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Did you know that Thomas Jefferson may have fathered a child with his slave?

The Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings controversy

Fathers and sons look alike but so do uncles and nephews. Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Earnest Hemings, or was he just his uncle? This is the tale of a controversy with a 200-year-old past, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and her children.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd of 10 children, was born to a prosperous family in Virginia in their plantation in Albermarle County called Shadwell. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a planter and surveyor and his mother, Jane Randolph, was the cousin of Peyton Randolph, the first President of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson was a jack-of-all-trades. He was an agriculturalist, horticulturist, architect (he was the principal designer of his famed home “Monticello”), etymologist, archaeologist, mathematician, cryptographer, surveyor, paleontologist, author, lawyer (admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767), inventor, and violinist.

Drawing of the Committee of Five
The Committee of Five for the Declaration of Independence

Jefferson’s career in government was long-standing, and he was one of the most influential founders of the United States. In 1776, at just 33 years of age, Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a document in which each of the individual colonies in North America declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The approval and adoption of this declaration by Congress is celebrated to this day on the 4th of July, as Independence Day in America. Jefferson later served as the governor of Virginia (1779-1781), and as the minister to France (1785-1789). He was the first Secretary of State under George Washington from 1789-1793 and was elected Vice President from 1797-1801. In 1801, he became the third president of the United States (1801-1809). Jefferson was not only the first Democratic-Republican President, but was also the first to start and end his presidency in the White House.

Being a public figure, especially the President of the United States, often comes with scandal. And even though Jefferson is considered to be one of the most brilliant men who ever occupied the Presidency, he wasn’t immune to scandal. The long-standing controversy of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave at his plantation, hit the public arena during his first term, when the political journalist James T. Callender published an article that Jefferson has “kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves” by the name of Sally. Before the article, there had already been rumours of a relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman, but Callender’s story made it much more widespread.

Photograph of Monticello
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello

So what “evidence” was there to support these rumours? First, a bit more of a background on Jefferson’s private life and the children of Sally Hemings. At the age of 26, Jefferson started designing and building his own plantation “Monticello” just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia after inheriting the land from his father. When Jefferson’s father in-law passed, his wife Martha Wayles Skeleton inherited his many slaves, including Sally Hemings and her siblings, who were half-siblings of Martha.

It is believed that the first encounter between Jefferson and 16-year-old Sally happened after 1787, when Sally accompanied Jefferson’s youngest daughter to Paris where a widowed Jefferson was serving as minister to France. Sally’s first son, Thomas Woodson, was likely born in 1790, right after Jefferson and Sally returned from France. There is no mention in historical records of Thomas Woodson living in the Monticello house, but anecdotal evidence suggests that he was sent away from the Monticello house as a young boy to a farm owned by a Woodson and took the Woodson name. Even now, members of the Woodson family believe that Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson. Sally’s last son, Eston Hemings, was born in 1808 and was said to have a striking resemblance to Jefferson. Just like the Woodson descendants many of Eston’s descendants also believe that Jefferson was Eston’s father.

Many of Sally’s other children also had a physical resemblance to Jefferson, and both Jefferson and Sally were in residence at Monticello at the time that each child would have been conceived. According to Madison, (Sally’s second youngest son), Sally had admitted to him that Jefferson was the father of all her children. It’s also noteworthy that Sally’s children were each given names that were important in the Jefferson family, rather than the Hemings family. Each child appeared to have received preferential treatment compared to other slaves owned by Jefferson, which included lighter duties and knowledge of tasks that would enable them to earn a living as free adults. Sally and her children were the only individuals that were given freedom or allowed to “escape” from the Monticello property.

While Jefferson himself refused to respond to these personal attacks, his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph privately denied the reports. Later, two of Jefferson’s grandchildren, Ellen Randolph Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson Randolph actually accused Jefferson’s nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr, to be the fathers of the Monticello slaves that resembled Jefferson. Joseph J. Ellis, the author of the Jefferson biography “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” was also convinced that the likelihood of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was remote.

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In 1998, scientists used Y-DNA STR tests to “resolve” this historical controversy of whether Sally Hemings’ sons, Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings, were fathered by Jefferson, or his nephews Samuel or Peter Carr. Y-DNA refers to the DNA on the male Y-chromosome, which is passed down unchanged from father to son. Y-DNA STRs (short tandem repeats) are small sequences of DNA on the Y-chromosome that are repeated many times over, and are useful variations to trace paternal lineages. Two paternally related males would have exactly the same or very similar Y-DNA profiles.

DNA samples were collected from multiple people to establish the Y-DNA profiles of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Woodson, Eston Hemings and the Carr brothers:

  • Thomas Jefferson’s Y-DNA profile:
    • Determined using five paternal line descendants of two of Thomas Jefferson’s cousins (sons of his paternal uncle Field Jefferson). Thomas Jefferson had no legitimate surviving sons to inherit his Y-DNA, but his paternal uncle would have the same Y-DNA, as would his uncle’s sons and their descendants through the paternal line.
  • Thomas Woodson’s Y-DNA profile:
    • Determined using five paternal line descendants of two of Thomas Woodson’s sons.
  • Eston Hemings’s Y-DNA profile:
    • Determined using one paternal line descendant of Eston Hemings.
  • Samuel and Peter Carr’s Y-DNA profile:
    • Determined using three direct paternal line descendants of three of John Carr’s sons. John Carr was the paternal grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr, and hence would have the same Y-DNA profile.

Results of the DNA test:

Carr brother’s Y-DNA Profile Thomas Jefferson’s Y-DNA Profile
Thomas Woodson’s Y-DNA Profile No match No match
Eston Hemings’ Y-DNA Profile No match PERFECT MATCH

So what do these DNA results mean?

The results of the DNA study do not support the Woodson family’s belief that Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson. These DNA analyses also show that neither of the Carr brothers could have been the biological father of Thomas Woodson or the biological father of Eston Hemings.

However, since Jefferson shares the same Y-DNA profile as Eston Hemings, he cannot be ruled out as being the biological father of Eston Hemings. But the problem is that all males who have descended from the same paternal lineage have the same Y-DNA profile, which means the match between Jefferson and Eston Hemings indicates that they are from the same paternal lineage, but the exact type of relationship (father/son, uncle/nephew, etc.) can’t be confirmed. Historians claim that there may have been approximately 25 adult male Jefferson’s with the same Y-DNA profile living in Virginia at the time Eston was conceived, several of whom were known to have visited Monticello.

A few years after the DNA analysis, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee that weighted all known evidence – DNA data, original documents, written and oral historical accounts and statistical data – to conclude that it was highly probable that Jefferson was the father of Easton Hemings, and perhaps all six of the Hemings children. But a separate committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, who reviewed essentially the same material, came up with an alternate conclusion, suggesting that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph was more likely to be the father of Sally’s children.

Regardless of whether or not you believe Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings children, the Y-DNA profile of Jefferson is now available for comparison. If you have taken the DNA Paternal Ancestry Test, you can find out whether you may have descended from the same paternal lineage.

References:

Foster EA et al. (1998) Jefferson fathered slave’s last child. Nature. 396(6706):27-8.

Abbey DM. (1999) The Thomas Jefferson paternity case. Nature. 397(6714):32.

Lander ES and Ellis JJ. (1998) Founding father. Nature. 396(6706):13-4.

Marshall E. (1999) Which Jefferson Was the Father? Science. 283(5399):153-5.

Check E. (2002) Jefferson’s descendants continue to deny slave link. Nature. 417(6886):213.

Corneliussen ST. (2002) Jury out on Jefferson’s alleged descendants. Nature. 418(6894):125.

King TE. (2007) Thomas Jefferson’s Y chromosome belongs to a rare European lineage. Am J of Physical Anthropology. 132(4):584-589.

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