Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
A Look at Some Original Documents

                                                         From Heritage Quest Magazine May/June 2003


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by Jeanette K. B. Daniels, AG, CGRS, Marietta Glauser,
Diana Harvey, and Carol Hubbell Ouellette

    There have been a plethora of books, articles, and dissertations, as well as documentaries, and numerous television programs addressing the scandalous issue of a possible liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. The pros and cons continue to be argued by historians and descendants of the Jefferson and Hemings families, with no one able to agree, one way or the other.
    As a class in Genealogical Problem Solving at the Heritage Genealogy College, we were very interested in the September 2001 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and its concentration on the Jefferson-Hemings discussion. In fact, we were so interested that we decided to make further investigation of the matter our focus for the semester. This article is the culmination and presentation of our efforts.

We determined that we would search for primary sources,(1) not derivative ones, and we focused our research efforts in three areas:

  • An examination and evaluation of records of that time, which would help identify other Jefferson males that might have fathered Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son.
  • Locate documents from the 1800s that might provide evidence of the paternity of Sally’s children.
  • Locate and evaluate evidence that might provide additional information about Harriet Hemings, Sally’s only daughter, who survived to adulthood.

The two charts provided with this link Jefferson relationships will help readers understand the Jefferson family relationships.
    It appears that Thomas Jefferson may have followed the example of his father-in-law, John Wayles, who after losing his wife fathered children by his slave, Betty Hemings. The Jefferson chart shows the family of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas and Martha Jefferson had six children but only two lived to adulthood— Martha and Maria.
    For a timeline that shows important events in the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Martha Wayles, and Sally Hemings, see the Library of Congress Web site:

Randolph Jefferson and Sons

DNA testing by Dr. Eugene Foster, (Nature, November 1998)(2) is considered 99 percent accurate. Evidence shows that descendants of Eston Hemings, or E. H. Jefferson, as he was known in Madison, Wisconsin,(3) carry the heritage of a bona fide Jefferson male.(4) In fact, there were 25 adult male descendants of Thomas Jefferson Sr.(5) (grandfather to the President), who lived in Virginia between 1794 and 1807. Only eight were living less than a hundred miles from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Albemarle County. George Jefferson Jr. and John Garland Jefferson, grandsons of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s uncle), lived seventy miles away in Amelia County.(6) These family members are not mentioned in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book(7) as being visitors to Monticello [The Farm Book does not appear to be a log of visitors, but lists an accounting of his plantations, e.g. livestock, land, crops, costs, and slaves.] Living only twenty miles away in Buckingham County were the other six: Thomas Jefferson’s brother, Randolph Jefferson, and Randolph’s five sons, Peter Field, Thomas Jr., Isham Randolph, Robert Lewis, and James Lilburne. By the 1810 census, Thomas Jr. is found in Albemarle County.
    Major discrepancies exist regarding the ages and possible birth dates of Randolph’s sons. Therefore, a study of census, tax, land, and marriage records was undertaken in the area surrounding Monticello—Goochland, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Buckingham, and Nelson Counties in Virginia for the 1790 to 1813 time period.(8) The tax records identify white males over 21 years of age and include references to real estate holdings, personal property, slaveholdings, and inheritances.(9)
    The Virginia censuses for 1810, 1820, and 1830 help to identify the locations and age ranges of Randolph’s sons. We believe all five sons of Randolph Jefferson were born between 1785 to 1795. Randolph Jefferson married Ann Lewis on 30 July 1781, in Albemarle County, Virginia.(10) In researching the 1830, 1840, 1850, and 1860(11) Albemarle County census records, we determined that the birth date of their son Peter Field was between the years of 1785 and 1791. Peter married in 1819.(12) Thomas Jr. married in 1808(13) but does not appear on the tax lists until 1810,(14) giving him a calculated birth date in the last half of 1788.(15) We found Thomas Jr. and Peter Field both listed in the Albemarle County census records for the years 1830, 1840, 1850, and 1860. Isham Randolph is listed in the 30 to 40 age bracket on the 1830 census,(16) giving him a calculated birth date between 1790 and 1800. Isham had married in 1813, which would place his birth year in the early 1790s.(17) Robert Lewis is age 63 on the 1850 census(18) and had married in 1828,(19) but had become a property owner by 1813.(20) We calculated his birth date as between 1787 and 1792. James Lilburne seems to appear in the correct age bracket on the 1810 census(21) as a child, age 10 to 16 years old, giving him a birth date between 1794 and 1800. 

    Comparing the calculated birth dates of Randolph’s sons with the birth dates of Sally Hemings’ children, the problem quickly becomes obvious. Randolph’s sons were very young to be considered as fathers for Sally’s children, who were born beginning in 1790. His oldest two sons were not even in their teens when Sally’s first child was born. There is no extant evidence that indicates they were either at Monticello or even in the area at the appropriate time frame to account for the birth of Sally’s later children.
    Randolph, Thomas’ brother, certainly was in the area, being only 20 miles away, and was a Jefferson male capable of fathering children. But again, no records have been found stating that he visited Monticello on a regular basis.(22) In fact, an examination of the letters he exchanged with his brother leads to the opposite conclusion. Written later, mainly between 1809 and 1815, Randolph’s letters contain a series of rather plaintive expressions of regret that he has not visited and does not foresee a visit in the near future.

If I should git any [iron], it Wont be Very long before We Will be over but at this time, it is out of My power to fix on any Certain time.(23)

And again,
I intend coming over some time next Month Which I expect will be towards the last of the month as I shall be very busy in getting my crop of Wheat down to Richmond and sowing my present crop.(24)

He writes, further,
. . . as soon as the roads gits in good order Will come over I expect it will be the last of next Month or the first of April, . . . 25 and, . . . would be happy to see you and family When ever convenient.(26)

Even the death of his sister did not bring Randolph to Monticello:
. . am extremely sorry to hear of My sisters death and Would of bin over but it was not raly in My power. . . .(27)

The oft-quoted letter of 1807, where Thomas tells his brother that,
Our sister Marks arrived here last night and we shall be happy to see you also . . .(28)

    On closer inspection, does not yield the impression that Thomas actually believed Randolph would come. The whole first paragraph of the letter contains instructions on what Randolph is to do with the clover and greensward seed that he has ordered. If Thomas had expected to see Randolph, either that same day, or within a short period of time, such instructions would have been unnecessary.
    Two claims exist that we felt needed to be addressed. A History of Todd County, Kentucky, a biographical sketch of Dr. Walter B. Jefferson, states that his father, Randolph’s son Isham, was a native of that [Albemarle] county, and was raised by his uncle, Thomas.”(29) However, the history is not documented. Randolph Jefferson did not die until 1815, two years after Isham married, so there is no known reason that Isham should have been raised by his uncle. Family letters contain no hint or discussion of Isham’s presence at Monticello. The same is true of the claim, used by several authors, that Randolph’s sons were schooled at Monticello. No evidence has been found to support that claim in either Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book or in family letters of the period. Rather, during much of the time period in question, Monticello was undergoing renovation and Jefferson was not in residence.(30) The only one of Randolph’s sons mentioned in a letter(31) is James Lilburne, and that is not until 1813, five years after Sally’s last child was born:
In conversing with your son Lilburne, I found that he would prefer employing himself in reading and improving his mind rather than in being idle. It is late for him to begin, but he has still time enough, to acquire such a degree of information as may make him a very useful and respectable member of society . . . if both you and he approve of it, I think he had better come and pass some time here.(32)

    Jefferson does not say that Lilburne should come over as his older brothers had done. And, if the older boys had been schooled at Monticello, it would seem logical that Lilburne would simply have joined them when he was old enough rather than waiting until he was older. That there was a specific conversation regarding what Lilburne wanted would seem to indicate that this situation was the exception rather than the rule. No evidence exists that proves the presence of Randolph or his sons at Monticello until several years after Sally’s last child was born.

Documents from the 1800s

A surprising number of letters and other documents from the early nineteenth century still survive. Although some of these documents, such as James T. Callendar’s newspaper articles, are connected directly to the problem, others, such as John Hartwell Co cke’s diary, and the Frances Wright story, are not connected, and only reveal information by implication. Taken together, however, the documents create an interesting picture.
    The earliest of these documents was a newspaper article written in the Richmond Recorder by James T. Callendar. Written in 1802, the article made allegations that Jefferson had a child with “Dusky Sally.” Callendar referred to the child as “President Tom,” and remarked that the child bore an uncanny likeness to President Jefferson. The publication of the article aroused a storm of controversy that has still not abated. But we know that James T. Callendar, had become a political enemy of Jefferson. He and other enemies of Jefferson wrote concerning Jefferson’s relationship and children with Sally, in an effort to tarnish his image.
    As for evidence from Thomas Jefferson himself regarding his association with Sally, he wrote the following letter to his daughter, Mary Jefferson Eppes, in July of 1802, concerning her proposed visit to Monticello and the presence of measles at the plantation:
I have not heard yet of the disease having got to Monticello, but . . . it cannot have failed to have gone there immediately; and as there are no young children there but Bet’s and Sally’s, and the disease is communicable before a person knows they have it, I have no doubt those children have past through it. The children of the plantation being a mile and a half off, can easily be guarded against. . . . I think therefore you may be there in perfect security.(33)

    Oddly, Jefferson does not seem concerned about the presence of Bet’s and Sally’s children exposing his grandchildren to the measles, although in the same letter he is careful to warn his daughter, “You should make enquiry on the road before you go into any house. . . .”(34) The letter also seems to verify that Sally and her children lived in Monticello, itself, not in the slave quarters.
    In December of 1802, the Richmond Recorder reprinted a Frederick-town Herald item concerning Callendar’s charges:
Other information assures us, that Mr. Jefferson’s Sally and their children are real persons, and that the woman has a room to herself at Monticello in the character of seamstress to the family, if not as housekeeper, that she is an industrious and orderly creature in her behavior, but that her intimacy with her master is well known, and that on this account, she is treated by the rest of the house as one much above the level of his other servants. Her son, who Callendar calls President Tom, we are also assured, bears a strong likeness to Mr. Jefferson. We make bold to these circumstances of confirmation, because although the subject is a delicate one, we can not see why we are to affect any great squeamishness against speaking plainly of what we consider an undoubted fact interesting to the public.(35)

In May of 1805, Thomas Turner wrote a letter to the Boston Repertory Newspaper:
The affair of black (or rather mulatto) Sally is unquestionably true. They have cohabited for many years, and the fruit of the connexion 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. Wales, who was the father of the actual Mrs. Jefferson—The eldest son (called Beverly) is well known to many.(36)

    What particularly makes this letter worthy of notice is that Turner had ties to the Jefferson family(37) and would not have been relying on gossip and rumor. Thomas Turner was a close associate of David Meade Randolph whose wife was a sister of Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Randolph.
In July of 1805, Jefferson wrote a letter to Attorney General Levi Lincoln. That letter was enclosed in a cover letter sent to Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith. Smith was to read the letter before passing the enclosure to Lincoln:
The inclosed copy of a letter to Mr. Lincoln will so fully explain its own object, that I need say nothing in that way. I communicate it to particular friends because I wish to stand with them on the ground of truth, neither better nor worse than that makes me. 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 on truth among all their allegations against me.(38)

    Jefferson supporters have pointed to this letter as his denial of the Hemings arrangement, but that reads into the letter meaning beyond its words. First, because the enclosure to Lincoln did not survive, there is no way to know exactly what it said.
    Secondly, this letter, and presumably the enclosure, was written in response to a situation involving Betsy Walker and her husband. The Walkers had made a number of charges against Jefferson, including that he had pursued a romantic relationship with her into the early years of his marriage. The words, “all their allegations against me,” refer to the Walkers and the specific charges they had brought, not the Hemings affair. Further, Jefferson himself, in an 1816 reference to Federalist charges, wrote:
As to federal slanders, I never wished them to be answered.(39)

    That statement certainly clarifies Jefferson’s earlier letter. In 1815, Jefferson clarified his opinion on this matter when he wrote to an acquaintance, Francis C. Gray, to answer Gray’s question, “When does a black man become white?”
You asked me in conversation, what constituted a mulatto by our law. . . . Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of Negro blood.(40)

    Jefferson goes on in the letter to express this concept as an algebraic equation. The very interesting idea that arises from this letter is that Jefferson may not have considered himself as involved in “miscegenation.” Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, was the offspring of a “full-blooded African” slave and an English seaman. Sally herself was reputed to be the daughter of Betty Hemings and John Wayles, Betty’s owner. This made Sally Hemings half-sister to Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. That constituted two crosses with pure white, so Sally’s child(ren) with Jefferson would be considered white, having cleared “the issue of Negro blood” of that time period.
    An English writer, Frances Trollope, included in her book Domestic Manners of the Americans (published in 1832), the following story told by political lecturer, Frances Wright, who had visited Jefferson at Monticello in 1824:
Mr. Jefferson is said to have been the father of children by almost all of his numerous gang of female slaves . . . when, as it sometimes happened, his children by Quadroon slaves were white enough to escape suspicion of their origin he did not pursue them if they attempted to escape, saying laughingly, “Let the rogues get off, if they can; I will not hinder them.”(41)

    In an even earlier book, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt had written:
In Virginia mongrel Negroes are found in greater number than in Carolina and Georgia; and I have even seen, especially at Mr. Jefferson’s, slaves, who, neither in point of colour nor features, shewed the least trace of their original descent; but their mothers being slaves, they retain, of consequence, the same condition.(42)

    John Hartwell Co cke, who was a friend of Jefferson’s, wrote two diary entries in his later life that commented directly on the Jefferson-Hemings issue. Writing about masters with slave families, Co cke comments:
26 January 1853: . . . they are not few, nor far between. I can enumerate a score of such cases in our beloved Old Dominion that have come in my way this life, without seeking for them. Were they enumerated with administration of the State, they would be found by hundreds. Nor is it to be wondered at, when Mr. Jefferson’s notorious example is considered.43 23 April 1859: The defenders of the Institution omit to look at the feature—that all Batchelors or a large majority at least—keep as a substitute for a wife some individual of the . . . Slaves. In Virginia this damnable practice exists as much as anywhere and probably more, as Mr. Jefferson’s example can be pleaded for its defense.(44)  page 2