Appendix K: Assessment of Thomas C. Woodson Connection to Sally Hemings

Report of the Research Committee
on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson Foundation
January 2000

Appendix K: Assessment of Thomas C. Woodson Connection to Sally Hemings

Thomas C. Woodson (c. 1790-c. 1879) was an African American whose first known appearance in the documentary record is in a deed of 1807 in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Shortly after 1820, he left Virginia for Ohio, where he lived for some years in Chillicothe and afterward in nearby Jackson County, where he was a very successful farmer. He and his wife Jemima raised a family of eleven children, many of whom became ministers or educators.

The strongest evidence supporting Thomas C. Woodson's connection to Monticello is the enduring oral history in the Woodson family. In the 1970s descendants of Woodson, through five of his children, renewed contact with each other for the first time in several generations. They learned that they preserved a family history that was almost identical in its basic statements, including that Thomas Woodson was the son of Thomas Jefferson and was sent away from Monticello at some point in his boyhood. Additional elements of the story, not in all versions, are: that Woodson's mother was Jefferson's wife's half-sister, that he was sent from Monticello to a farm belonging to a Woodson (John Woodson is the name that appears in the family stories), and that he took Woodson's name (Minnie Woodson, The Sable Curtain, Washington, 1987, appendix).

Two documentary references have been found supporting the existence of a child of Sally Hemings born about 1790 and named Tom, or Thomas. James T. Callender (1802) made several references to a son of Sally Hemings named Tom, aged about twelve, in his articles in the Richmond Recorder. Since Callender corrected aspects of his story after first publishing it, he evidently heard from those who questioned the accuracy of some of his details. There is no indication that anyone came forward to deny the existence of an oldest son of Sally Hemings named Tom.

"The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age....We hear that our young MULLATO [sic] PRESIDENT begins to give himself a great number of airs of importance in Charlottesville, and the neighbourhood." (September 1, 1802)

[Referring to errors in an account in the Lynchburg Gazette]: "One of these bulls is that our little mulatto president, the fellow TOM, went to France along with his mother. We have some small reasons for thinking that TOM did not exist, at the time of the French embassy. He is not big enough, at least our correspondent thinks so, to have been in existence fifteen or sixteen years ago. Our information goes to twelve or thirteen years." (November 3, 1802)

The other reference is in a letter of a Georgia Federalist, Thomas Gibbons, to a fellow Federalist in 1802. Gibbons referred to "his [Jefferson's] children, to wit, Tom, Beverly and Harriot...tho I never saw any one of them" (December 20, 1802, Clements Library, University of Michigan).

No document has yet been found to link Thomas C. Woodson with Monticello, Sally Hemings, or Thomas Jefferson. A Woodson family historian, the late Minnie S. Woodson, uncovered records that persuasively supported many elements of the Woodson family oral history. She connected Woodson, through his wife Jemima, to the Woodsons of Goochland and Cumberland County, the family of Thomas Jefferson's maternal aunt.

Documentary links to Monticello, however, have not been found. There is no known reference to a child of Sally Hemings born before 1795 in Jefferson's papers. Jefferson kept no Farm Book records between 1783 and 1794, so a child who died in infancy could have existed without being recorded. If a child born in 1790 survived infancy, its absence from the Farm Book in 1794 and succeeding years is hard to explain. The presence of the names and birthdates of Sally Hemings's children Harriet I, Beverly, Harriet II, Madison, and Eston in the Farm Book seems to argue against intentional concealment on Jefferson's part. While absence from the Farm Book could be explained by the child's absence from Monticello, this would be unusual for a child as young as four. There is as yet no plausible explanation for Jefferson's treating one child entirely differently from the others in his record keeping.

The testimony of Sally Hemings's known son Madison is in conflict with the identity of Thomas Woodson as her son. In 1873 Madison Hemings told an Ohio newspaperman that, "soon after" Jefferson, his daughters, and James and Sally Hemings returned to Virginia at the end of 1789, Sally Hemings "gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time." He made no reference in his account to Thomas C. Woodson, who lived at the time only thirty miles away in an adjacent county. Again, intentional concealment does not seem to be his motive for failing to mention such a brother, since he referred to two of his siblings (Harriet and Beverly) who were then passing for white.

In 1805, Thomas Turner, described as a Virginian, "a gentleman of very respectable character," named Beverly Hemings as Sally Hemings's oldest child. He was a close acquaintance of David Meade Randolph, whose wife was a sister of Jefferson's son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph. Turner wrote in a May 31 letter to the Boston Repertory that Jefferson and "black, (or rather mulatto) Sally...have cohabited for many years, and the fruit of the connexion abundantly exists in proof of the fact....The eldest son (called Beverly,) is well known to many."

If Thomas C. Woodson was Sally Hemings's son born in 1790, he would have been a father at sixteen and a landowner at seventeen; his wife would have been eight years older than he. While this is not necessarily impossible, it would have been highly unusual.

The 1998 DNA study indicates that Thomas C. Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson's son. Madison Hemings's statement and the absence of any information linking Woodson to Monticello make it unlikely that he was the son of Sally Hemings. Based on all the information available to us at this time, the committee cannot establish that Thomas C. Woodson was the child of Sally Hemings -- despite a compelling oral tradition that almost certainly dates to Woodson's lifetime.

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