Sally Hemings, whose given name was probably Sarah, was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. According to her son, Madison Hemings, her father was Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles. There are no known portraits of her. Sally Hemings 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 nursemaid to Jefferson's daughter Mary (slave girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations).
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." 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 Royale de Panthemont, where Martha (Patsy) and Maria (Polly) Jefferson were boarding students. Jefferson, who had requested a travel companion for Maria who had had smallpox or had been inoculated against it, soon had Sally inoculated by one of the famous Doctors 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 acted 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."
After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, Sally Hemings 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). 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."
There are only four known descriptions of Sally Hemings. Enslaved blacksmith 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."
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' dwellings 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).
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. The location of her grave remains a mystery.
Sally Hemings had at least six children, who are now believed to have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson years after his wife’s death. According to Jefferson's records, four survived to adulthood. 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-ca. 1856), 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 surname to Jefferson along with his racial identity. Both Madison and Eston Hemings made known their belief that they were sons of Thomas Jefferson.
Sally's name became publicly linked to Jefferson's in 1802, when journalist James Callendar published in a Richmond newspaper the allegation that she was Jefferson's “concubine” 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, but a 1998 DNA study genetically linked her male descendants with male descendants of the Jefferson family. [Based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records].
The descendants of Thomas Woodson (1790-1879) carry the strong family tradition that he was the firstborn child of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Recent DNA testing, however, rules out Jefferson's paternity of the Woodson line. 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. Additional revisions made February 2012.
2. Abigail Adams to Jefferson, 27 June and 6 July 1787, Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 11: 502, 551.
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).
Annette Gordon-Reed discusses a tricky question in the latest American Heritage magazine (vol. 58 no. 5, Fall 2008): "Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other? A Historian Tackles One...More >>