Fathers and sons look alike, but so do uncles and nephews. Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Eston Hemings, or was he just his uncle? This is the tale of a controversy with a 200-year-old past, what genetic analyses reveal about 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. Jefferson’s 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.

Jefferson’s political career

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

Jefferson’s career in government was long-standing. 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. In this document each of the individual colonies in North America declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Independence Day in America on the 4th of July celebrates the approval and adoption of this declaration by Congress.

Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence

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 the first Democratic-Republican President. He was also the first to start and end his presidency in the White House.

The Sally Hemings controversy

Being a public figure, especially the President of the United States, often comes with scandal. Even Jefferson, who’s considered one of the most brilliant men ever to occupy the Presidency, wasn’t immune to scandal.

The controversy of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave at his plantation, hit the public arena during his first term. The political journalist James T. Callender published an article that Jefferson “kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves” by the name of Sally.

The Recorder, Sept. 1, 1802, p. 2. Library of Virginia.
The Recorder, Sept. 1, 1802, p. 2. Library of Virginia (From Slate.com)

Even before the article, there had already been rumors of a relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman. Calendar’s story just made it much more widespread.

What evidence supported these rumors?

To understand that, we need to first delve in to Jefferson’s private life and the children of Sally Hemings. At the age of 26, Jefferson inherited land from his father just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and started designing and building his own plantation “Monticello.”

Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, VA
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, VA

When Jefferson’s father in-law passed, Jefferson’s wife (Martha) inherited his many slaves. They included Sally Hemings and her siblings, who were half-siblings of Martha.

Colonel John Wayles Jefferson
Colonel John Wayles Jefferson the eldest son of Easton Hemings (via Wikimedia Commons)

The first encounter between Jefferson and 16-year-old Sally was believed to have 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. According to anecdotal evidence, he was sent away from the Monticello house as a young boy to a farm owned by a Woodson, where he 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. Eston 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.

A family resemblance

Many of Sally’s other children also had a physical resemblance to Jefferson. 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 had 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.

Martha Jefferson Randolph
Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter served as her widower father’s White House hostess

These included lighter duties and knowledge of tasks that would enable them to earn a living as free adults. Only Sally and her children were given freedom, or allowed to “escape,” from the Monticello property.

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.

The Jefferson biography (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson) author Joseph J. Ellis   was convinced that the likelihood of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was remote.

Resolving the controversy with DNA

Y-DNA STR markers
Y-DNA STR markers are used to confirm paternal ancestry

In 1998, scientists attempted to “resolve” this historical controversy using Y-DNA. Were Sally Hemings’ sons, Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings, 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 for 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 generate Y-DNA profiles for 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. However, his paternal uncle would have the same Y-DNA. So 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. They 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, they do not rule out Jefferson as being the biological father of Eston Hemings, since they share the same Y-DNA profile. But the problem is, all males who have descended from the same paternal lineage have the same Y-DNA profile.

The match between Jefferson and Eston Hemings indicates that they are from the same paternal lineage. BUT, these genetic tests can’t confirm the exact relationship type (father/son, uncle/nephew, etc.).

At the time Easton was conceived, atleast 25 adult male Jefferson’s with the same Y-DNA profile were living in Virginia according to historians.  And several of them have visited Monticello.

Weighing the evidence

A few years after the DNA analyses, 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. They suggested 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.