Sally Hemings

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

(Difference between revisions)
Revision as of 11:41, 12 November 2007 (edit)
Anna (Talk | contribs)

← Previous diff
Revision as of 16:46, 12 November 2007 (edit) (undo)
Anna (Talk | contribs)

Next diff →
Line 23: Line 23:
==Footnotes== ==Footnotes==
<references/> <references/>
 +==See Also==
 +*[[Hemings or Hemmings]]
==Further Sources== ==Further Sources==

Revision as of 16:46, 12 November 2007

Sally Hemings,[1] whose given name was probably Sarah, was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. There are no known portraits of her. She became Thomas Jefferson's property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother to Monticello by 1776. As a child she was probably a "nurse" to Jefferson's daughter Mary (slave girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations.)

Bell said to have been used by Martha Wayles Jefferson, courtesy Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. According to Hemings family tradition, the bell was given to Sally Hemings after Mrs. Jefferson's death
Bell said to have been used by Martha Wayles Jefferson, courtesy Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. According to Hemings family tradition, the bell was given to Sally Hemings after Mrs. Jefferson's death

Sally Hemings and Mary Jefferson were living at Eppington -- residence of Mary's aunt and uncle -- in 1787, when Jefferson's long-expressed desire to have his daughter join him in France was carried out. Fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London that summer. They were received by John and Abigail Adams, who wrote that Sally "seems fond of the child and appears good naturd."[2] Jefferson's French butler, Adrien Petit, escorted the two girls from London to Paris.

It is not known whether Sally Hemings lived at Jefferson's residence, the Hôtel de Langeac, or at the Abbaye de Panthemont, where Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Maria) Jefferson were boarding students. Jefferson, who had expressly asked that someone who had had smallpox or been inoculated against it accompany his daughter to France, soon had Sally inoculated by the famous Dr. Robert Sutton. While in Paris, she undoubtedly received training -- especially in needlework and the care of clothing -- to suit her for her position as lady's maid to Jefferson's daughters. She was occasionally paid a monthly wage of twelve livres (the equivalent of two dollars).

Sally Hemings was certainly acting as Martha Jefferson's attendant in the spring of 1789, when Patsy began to "go out" in French society (increased expenditures for clothing for both Patsy and Sally reflect this). When booking accommodations on the Clermont for the return to America, Jefferson asked that Sally's berth be "convenient to that of my daughters."[3]

After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, Sally Hemings seems to have remained at Monticello, where she performed the duties of a household servant and lady's maid (Jefferson still referred to her as "Maria's maid" in 1799).[4] Sally's son Madison recalled that one of her duties was "to take care of [Jefferson's] chamber and wardrobe, look after us children, and do light work such as sewing, &c."[5]

There are only two known descriptions of Sally Hemings. The slave Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was "mighty near white. . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back." Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as "light colored and decidedly good looking."[6]

Sally may have lived in the stone workmen's house (now called the "Weaver's Cottage") from 1790 to 1792, when she -- like her sister Critta -- might have removed to one of the new 12'x14' log cabins farther down Mulberry Row. After the completion of the south dependencies, she apparently lived in one of the "servant's rooms" under the south terrace (Thomas J. Randolph pointed it out to Randall many years later).[7]

Sally Hemings was never officially freed by Thomas Jefferson. It seems most likely that Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally "her time," a form of unofficial freedom that would enable her to remain in Virginia (the laws at that time required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). Madison Hemings reported that his mother lived in Charlottesville with him and his brother Eston until her death in 1835.[8] The location of her grave remains a mystery.

According to Jefferson's records, Sally Hemings had four surviving children. Beverly (b. 1798), a carpenter and fiddler, was allowed to leave the plantation in late 1821 or early 1822 and, according to his brother, passed into white society in Washington, D.C. Harriet (b. 1801), a spinner in Jefferson's textile shop, also left Monticello in 1821 or 1822, probably with her brother, and passed for white. Madison Hemings (1805-1878), a carpenter and joiner, was given his freedom in Jefferson's will; he resettled in southern Ohio in 1836, where he worked at his trade and had a farm. Eston Hemings (1808-c1853), also a carpenter, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1830s; there he was a well-known professional musician before moving about 1852 to Wisconsin, where he changed his name (to Eston Jefferson) along with his racial identity. Both Madison and Eston Hemings made known their belief that they were sons of Thomas Jefferson.

The descendants of Thomas C. Woodson (1790-1879) carry the strong family tradition that he was the firstborn child of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Woodson, who does not appear in Jefferson's records, left Greenbrier County, Virginia, for southern Ohio in the early 1820s. He was a successful farmer in Jackson County.


  1. This article is based on Lucia Stanton, Monticello Research Report, November 1989, revised October 1994.
  2. Abigail Adams to Jefferson, 27 June and 6 July 1787, PTJ, 11: 502,551.
  3. Jefferson to James Maurice, 16 September 1789, PTJ, 15: 433.
  4. Jefferson to John W. Eppes, Monticello, 21 December 1799, PTJ 31:274.
  5. Reminiscences of Madison Hemings, Pike County Republican, 13 March 1873. Note: several letters of Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph make reference to sewing tasks for "Sally," including adding puffed sleeves, flounces, and other trim to her dresses; it is not certain, however, that she refers to Sally Hemings, as Ellen's own maid was named Sally.
  6. Bear, Jefferson at Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967), 4; Randall to James Parton, 1 June 1868, in Milton Flower,James Parton, the Father of Modern Biography, 236-239.
  7. Ibid.
  8. One of Martha Randolph's wills, dated 18 April 1834, asked that "Sally" be given her "time" (University of Virginia). A register of free blacks for 1833 lists Sally Hemings as free since 1826, with her son Madison (Library of Virginia).

See Also

Further Sources