Hemings, Sally (1773–1835)

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Hemings, Sally (1773–1835)

African-American slave who for years was the subject of speculation regarding her relationship with the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, now thought to be the father of at least one of her children. Name variations: Sally Hemmings; Black Sally. Pronunciation: HEM-ings. Born Sally Hemings in 1773, on one of the Virginia plantations belonging to John Wayles; died in 1835 (some sources cite 1836), in Albemarle County, Virginia; daughter of John Wayles (a wealthy planter and slave trader) and his mulatto slave Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings; half-sister of Martha Jefferson; no legal marriage noted; children: Thomas (whose actual existence is questionable but may have been Thomas Woodson [1790–1879]); Edy (b. 1796, died in infancy); Harriett (1795–1797); Beverly (1798–?); Harriett (1801–?); Madison (1805–1877); Eston (1808–1852).

Arrived at Monticello as an infant (1774), among slaves inherited by her half-sister Martha Jefferson, wife of Thomas Jefferson; lived in Paris as a personal servant to the Jefferson daughters (1787–89), and upon return to Monticello resumed duties as a house-maid; freed by Jefferson's daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, not long after Jefferson's death; went to live with her two freed sons, Madison and Eston, for the remainder of her life; DNA tests proved that at least one son, Eston, is of the Jefferson blood-line (1999).

Sally Hemings attracted the singular attention of Thomas Jefferson in 1787, when she accompanied Jefferson's nine-year-old daughter Maria Jefferson (Eppes) to Paris as Maria's personal servant. From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson was the American minister to France, and Maria's older sister Martha Jefferson (Randolph) was already abroad with him. That the care of Maria was entrusted to young Sally, who was only 14 at the time, was a surprise to Jefferson. Before going to Europe, Maria and Sally had been staying with Maria's aunt and uncle, Francis and Elizabeth Eppes . Jefferson had asked the Eppeses to send "a careful negro woman, Isabel, for instance, if she has had the small pox." Since Isabel was about to give birth, Sally was sent as a substitute.

Abigail Adams , wife of the American minister to England, John Adams, was asked by Jefferson to look after Maria and her slave servant during a stopover in England. Abigail was shocked to find that Sally "is quite a child" and informed Jefferson that Captain Ramsay, who had charge of the ship that brought the girls over, thought that Sally "will be of so little service that he had better carry her back with him." Abigail added, however, that Jefferson should be the judge. Sally "seems fond of the child and appears good naturd." It has been speculated that Captain Ramsay himself wanted to make the beautiful young slave a subject of his affections.

Even in Paris, as it would be at Monticello, the Jefferson home in Virginia, Hemings' life is shrouded in mystery. Jefferson never mentioned her in his correspondence during the Paris years. Sally and her uncle, James Hemings, whom Jefferson had assigned to French caterers to learn French cooking, had a good deal of independence. Under French law, they were free, having the same status as whites. Jefferson had Sally vaccinated in Paris, and his records indicate that he purchased fine clothes for her. In 1788, he began paying Sally and James monthly wages, about one-half of what French servants made. During their French stay, it is likely that Sally resided most of the time with Maria and her sister Martha at a convent boarding school and not at Jefferson's own close quarters at the Hôtel de Langeac. For five weeks, Sally lived with Madam Dupré , Jefferson's laundress. During these years, Hemings gained sophistication, some knowledge of French, and accompanied Jefferson's daughters on social occasions.

Thomas Jefferson had little privacy in Paris. There were frequent visitors and guests, none of whom mention Hemings, a fact used to refute the charge that beginning in Paris in 1789, Jefferson formed a sexual liaison with the 16-year-old Hemings. According to one theory, Sally, upon becoming pregnant in France, gave Jefferson the ultimatum that she would return to Virginia and resume the status of a slave only if Jefferson agreed to free all her future children when they reached age 21. This Jefferson, indeed, did, whether he had made such a pledge or not. Was Sally Hemings the mistress of Thomas Jefferson? A definitive answer has eluded historians. There are conflicting statements from credible witnesses and circumstantial evidence on both sides of the case. Jefferson remained completely mute on the subject.

Sally Hemings was a quadroon, that is one-fourth African and three-fourths Caucasian. Isaac, one of Jefferson's slaves, said of her that she was "mighty near white … very handsome, long straight hair down her back." She was also the half-sister of Martha Jefferson , widow of Bathurst Skelton, who had married Thomas Jefferson in January 1772. Martha was aunt to Sally's children, and, conversely, Sally was aunt to her charges, the Jefferson daughters. Martha Jefferson was the daughter of John Wayles and his third wife Martha Eppes Wayles . After the death of Martha Wayles in 1761, John Wayles made Sally's mother Betty Hemings his mistress. Betty Hemings, the daughter of an English sea captain and an African slave woman, had six children with Wayles, Sally being the youngest. Upon John Wayles' death in 1773, Martha Jefferson inherited property that included 11,000 acres of land and 135 slaves. (Among them were the Hemings family, of whom six were Martha's half-sisters or brothers.)

Sally Hemings appears to have received no more than the preferential treatment afforded all members of the Hemings family at Monticello. All of Betty Hemings' surviving children became household servants or artisans. The reason for their placement among the elite in the slave hierarchy was owing to the respect that Jefferson had for his wife's half-siblings, especially so after Martha Jefferson died in 1782.

Sally's tasks at Monticello varied. As a housemaid, she could be expected to do cleaning (such as dusting), serve meals, arrange the dining table, run errands, and even do some outside work, such as helping with gardening and cutting shrubbery. Most essentially, as expected of all the women house slaves, she made clothes, which involved weaving, carding, and spinning wool. Thomas Jefferson expected his daughters to learn "the needle and domestic economy," so that they could better supervise the work of the household slaves. Domestic black servants, like Hemings, had better food than the field hands, because they ate leftovers prepared for their master and his family. They also had the better clothes among the slaves, often wearing garments handed down from the white family members. One drawback in Hemings' routine, as with other domestic slaves, was that she was at the Jefferson family's beck and call during all hours of the day and night.

It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor … has kept as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY.… THE AMERICAN VENUS is said to officiate as housekeeper at Monticello.

—James T. Callender (1902)

Visitors at Monticello were surprised that the Hemings family could almost pass as white. The Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, during a stay at Monticello in 1796, noted that some of Jefferson's slaves "neither in point of color nor features, showed the least trace of their original descent." Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's oldest grandson, recalled that on one occasion "a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was so perfectly obvious to all." Even in regard to one of Sally's sons, Randolph also remarked, "the resemblance was so close, that at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have been mistaken for Mr. Jefferson." However, visitors at Monticello reported that Jefferson gave no indication of paternal affection toward those slaves who bore his likeness.

The Jefferson-like resemblance of Sally Hemings' children indicate a kinship between the Hemings and Jefferson families. Although miscegenation was illegal in Virginia, it was prevalent among the gentry and their slaves; no one asked questions as long as the slave did not become a public charge. Jefferson had pledged to his wife upon her deathbed in 1782, that he would not remarry, a promise he kept. Nine months before the birth of each of Hemings' children, he was at the same location as Sally. For Jefferson, however, to acknowledge or be proven the father of slave children would greatly damage his integrity and political career. He himself denounced miscegenation, and he had a reputation for being a kind master. Jefferson could ill afford being revealed as a hypocrite, especially one who debauched slave women under what was considered his "care." Were this the fact, an elaborate cover-up to conceal paternal relationship would compound the discredit. If Jefferson did not father Sally's children, who did? The debate is even more heated with DNA tests which provide conclusive evidence that Sally's progeny had a blood link to at least some member of the Jefferson family.

Sally Hemings was introduced to the public in a sensational article by James T. Callender in the Richmond Recorder of September 1, 1802. Callender charged that Jefferson "for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY." In the same newspaper, on September 22, Callender predicted that if more Virginians followed Jefferson's example "you would have FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND MULATTOS in addition to the present swarm." There would likely be a racial civil war. Callender advised that the Democratic-Republican Party (one of the two major political parties of the time), in order to save itself, should ditch Jefferson. Callender, out for revenge for being denied a political appointment by President Jefferson, had already descended to scandal-mongering by accusing Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson of inappropriate sexual conduct (to which both men conceded). Jefferson acknowledged that he had tried to seduce a married woman, Mrs. John Walker (Elizabeth Walker ). Despite his vindictive journalism, if Callender was truthful regarding other accusations, could he not also be accurate as to a Jefferson-Hemings liaison?

The most intriguing aspect of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy is Callender's claim that living at Monticello, in 1802, was a 12-year-old boy, Tom, Jr., presumably the child that Sally conceived in France in 1789. Though there is no paper trace of a Tom, Jr., biographer Fawn Brodie and alleged descendants of Tom contend that the boy disappeared from Monticello as soon as the Callender story broke. Supposedly Jefferson sent Tom to the Goochland plantation of Josiah Woodson, where Tom assumed the Woodson name. An 1820 census lists Tom Woodson as a mulatto who, though a slave, lived as a free man. He married a free black woman and moved first to Greenbrier County, Virginia, and then to Ohio, where he died in 1879. Tom Woodson told his grandchildren that he was Jefferson's son.

The Tom, Jr. story was picked up over succeeding generations by those who had motives to discredit Jefferson. The English novelist, Frances Milton Trollope , after visiting America, wrote a book disparaging American democracy and manners (published in 1832). She suggested that Jefferson was the progenitor of "innumerable generations of slaves." The "hospitable orgies" at Monticello "were incomplete unless the goblets he quaffed were tendered by the trembling hand of his own offspring."

After the Civil War, the revelations of Sally's son, Madison Hemings, played out in a political milieu, particularly with the Republicans. The party which had saved the Union hoped to further malign the Democrats by showing that Jefferson, representative of the Democratic leadership of the past, had made a harlot of a slave woman. Madison, an octoroon (seven-eighths white) who could have passed as white, gained his freedom at age 21 (presumably because of the pledge Jefferson made to Sally in France). He remained in Albemarle County (the same county as Monticello), until his mother died in 1835, and then moved to Pike County, Ohio, living in a black community there. In 1873, S.F. Wetmore, a staunch Republican and holder of patronage jobs of postmaster and federal marshall, published an interview of Madison Hemings in the local paper that Wetmore edited, the Pike County Republican. Madison recollected that his mother had told him she had been Jefferson's "concubine" in Paris. Thus, accepting Madison's account, Sally had a child in 1790 who either lived or died or became the person known as Tom Woodson. Although the refined style of the language attributed to Madison does not comport with his meager education, Madison's account as a surviving witness nevertheless has credibility.

Testimonies of Jefferson's slave, Isaac, and an overseer at Monticello (1806–22), Edmund Bacon, made no mention of a slave son of Jefferson

named Tom. Still, the overall question remains: did any one or several of Sally's children have Thomas Jefferson as a parent? A case has been made that either or both Peter and Samuel Carr, sons of Jefferson's sister, Martha Jefferson Carr , and her husband Dabney Carr (died 1773), were responsible for the paternity of some or all of Sally Hemings' children. This theory depends on the dismissal of the assumption that Sally conceived a child (Tom, Jr.) in Paris, since no Carrs were in France at that time. Peter and Samuel Carr, Jefferson's favorite nephews, were brought up at Monticello and later were frequent visitors who lived nearby.

In 1868, Henry Randall, a biographer of Jefferson, reported in a letter to James Parton, also a Jefferson biographer, that in the 1850s Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of Jefferson, had told him that Peter Carr was the father of Sally's children. He maintained that Sally had been the mistress of Peter Carr, and her mother Betty that of Samuel Carr. Randolph, who owned Edgehill plantation next to Monticello, had lived with his mother Martha Jefferson Randolph in Jefferson's home and had managed Jefferson's plantation. Randolph claimed that he had slept within sound of Jefferson's breathing and that he had known of no liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In 1858, Ellen Randolph Coolidge , another of Martha Jefferson Randolph's children, had written that she believed Samuel Carr was the father of Sally Hemings' children. Edmund Bacon, the former overseer at Monticello, in an interview published in 1862, stated that a person (name withheld) other than Jefferson was the father of Sally's daughter, Harriett Hemings , born in 1801.

Jefferson either freed Sally's children or allowed them to run away. He gave Harriett $50 and permitted her to take a stagecoach to Philadelphia. Beverly Hemings also went to the same city, where both she and Harriet passed as white. Eston Hemings joined Madison in Ohio after their mother's death. Eston, who played the violin, as did Jefferson, and who became a popular band leader, eventually moved to Wisconsin. Strangely, though her children were freed by Jefferson, Sally was not. The probate inventory of Jefferson's estate listed Sally, then 54 years old, as having the slave value of $50. Within two years after Jefferson's death, his daughter and heir, Martha Jefferson Randolph, freed Sally, who lived out the rest of her life with sons Madison and Eston. All three, in the 1830 census, were listed as white. When Sally died in 1835, she was buried not at Monticello but in a cemetery for blacks.

The case for a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship has received a substantial boost from the appearance of the immensely popular novels, Sally Hemings (1979) and The President's Daughter (1994) by Barbara Chase-Riboud , the 1995 motion picture Jefferson in Paris, and the exhaustively researched psychobiography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974) by Fawn Brodie. Annette Gordon-Reed , in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), judiciously weighs all the evidence and comes up with an advocacy for the existence of the relationship.

DNA testing may yet settle the controversy over the paternity of several of Sally Hemings' children. Dr. Eugene A. Foster, a retired pathology professor at the University of Virginia, conducted tests to determine if there is a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings families. A unique chromosome is present through a male line. Unfortunately Jefferson's only son died in infancy. Only two Jeffersons—Thomas Jefferson and his uncle, Field Jefferson—have known male descendants living today. The male line of Jefferson's brother, Randolph, expired in the 1920s and 1930s. Foster took blood samples from five male descendants of Field Jefferson, and also from male descendants of the Woodson, Carr, and Hemings families, and found a match only between Jefferson family males and the descendants of Eston Hemings, demonstrating indeed a Jefferson-Hemings family line, with Thomas Jefferson the likely candidate to be named as Eston's father.

Madison Hemings' line could not be tested because of his three sons, one vanished and the other two had no children. Tests on descendants of two of Thomas Woodson's sons—Lewis and James—yielded no connection. But there could have been breaks in the Woodson male line, such as certain family members being illegitimate. There are plans to test descendants of yet another Woodson, William. Only a Woodson link would verify definitively Jefferson's paternity of a son by Sally Hemings. (No other Jefferson kin was in France at the time Tom was conceived.)

In 1999, for the first time in 170 years, the Hemings descendants were invited to attend the annual gathering of the Jefferson family's Monticello Association. "I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship," said James Truscott, a white descendant of Jefferson's daughter Maria and vice president of the association. At the same meeting, Truscott's nephew, Lucian Truscott, challenged the members of the association to fully admit the Hemings descendants and allow them to be buried at the family graveyard at Monticello. However, while the reunion day was cordial, filled with handshakes and shared family stories between white and black descendants, the association voted against allowing Hemings' line full membership, with attendant burial rights. A 17-year-old descendant of Sally Hemings remained hopeful. "We're still going to be family regardless of what the Monticello Association does," she said. Thus, the Jefferson-Hemings controversy is still not resolved.

Thomas Jefferson's only direct reference to Sally Hemings is in a 1799 letter mentioning that Sally had given birth; two other letters refer to Sally in the context of measles among slave children. Jefferson seldom mentioned women in his letters, and if he tried to conceal a relationship with Hemings, that would be all the more reason not to refer to her. One might take heart, however, from Madison Hemings' statement that "we were the only children of [Jefferson] by a slave woman." Were this a fact, then Jefferson was possibly faithful to one woman for 37 years—Sally Hemings.


Adair, Douglas. "The Jefferson Scandals," in Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays of Douglas Adair. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. NY: W.W. Norton, 1974, pp. 160–191.

Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. NY: W.W. Norton, 1974.

Egerton, Douglas K. "Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings Family: A Matter of Blood," in The Historian. Vol. 59, 1997, pp. 327–345.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997 (appendices include a name glossary, the Memoirs of both Israel Jefferson and Madison Hemings, and a key letter each from Henry S. Randall and Ellen Randolph Coolidge).

McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. NY: Henry Holt, 1988.

Murray, Barbara, and Brian Duffy. "Jefferson's Secret Life," in U.S. News and World Report. November 9, 1998, pp. 58–63.

Reed, David. "Jefferson and Hemings descendants gather in Va.," in The Day [New London, CT]. May 16,1999.

suggested reading:

Adams, William H. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Bear, James A., Jr., ed. Jefferson at Monticello: Memoirs of a Monticello Slave as dictated to Charles Campbell by Isaac and Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Rev. Hamilton Wilcox Pierson. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1967.

Chase-Riboud, Barbara. Sally Hemings. NY: Viking, 1979.

Duray, Michael. "With the Hammer of Truth:" James Thompson Callender and America's Early National Heroes. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

Miller, John C. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. NY: The Free Press, 1977.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.

related media:

Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte (as Thomas Jefferson) and Thandie Newton (as Sally Hemings), produced by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, 1995.

"Thomas Jefferson: a View from the Mountain" (videocassette, 114 min.), Central and Northern Virginia Public Television, Richmond, VA, 1996.

Harry M. Ward , William Binford Vest Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Richmond, author of The War for Independence and the Transformation of American Society (University College of London Press, 1999), and 12 other books on early America