Sally Hemings

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Sally Hemings
Only image of Sally Hemings known, around 1804

Childrenunnamed baby, Harriet, Beverly, unnamed daughter, Harriet, Madison, Eston
RelativesSee Hemings family

Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835) was an enslaved woman from Virginia. She is famous for her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. People say she was his mistress or his concubine or the girl he was raping, but we do not know for sure. We do know that they had six children together over many years.[1][2][3] Most of what we know about Sally Hemings comes from things her son, Madison, said about her many years later.

Early life and family[change | change source]

According to Madison Hemings, Sally 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.[3]

Sally Hemings' mother was called Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings. Madison Hemings told the story: Elizabeth Hemings' mother was an African woman and her father was an English sea captain named Hemings.[4][5] 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.[3]

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 could not. Technically, the Eppes family owned Elizabeth Hemings.[3]

Elizabeth Hemings had many children. The father of most of those children, including Sally, was John Wayles. John Wayles also had children with his wife, Martha Eppes. This made Sally Hemings the half-sister of Martha Wayles Skelton, who married Thomas Jefferson.

When Martha Wayles Skelton married Jefferson, Hemings and many people in her family went with Martha Skelton to Jefferson's house at Monticello.[2] Sally Hemings was about ten years old when Martha Wayles Skelton-Jefferson died. Historians think Sally Hemings and her mother Elizabeth may have helped take care of Martha Wayles Skelton-Jefferson when she was sick. Martha Wayles Skelton-Jefferson left Sally a present in her will: a small silver bell.[3]

Youth and trip to France[change | change source]

When Thomas Jefferson went to France to be ambassador, he only took his oldest daughter with him. He also took Sally Hemings's older brother, James Hemings. Jefferson left his younger two daughters behind with his wife's relatives in Virginia. Then the youngest of the three girls died. Jefferson then wrote to his wife's relatives and asked them to send the middle girl, Maria, nicknamed "Polly," to him in France. It took two years for them to agree.[3][6]

Jefferson told the relatives to choose one of the enslaved women to go with his daughter to France. He said the woman should be older, already inoculated for smallpox, and of a steady personality. He asked for an enslaved woman named Isabel, then twenty-nine years old. But Isabel had just had a baby, so she could not come. Jefferson's wife's relatives sent Sally Hemings instead. Sally Hemings was not any of the three things Jefferson had asked for. She was only fourteen, not inoculated for smallpox, and had a lively personality.[3]

Abigail Adams met Hemings when the ship stopped in London. Abigail Adams wrote to Jefferson and said he should send Hemings back to Virginia on a ship, but he did not. She said Hemings would probably be as much work to take care of as Polly was. She wrote that Hemings was running around, laughing, and playing with Polly. At the time, Adams thought Hemings was sixteen years old, but she was really fourteen years old. We do not know for sure why Abigail Adams wanted Jefferson to send Hemings back to Virginia.[3]

In France, Hemings worked as a servant for Jefferson and as a lady's maid to Jefferson's oldest daughter, Martha. Jefferson paid her. Jefferson's writings show him buying clothes that Hemings could wear to outings with Martha. We do not know when Jefferson began having sex with Hemings. She was pregnant when Jefferson wanted to go back to Virginia.[3]

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed wonders why Hemings agreed to go back to Virginia with Jefferson. About 1000 black people lived in Paris at the time, and more of them were men than women.[2] Gordon-Reed notes that if Sally Hemings had stayed in Paris, she probably could have gotten married or started her own business if she'd wanted to. Gordon-Reed says that Jefferson had planned to come back to France after staying in Virginia only a short time. But the French Revolution's Reign of Terror happened, and he changed his plans.[3]

The laws of France in the 1770s and 1780s did not allow people to keep slaves in France (they could keep slaves in France's colonies). People who brought slaves to France had to either send them away or free them within a certain time. Enslaved people who knew about the law sometimes went to the admiralty court and asked the French government to say they were free. Sally Hemings and her brother could have done this. Gordon-Reed notes that this would have made Jefferson and the United States look bad to the French. She also notes that if Jefferson had freed James and Sally Hemings, it would have made Jefferson and the United States look good to the French.

However, neither of these two things happened. According to Hemings and Jefferson's son Madison, Sally Hemings negotiated with Jefferson. Jefferson, James Hemings, and Sally Hemings made a deal in private: Jefferson promised to free all of Sally Hemings's children, whether he was their father or not. Jefferson promised to free James Hemings after he had taught more people at Monticello how to cook in the French way.[3]

Children[change | change source]

Four of Hemings' children lived to be adults.[2]

  • an unnamed baby
  • Harriet (1795-1797)
  • Beverly Hemings (1798- after 1822): He was allowed to leave Monticello. He pretended to be a white man and was never found out in his lifetime.
  • a daughter (1799-1800)
  • Harriet Hemings (1801- after 1822): She was allowed to leave Monticello. She pretended to be a white woman and was never found out in her lifetime.
  • Madison Hemings (1805-1877): He became a carpenter. In Jefferson's will, he asked the government of Virginia to free Madison Heminings, and it did. Madison later moved to Ohio and became a farmer. Madison did not pretend to be white.
  • Eston Hemings Jefferson (1808-1856): In Jefferson's will, he asked the government of Virginia to free Eston, and it did. But Eston looked so much like Jefferson that he decided to pretend to be a white man. He called himself Jefferson's nephew.

Later life[change | change source]

Visitors to Monticello remembered Sally Hemings taking care of Jefferson's clothes and sewing. In Jefferson's writings, he called her "Maria's maid."

Legally, Sally Hemings was never freed. But historians believe that Jefferson's daughter Martha "gave Sally her time." This was a thing that slave owners would do in the early 1800s: They would let an older slave live as if they were free.[2]

The 1830 Virginia census lists Sally, Madison, and Eston as free white people. The 1831 census lists Sally Hemings as a "free mulatto," meaning a free person who is half white and half black. In that census, Hemings said she had been living in Charlottesville, Virginia since 1826.[2]

Scandal[change | change source]

People who did not like Jefferson wrote about him and Hemings. They said the fact that Jefferson had children with a black woman was a reason not to vote for him.[4]

In 1802, Jefferson was President of the United States. That year, writer James Callendar wrote about Jefferson and Hemings in his newspaper. He called Sally Hemings a "concubine" and said that she and Jefferson had children.

Cover up[change | change source]

Virginia became more racist as the American Civil War got closer. Jefferson's grandchildren did not want people to know their grandfather had sex with a black woman.[3] They told people that perhaps Jefferson's nephew had been the father of Hemings's children.[2][3] A man named Edmund Bacon wrote about working as an overseer at Monticello and said Jefferson was not the father of Harriet Hemings. But Bacon was not at Monticello until after Harriet was five years old.[2]

During the 20th century, not all historians believed that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children. Even Eston Hemings Jefferson's descendants changed their story: They said one of Jefferson's other relatives must have been Eston's father.[4]

DNA test[change | change source]

In 1998, DNA testing showed that someone from Jefferson's male line must have been the father of Hemings's son Eston. Scientists tested the Y chromosome of Jefferson's uncle and the Y chromosome of Jefferson's nephews' grandfather on their own father's side. They compared these chromosomes to the Y chromosomes of Eston's male descendants. They found that Eston's family had Y chromosomes like Jefferson's and not like his nephews'.[4] Before the tests, about a third of historians believed Thomas Jefferson had been the father of Hemings' children, about a third did not, and about a third were undecided. After the test, about two thirds believed Thomas Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children.[7]

Because Jefferson's nephews were not of his same male line, none of them could have been Eston's father. Historian Gordon-Reed matched this against letters and other records showing when Jefferson and Hemings were in the same place, and said that Jefferson could have been the father of all Hemings' children. For example, he was always at Monticello the right number of months before one of Hemings's children was born.[3]

In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation said it was likely that Jefferson was the father of all Hemings's children.[2][4]

In 2001, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society said Jefferson's younger brother must have been the father of Hemings's children.[4]

Appearance[change | change source]

We do not know what Sally Hemings looked like. Newspapers making fun of Jefferson drew pictures of her as very dark-skinned, but most of those artists had never seen her. People who saw Hemings and wrote about her said she was light-skinned with long, straight hair.[2][3]

One visitor to Monticello said she was very beautiful. She was 37 when he saw her and had already had many children.[3]

In popular culture[change | change source]

In 1995, the movie Jefferson in Paris showed Hemings as an older teenager who willingly seeks a relationship with Jefferson.[1] In this movie, she returns with Jefferson to Virginia because she wants to go home.

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Farah Stockman (June 16, 2018). "Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson's Relationship With Sally Hemings". New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 "The Life of Sally Hemings". Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 Annette Gordon-Reed (2008). The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: Norton.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account". Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  5. Lucia Cinder Stanton. "Jefferson's "Family"". PBS. Retrieved September 18, 2021.
  6. Mark Silk (2016). "Did John Adams Out Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
  7. Lucia Stanton (2000). "The Other End of the Telescope: Jefferson through the Eyes of his Slaves (Abstract)". The William and Mary Quarterly. 57 (1). Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture: 139–152. doi:10.2307/2674362. JSTOR 2674362. Retrieved September 18, 2021.