There’s more to the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings than the debate over his fathering her seven children.
Sally Hemings was born in 1773, most probably at Guinea Plantation in Cumberland County, Va.—one of the plantations of her white father, John Wayles, the owner of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings. She was the last of six children born to Elizabeth by John. Elizabeth, better known as Betty, was herself half white: Her father was acknowledged to be Capt. Hemings, a sailor who apparently had a liaison with an unidentified slave, which resulted in Betty’s birth in 1735.
In her lifetime, Betty had at least 12 children by four different men—two of them white and the other two slaves. The father of her first four children was an unidentified slave on the plantation of John Wayles. Next came the six children she had by John Wayles, her owner. At Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson, she had two more children—the first by Joseph Neilson, a man hired as a carpenter on the plantation, and her last child by an unknown slave.
Because Betty was half white, her children with John Wayles—including Sally—were three-quarters white. At the time Virginia law recognized as white only those who were more than three-quarters white, and as mulatto anyone who was more than 25 percent black but 75 percent or less white. Thus Betty and her children were legally mulatto, but Sally’s children with Jeffer-son were legally white.
Sally Hemings, her mother, and her siblings came to Monticello after the death of John Wayles in 1773, just after her birth. Betty, Sally, and the other Hemings children were part of the property bequeathed to Martha Jefferson, wife of Thomas Jefferson and also the daughter of John Wayles. Thus Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings were half sisters. Thomas and Martha had married the year before in Cumberland County, Va.
While it wasn’t uncommon at the time for cousins to marry, some of the marriages in the Wayles and Jefferson families are so close that under today’s laws they would be disallowed. John Wayles was married three times—first to Martha Eppes, Martha Jefferson’s mother. His second marriage, possibly to Tabitha Cocke or Cooke, produced three more daughters who lived to adulthood. His last marriage—to Elizabeth Lomax Skelton—produced no children. Wayles’ third wife died in 1761 and he took Betty as a concubine.
Martha and Thomas Jefferson had six children; two survived to adulthood: daughters Martha and Maria. Martha and Thomas Mann Randolph married in 1790 and had, among other children, George Wythe Randolph—Sally’s grandnephew—who became secretary of war for the Confederate States of America and whose portrait appeared on Confederate $100 notes. Maria married her half cousin, John Wayles Eppes. John’s mother, Elizabeth Wayles, was another daughter of John Wayles, making him Sally’s nephew. John Wayles Eppes was a U.S. senator from 1817 to 1821, following many years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
After the death of his wife, Jefferson apparently took Sally Hemings as his concubine. The public debate over this coupling continues, despite recent DNA studies that indicate that the descendants of Sally’s son Eston carry the Jefferson “Y” chromosome. It appears that Sally had seven children by Jefferson; four reached adulthood and had children. Perhaps the most well known is her son Madison, whose recollections appeared in 1873 as “Life Among the Lowly” in the Pike County Republican. The census enumerator in 1870 even noted that Madison Hemings was the son of Thomas Jefferson.
Eston, who changed his name to E.H. Jefferson when he moved to Madison, Wis., had three children. His oldest son, John Wayles Jefferson, enlisted in the Union army in the Civil War, rising to colonel in a white unit. In later life he was a wealthy banker and one of the largest shippers of cotton in the South after moving to Memphis, Tenn, about 1867. Eston’s other son, Beverly, owned a fleet of omnibuses and a Madison hotel. Daughter Ann W. Jefferson, who died at the age of 29, had three children. One of them—Walter Beverly Pearson—became president of the Standard Screw Company and left an estate worth $2 million.
Many of Sally’s descendants lived as whites, as did others with slave ancestry at the time. The continued controversy over whether Jefferson fathered Sally’s children keeps her story under scrutiny.
Rhonda R. McClure is a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine.