Brief Biographies of Members of The Hemings Family
Because of the detailed records Jefferson kept, scholars today know much about individual slaves at Monticello. Biographies of some African Americans at Monticello are presented below and in other sections of "A Day In the Life."
John Hemings (1776-1830+)
John Hemings (also spelled as 'Hemmings') was the son of the slave Betty Hemings and, it was said, Joseph Neilson, one of the white housejoiners hired by Jefferson in the 1770s. Hemings started his working life as an "out-carpenter," felling trees and hewing logs, building fences and barns, and helping to construct the log slave dwellings on Mulberry Row.
John Hemings must have demonstrated his ability early, for at the age of seventeen he was put to work under a succession of skilled white woodworkers hired by Jefferson to enlarge the main house. Hemings learned to make wheels and fine mahogany furniture in the Monticello Joinery, and to use an elaborate set of planes to create decorative interior moldings. He was principal assistant to James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner responsible for most of the elegant woodwork in the Monticello house, and Hemings alone crafted much of the interior woodwork of Jefferson's house at Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Virginia. He also made all the wooden parts of a large landau carriage Jefferson designed in 1814. He thus became far more than a carpenter -- he was a highly skilled joiner and cabinetmaker.
John Hemings was a great favorite with Jefferson's grandchildren, who told of his making toys and furniture for them. His wife Priscilla was their "mammy." Jefferson freed John Hemings in his will, allowing him the tools from the joinery as well as the work of his two assistants. He continued to live at Monticello after 1826, probably until his death.
Living in cabins on Mulberry Row in the 1790s were several of the daughters of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (c1735-1807), a slave who came to Monticello as part of the inheritance of Jefferson's wife, Martha, from her father, John Wayles. Betty and her twelve children and numerous grandchildren occupied most of the important household and artisan positions at Monticello.
Her daughter Nance (1761-1827+) was a Monticello weaver, who received her training under a white weaver during the Revolution. Nance's sister Bett (1759-1830+), also known as Betty Brown, was personal servant to Jefferson's wife, while Critta (1769-1850) served in a number of domestic capacities. In 1793, Jefferson specified that she should live in the nearest of the new 12'x14' log cabins on Mulberry Row, "as oftenest wanted about the house." Critta Hemings was briefly nurse to Jefferson's grandson Francis Eppes, who later bought her freedom so that she could join her husband, Zachariah Bowles, a member of the local free black community.
The youngest Hemings sister, Sally (1773-1835), traveled from Virginia to France at the age of fourteen, accompanying Jefferson's young daughter Mary. In Paris Sally was taught the skills of a lady's maid, learning to dress hair, stitch decorative hems, and launder fine silks. Thereafter she was personal servant to Jefferson's daughters and granddaughters. She was given her "time" (informally emancipated) by Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph after his death. Shown at right is Martha Wayles Jefferson's bell, which, according to Hemings family tradition, was given to Sally Hemings by Martha Jefferson.
Sally Hemings' name became linked to Jefferson's in 1802, when a Richmond newspaper published the allegation that she was Jefferson's mistress and had borne him a number of children. Jefferson's Randolph grandchildren denied the existence of such a relationship, while Sally Hemings' descendants considered their connection to Jefferson an important family truth. Jefferson himself made neither a public response nor any explicit reference to this issue.
Campeachy chair, made by John Hemings in the Monticello joinery before 1819. Photo by Edward Owen.
Bell 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.