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Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: Relationship & Children

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

In this lesson, we will learn about Sally Hemings and the investigation undertaken in 2000 to determine if Thomas Jefferson fathered her six enslaved children.

Hidden History

History often favors the winners. We tend to write about people who triumphed in battle, made important discoveries, and forged vast empires. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America are often celebrated for rising against an oppressive king and striving to create a new nation built upon equality and justice. The foundational document of America - the Declaration of Independence - stated that 'all men are created equal.' Yet, its author - Thomas Jefferson - owned over 600 slaves during his life.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson

Only nine of Jefferson's slaves gained freedom - all of whom were members of the Hemings family. His relationship with one of the Hemings women - Sally - has been a topic of intense debate since Jefferson was elected as the third President of the United States. Claims that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally and fathered her six children were denied for decades. In 2000, a team of scholars strove to put the matter to rest. In this lesson, we will learn more about Sally Hemings and what the investigation uncovered about her relationship with Jefferson.

Who was Sally Hemings?

Sally Hemings was born enslaved in 1773 to Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. Sally's father was likely John Wayles - slave owner to Elizabeth and father-in-law to Thomas Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Thomas and Martha Jefferson inherited Elizabeth and her ten children, all of whom came to work at Monticello mansion (Virginia) in 1775. The Hemings worked as enslaved 'cooks, butlers, seamstresses, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and musicians.'

Thomas Jefferson
record

Although there are no known portraits of Sally, four contemporary accounts described her as good-natured, light-skinned, and very handsome. She served as lady's maid to Jefferson's daughter. Fourteen-year-old Sally accompanied nine-year-old Mary Jefferson to Paris in 1787. She remained there with Thomas Jefferson and his two daughters for two years. They returned to Monticello in 1789 where Sally continued to serve as a lady's maid, chambermaid, and seamstress.

Monticello
Monticello

According to Jefferson's records, Sally gave birth to six children. They were named Harriet (died in infancy), Beverly, Harriet, an unnamed daughter (died in infancy), Madison, and Eston. Oral history claimed that Thomas C. Woodson (1790-1879) was Sally Hemings's first child, but there is no documentary evidence supporting the allegation. Thomas Jefferson never freed Sally as he did with her four surviving children. Jefferson's daughter - Martha - instead unofficially emancipated Sally after Jefferson's death. Sally then moved in with her sons in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Reports that Thomas Jefferson was having a sexual relationship with one of his slaves first appeared in a Richmond newspaper in September 1802. Political journalist James T. Callender published the story that Jefferson was keeping Sally as a 'concubine' and had fathered several of her children. Jefferson's opponents circulated the report in several newspapers throughout his presidency. Neither Jefferson nor Sally left any public or private accounts on the matter. Whereas Jefferson's children denied the allegation, two of Sally's children claimed that Jefferson was their father. Throughout much of the 20th century, most Jefferson scholars doubted the validity of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship.

Caricature depicitng Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings by James Akin, ca.1804
caricature

DNA Testing

In 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists decided to put the Jefferson-Hemings relationship question to the test - more specifically DNA tests. They sought to determine if there was a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings descendants. The test results found that a male Jefferson had fathered Sally's last known child, Eston Hemings. Although there were 25 adult male Jeffersons living in Virginia at the time, the study concluded that 'the simplest and most probable' conclusion was that Eston Hemings's father was Thomas Jefferson.

Historical Investigation

In response to the DNA test results, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) formed a Research Committee to examine the genetic data, written historical documents, oral histories, and statistical data to determine whether Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings and fathered her children. The nine member committee found no issues with the genetic testing. When examining the historical records, they found evidence that:

  • Thomas Jefferson was at Monticello when Sally Hemings's likely conceived her six children.
  • All of Sally's children were light-skinned and some looked like Jefferson.
  • Several people close to Jefferson believed he fathered Sally's children.

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