Mary Hemings was Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest child. After the 1774 division of the estate of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, she was brought with her family to Monticello, where she was a valued household servant. She had six children, the two youngest with white merchant Thomas Bell, who became her common-law husband. Bell purchased Mary Hemings and their children, Robert and Sarah, freed them, and bequeathed them his considerable property.
Jefferson was unwilling to sell Mary Hemings Bell’s older children, Joseph Fossett and Betsy Hemmings, who remained in slavery at Monticello. After Thomas Bell’s death in 1800, Mary—described in one court document as his “relict & widow”—lived with her children and grandchildren in a house on Charlottesville’s main street. She maintained close ties with her still-enslaved relations at Monticello. Her free status and property helped her son Joseph Fossett minimize the fragmenting of his family at the Monticello dispersal sale in 1827.