Mary Hemings Bell

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Mary Hemings
Born1753
Diedafter 1834
Spouse(s)Colonel Thomas Bell (not legally recognized)
Parent(s)
RelativesSee Hemings family

Mary Hemings Bell (1753-18??) was a woman from Virginia. She was the oldest child of Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings. History does not say who her father was, but it was not John Wayles. Mary Hemings was the half-sister of Sally Hemings and James Hemings. For part of her life, she was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson.[1][2]

Family history and early life[change | change source]

According to Mary Hemings' nephew, Madison Hemings, Mary Hemings' grandmother was a fully African woman and might have been born in Africa. She was enslaved to the Eppes family in Virginia. Historians do not know for sure what her name was. Papers with the names of enslaved women in the Eppes family include "Dinah," "Judy," "Abbie," "Sarah," "Parthenia," and others. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed said that there were many girls named "Thenia" in the Hemings family, and they might have been named after Parthenia. But she also says that "Sally" is a nickname for "Sarah," and there were many girls named "Sarah" and "Sally" in the Hemings family too.[1]

Mary Hemings' mother was called Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings. Mary Hemings' nephew Madison Hemings told the story: Elizabeth Hemings' mother was an African woman and her father was an English sea captain named Hemings. The sea captain tried to buy Elizabeth Hemings from her owner, but the owner said no. He said he wanted to see what a half-white, half-African child would look like. Then Captain Hemings tried to take the child away from the owner without paying, but someone told the owner about his plan. Captain Hemings left Virginia and did not come back.[1]

Captain Hemings tried to take his daughter from one of the men in the Eppes family, but historians do not know which one because they do not know when Elizabeth Hemings was born. One paper says "about 1735."

Elizabeth Hemings lived at the Eppes family's house, which was called Bermuda Hundred until 1746. That year, Martha Eppes married John Wayles. Elizabeth and other enslaved people went with Martha to Wayle's house as part of her marriage settlement. A marriage settlement was any property that a married woman could control and her husband couldn't. Technically, the Eppes family owned Elizabeth Hemings.[1]

Elizabeth Hemings had many children. Mary Hemings was the oldest. History does not say who her father was. John Wayles was the father of most of Elizabeth Hemings' other children.

When Martha Wayles Skelton married Thomas Jefferson, Hemings and many people in her family went with Martha Skelton to Jefferson's house at Monticello. Mary Hemings was 19 or 20 years old.[1][3]

Later life[change | change source]

Mary Hemings had four children while she lived at Monticello. Her son Joseph Fosset might have been then son of a free white man named William Fossett who also lived at Monticello. Historians do not know for sure what their relationship was like, but most of them think that if she named her son "Fosset," she must have liked him.[2]

Thomas Jefferson gave Mary Hemings' two oldest children away. Daniel went to live with Jefferson's sister and Molly went to live with his daughter.[2]

When Thomas Jefferson was in Paris as the United States Ambassador to France, Mary Hemings worked for a man named Thomas Bell who lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. She brought her children Joseph and Betsy with her. She had two more children at Bell's house. In 1792, Mary Hemings asked Thomas Jefferson to sell her to Bell, and he did.[4] Historian Annette Gordon-Reed says this was a normal thing for Jefferson to do: To sell an enslaved person so they could live in the same place as someone else in their family. She writes that Jefferson knew Bell was the father of Hemings' young children but did not talk about it. He wrote to his manager, Nicholas Lewis, saying to "dispose of Mary according to her desire, with such of her younger children as she chose."[3] He meant that Bell could buy Mary Hemings and his own children but not Mary Hemings' other children. They could not stay and live with Bell and their half-siblings. They had to go back to Monticello without their mother.[1][5]

Mary lived with Bell until he died in 1800.[4] He did not legally free her but he did unofficially free her. In his will, he left his property to their children.[2] He wrote his will as if Mary and his children were free, and his neighbors respected it.

Children[change | change source]

When Jefferson sold Mary Hemings to Thomas Bell, he did not let her keep her older children with her. They went back to his house at Monticello.[1][6]

Children with earlier partners:

  • Daniel Farley (1722-1837)
  • Molly (1777-after 1790)
  • Joseph Fosset (1780-1858)
  • Betsy Hemings (1783-1857)

Children with Thomas Bell:

  • Robert Washington Bell
  • Sarah Jefferson Bell

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Annette Gordon-Reed (2008). The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: Norton.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "Mary Hemings Bell". Monticello. Retrieved September 18, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Lucia Cinder Stanton. "Jefferson's "Family"". PBS. Retrieved September 18, 2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Joshua D. Rothman (2003). Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  5. "Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis (April 12, 1792)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved September 18, 2021.
  6. "The Life of Sally Hemings - Family Tree". Monticello. Retrieved September 18, 2021.