Journey through the remarkable life of Critta Hemings Bowles, an enslaved woman at Monticello, who, late in life, gained her freedom  and was finally able to live with her long-time husband, Zachariah Bowles, on his family's farm, "Free State," in central Virginia. Monticello guide Alice Wagner shares the Hemings-Bowles story and uncovers powerful narratives of love, resilience, and survival in the face of immense adversity.

Alice Wagner: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation - from the past and from the present. Thank you for joining us, we hope you'll learn something new. I'm Alice Wagner, a Monticello guide.

In 1775, just as the American Revolution was beginning, a little girl named Critta Hemings arrived at Monticello. She had been born just six years before, in 1769, to an enslaved woman named Elizabeth Hemings. Critta Hemings’s father was their enslaver, a wealthy tobacco planter, lawyer and slave trader named John Wayles. He and his first wife, Martha Eppes, had a daughter, also named Martha, who would marry Thomas Jefferson in 1772. Under a Virginia law dating from 1662, a child’s status as free or enslaved was determined by their mother, not their father. So in this case, Critta Hemings was born into slavery while her half-sister Martha Jefferson was not. To further complicate things, when John Wayles died, the Hemings family passed to Martha Jefferson, meaning one sister was enslaving the other.

In fact, Martha Jefferson owned six of her siblings – not only Critta, but Robert, James, Thenia, Peter, and Sally Hemings as well. And in addition to the children she had with Wayles, Elizabeth Hemings had six other children. Critta Hemings, like her mother and most of her sisters, served as a maid or housekeeper to the Jefferson family. According to an overseer named Edmund Bacon, the Hemings women were at the bedside of Martha Jefferson as she lay dying in September of 1782 from complications of childbirth. Critta Hemings would have been just 13 as she witnessed her half-sister extract a promise from Thomas Jefferson that he would never remarry because Martha Jefferson did not want her own daughters to be raised by a stepmother like she had been.

Only five years later, Critta Hemings herself became pregnant. What worries and hopes might she have had for herself and her child? Childbirth was difficult and dangerous enough for all women, but for enslaved women there would have been extra fears: Would their children be sold away from them? Would their children be the victims of physical violence from overseers and enslavers? Would their children ever live to see freedom? Perhaps all of these things, and more, were running through eighteen-year-old Critta Hemings’s head when she gave birth to her son. She named him James, perhaps after her older brother. For a time, Critta and James Hemings would have lived with other Hemings family members in a stone house on Mulberry Row on Monticello Mountain. That house is now one of the few surviving buildings left on Mulberry Row from 200 years ago. But in 1793, Thomas Jefferson had them moved to one of the newly constructed log buildings. Hemings lived in the one closest to Monticello because, as per Jefferson’s orders, she was “oftenest wanted about the house.” The women in Jefferson’s family depended a lot on Critta Hemings, particularly his younger daughter Maria Jefferson Eppes, who was struggling with her health after her pregnancy. Her infant son Frances Eppes was also sickly, so she quote-unquote “borrowed” Critta Hemings from her father to take care of the baby. For at least half a year, Critta Hemings lived with the Eppes family on their property that was about two days ride away from Monticello, meaning Hemings was separated from her own son, now a teenager. Eppes even mentions in a letter that Hemings was anxious to return, but it would still be a couple of months before Eppes let her go home.

Only a couple of years after Critta Hemings’s return, James Hemings was severely whipped three times in one day by one of Monticello’s overseers, the notoriously violent Gabriel Lilly. James Hemings’ supposed crime? He was sick. So sick, in fact, that some wondered if he’d survive his illness. One of the hired white workman on Mulberry Row witnessed everything and wrote to Thomas Jefferson about it, but Jefferson did not do anything to curb Lilly. Not too long after that, James Hemings escaped from Monticello and made his living as a boatman along the James River. Though Jefferson tried to persuade Hemings to come back, Hemings refused to be re-enslaved at Monticello. The only other mention of him comes from a notation in Jefferson’s account books in 1815 where he paid Hemings for the return of a missing piece of equipment. This tells us James Hemings came back at least one time, perhaps to see his mother. Interestingly, Jefferson did not at that time try to force Hemings back into slavery. Contrast this with his efforts to recapture other young men who tried to escape from Monticello, like James Hubbard, Sandy, and Kit – all of whom Jefferson eventually sold for what he described as quote-unquote "delinquency". Either way, we do not know what happened to James Hemings after 1815.

Thomas Jefferson did not indicate in his records who the father of James Hemings was, but it’s possible it could have been a free black man named Zachariah Bowles. Born around the same year as Critta Hemings, Zachariah Bowles was the son of a free black woman named Amy Farrow who owned a 224-acre property north of the city of Charlottesville. While he was primarily a farmer working his mother’s

land, he also hired himself out for work around the area. He worked at Monticello in 1790 during the harvest and in 1791 for a barn raising. Whether that was the first time he and Critta Hemings may have met is uncertain, but they eventually did get married. Though enslaved people had no legal rights to marriage, it still held a great deal of personal, cultural, and spiritual meaning for them. The commitment Zachariah and Critta Bowles had to making their marriage work is evident in their navigation of the geographic distances between them. The walk from Zachariah Bowles’s farm to his wife’s home on Mulberry Row would have taken roughly four hours. And that’s just when she’s at Monticello – remember, when she was taken by Maria Eppes, she was more than two days away, so it’s unlikely they would have seen each other at all during that time. Though it’s certainly not impossible, there’s no evidence either one of them knew how to read or write. It’s likely that when they were far apart, they had to depend on others to deliver their messages to one another. And if James Hemings was indeed Zachariah Bowles’ son, he would have limited time with his child as well. Always in the back of his mind, Bowles had to know that at any time, Thomas Jefferson or his family members could permanently separate them, and there was little he, as a husband and father, could do about it even though he was free.

Yet, their marriage endured. Zachariah Bowles continued to work his mother’s land alongside his brother Thomas Farrow. When their mother died in 1797, the land was split between them. How often Critta Hemings Bowles might have been able to visit the family’s farm and get to know her in-laws is impossible to say. But both she and her husband had a commitment to family that perhaps was something they admired and respected in each other. The Hemingses and the Farrow-Bowleses were tight-knit families who over the generations sought to keep their families together in the face of

enslavement and racism. In 1800, for example, Zachariah Bowles’s sister, Lucy Barnett, was abandoned by her husband. Her brothers took legal steps to make sure her husband could not return later to make claims on the family property and that instead it would pass directly to her and her children. Critta Hemings Bowles’s niece, also named Critta, died unexpectedly young, leaving behind her husband Burwell Colbert and their eight children. The elder Critta Hemings Bowles took in her great-niece Martha Ann Colbert and raised her as her own.

Critta Hemings Bowles was still at Monticello at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826. At this point, several of her older siblings – Robert, James, and Mary Hemings – had found freedom in one way or another. Another brother, John Hemmings, was freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will. Her younger sister Sally Hemings had successfully negotiated for the freedom of the children she had with Thomas Jefferson. And of course, Critta Hemings’ own son James had claimed freedom for himself. Yet over 130 people, including Critta Hemings Bowles, remained in bondage when Thomas Jefferson died. Most of them would be sold at auction a year after his death in an attempt by his heirs to pay off some of his enormous debts. Critta Hemings Bowles did not face that fate. It was none other than Frances Eppes who intervened on her behalf. The infant grandson of Thomas Jefferson to whom she had once been nursemaid was now an adult who had outlived his mother Maria Jefferson Eppes. Perhaps out of nostalgia for a mother he would never know, perhaps out of some sense of duty or affection towards Critta Hemings Bowles, or perhaps because of a prickling conscience, he chose to pay for her freedom, though we can never truly know his motivations. At 58 years old, she was finally free, finally able to live where she chose – with her husband. She soon moved into the Bowles family farmhouse, surrounded by members of her husband’s family.

The Bowles only got to experience eight years of free married life with one another before Zachariah Bowles passed away in 1835. He left his land to “my beloved wife,” with the caveat that his nephews be able to continue to live there and pay rent to their aunt. This provided help for an aging Critta Hemings Bowles as the nephews could maintain the family farm on her behalf while also making sure the land stayed in the family. Once she died, the land would go to the nephews. In order to become the administrator of Zachariah Bowles’s estate, however, Critta Hemings Bowles had to pay a bond of $300 as well as get someone else to pay another $300 and vouch for her character. That someone else was her nephew and son of Thomas Jefferson – Eston Hemings, who by that point was living in the city as a free man and landholder himself.

Critta Hemings Bowles survived her husband by 15 years, dying in 1850 in her early 80s. While the farm went to her husband’s family, she left all her money and worldly possessions to her great-niece Martha Ann Colbert. Whether Martha Ann Colbert ever saw that money is uncertain – she had been enslaved by one of Thomas Jefferson’s grandsons, Meriweather Lewis Randolph, who had moved to Arkansas in 1836.15 After Randolph’s death, his wife Elizabeth Martin Randolph inherited much of his property, including Martha Ann Colbert. No other records of Colbert appear after the will, but her presence there shows that Critta Hemings Bowles still had hope for the future – a hope that a child she had loved and cared for would grow to see “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a production of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio  Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at

Podcast connection - Free State: The Legacy of Amy Farrow

Amy Farrow, a free Black woman in 18th century Charlottesville, bought 224 acres of land that she established as a community for the free population of color in the city and surrounding county, including members of Monticello’s Hemings family.

Recent Videos and Podcasts