the evidence did not exist for a good reason. "We couldn't write back then . . . We were slaves." And Jefferson' s white children had probably destroyed all written records of the relationship soon after his death.
Unfortunately, if Jefferson or his family members did have such records, a possibility exists that they would have taken steps to remove such documentation before it entered historical records. However, there is no evidence that these documents ever existed. Nevertheless, for almost two centuries historians and biographers, professional and amateur, have been accumulating information, and finding and preserving records. Now, geneticists have contributed to the mass of information. No one piece of evidence at this time can be the conclusive evidence (short of digging up the parities involved in the hopes of finding DNA strands long enough on which to do paternity tests). Yet, the compilation of evidence taken as a whole strongly suggests that the most likely father of Sally Hemings children was Thomas Jefferson.
The statements of legal family members, yesterday's and today's, fail to be supported by facts. The Carrs did not have the Y-chromosome markers to have parented Eston, the testable male line descendent of Sally Hemings. Contrary to T. Jefferson Randolph's claim, Sally never had a known conception when Thomas Jefferson was not at Monticello. Jefferson, for whatever reasons, never saw fit to deny a relationship with Sally. As Jefferson saw it "his private life was nobody else's business, and should have no bearing on his public reputation." Further, Jefferson treated Sally and her children exceptionally well. This was exemplified by the fact that Jefferson didn't simply allow them to run away, he assisted with the eldest two children, and with the youngest two children, he made arrangements for their freedom when they reached majority and their safekeeping until then. The DNA supports the claim that Madison Hemings made in 1873, that Jefferson was the father of Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston, by demonstrating that Eston did carry the unique Jefferson haplotype. Lastly the new claims that Hemings children were fathered by a male line Jefferson other than the former President, is not supported by any claims that were ever made by family living at the time of Sally's pregnancies. Additionally, the claims that Sally's children might have been fathered by Randolph Jefferson's sons is in most cases patently ridiculous.
However, if one considers the capricious disregard that the Hemings' accounts received for over 100 hundred years, it would be irresponsible, if not reprehensible, to treat the Woodson story the same way. The oral heritage of the African American community must be recognized as a valuable part of our history. And if should be proven that most of the facts of such an account are suspect, then it behooves us to remember that African Americans in early America were the children and grandchildren of slaves. The traditions of their ancestors were torn away. Americans need to understand and appreciate that this group of Americans did not choose to come to America, they were torn from their families and homes, and they became forced to labor in a society with a different language, climate, religion, and code of laws. Under these social, cultural, and personal pressures, they created new traditions and a new heritage, blending diverse memories of Africa with the experiences of their new existence. If not all of their memories were perfect still they created a heritage that they could hand to their own children with pride. Their ability to adapt under such adverse conditions is more than astonishing, its inspirational. African Americans created new oral traditions which have enriched the history of America, and, as the Hemings story demonstrates, have preserved some history that otherwise would have been lost.
Barger, Herbert. <http://www.angelfire,com/va/TJTruth> "Re: The Truth About The Thomas Jefferson
DNA Study," 29 March 1999. Personal e-mail (30 March 1999).
Bear, James A., Jr., ed. Jefferson at Monticello. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Bear, James A., Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal
Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Betts, Edwin M., and James A. Bear, eds. The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Columbia, Missouri:
University of Missouri Press, 1966.
Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
Brodie, Fawn M. "The Great Jefferson Taboo" American Heritage 23 (1972): 48-57, 97-100.
Durey, Michael. "With the Hammer of Truth" James Thomson Callender and America's Early National
Heroes. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Fair, Charles A. "James Thomson Callender: A Political Journalist in the Beginning of National Politics."
Ph.D. diss., Ohio University, Athens, 1978.
Flower, Milton E. James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography. Durham, North Carolina: Duke
University Press, 1951.
Foster, Eugene A., MD <EAFOSTER@aol.com> "Re: probability analysis." 28 November 1998.
Personal e-mail (28 November 1998).
Foster, Eugene A., M. A. Jobling, P. G. Taylor, P. Donnelly, P. de Knijff, Rene Mieremet, T. Zerjal, and C.
Tyler-Smith. "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." 5 November 1998. [http://www.nature.com] (2 November 1998).
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.
Lander, Eric S., and Joseph J. Ellis. "Founding Father." 5 November 1998. [http://www.nature.com] (2
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805. Vol. 4 of Jefferson and His Time.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Vol. 1 of Jefferson and His Time. Boston: Little, Brown and
Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: The Free Press,
Washington, H. A., ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being his Autobiography, Correspondence,
Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, Vol. VI. Washington, DC: Taylor & Maury, 1854.
Woodson, Minnie Shumate. "Researching to Document the Oral History of the Thomas Woodson Family:
Dismantling the Sable Curtain." The Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, 6 (1985): 3-12.
Wrightman, Lawrence S., Michael T. Nietzel, and William H. Fortune. Psychology & the Legal System
Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1998.
[volume 1 | ohio
university | looking glass | staff
| resources ]
[ email webmaster ]