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Betsy Hemmings


Edna Jacques at her ancestor Betsy Hemmings's grave at Millbrook, the former Eppes plantation in Buckingham County, VA (courtesy of Peggy Harrison)

Edna Jacques at her ancestor Betsy Hemmings's grave (courtesy of Peggy Harrison)

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Betsy Hemmings (the surname is spelled with two m's by Betsy and her descendants) was born at Monticello in 1783, daughter of Mary Hemings and an unidentified father. According to her family’s oral history, her father was Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson's son-in-law John Wayles Eppes was the father of her children.

As an infant Hemmings was taken to live with Thomas Bell, a respected white merchant in Charlottesville, to whom her mother had been hired while Jefferson was in France. Thomas Bell and Mary Hemings later had two children together and lived together in what their neighbors came to consider a common-law marriage. When Mary Hemings asked to be sold to Bell in 1792, Jefferson consented, agreeing to sell with her only "such of her younger children as she chose." Nine-year-old sister Betsy and her twelve-year-old brother Joe Fossett returned to live in bondage at Monticello, while their mother and younger half-siblings became free and inherited Bell's estate.

In 1797, at age fourteen, Hemmings was once again forced to leave Monticello and her family after Jefferson gave her to his daughter Maria and her husband John Wayles Eppes as part of their marriage settlement. When Maria died in 1804, Hemmings was relocated a further time when Eppes moved with his young son Francis Wayles Eppes to Millbrook, in Buckingham County, Virginia, where he and his second wife, Martha Burke Jones, lived and had four children.

Because she lived and died in bondage and because the Buckingham County records burned in 1869, it has not been possible to learn the names of all of Betsy Hemmings's own children. However, her descendants (including Edna Jacques, pictured above) have not forgotten their connection to her. Their family stories and those of descendants of John and Martha Jones Eppes shed light on the close ties of family as well as the separations of slavery that must have been felt by Betsy Hemmings. They tell of her distress when some of her children were taken by Francis Eppes to Florida in 1828,

When Betsy Hemmings died in 1857 at age seventy-three, the Eppes family commissioned an elaborate grave marker for her adjacent to that of John Wayles Eppes, who had died in 1823. The two markers, so similar and so near, do nothing to dispel the stories of her relationship with Eppes and his family. As a testament to the love felt by those with whom she lived, Betsy Hemmings's inscription begins, "Sacred to the Memory of our Mammy, Betsey Hemmings who was Mother, Sister & Friend to all who knew her. The pure in heart shall see God."

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