Sally Hemings came to Monticello as an infant as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles. She spent two years as lady’s-maid to Jefferson’s daughters in Paris, where she could have claimed her freedom. After returning to Monticello in 1789, she was a domestic servant in the main house. She was unofficially freed after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and lived with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville until her own death.
According to her son Madison, Jefferson promised Sally Hemings in Paris to free any children they might have at the age of twenty-one. Four of their six known children reached adulthood and became free close to their twenty-first birthdays. Beverly Hemings and his sister Harriet Hemings were allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and passed into white society. Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings Jefferson, freed by the terms of Jefferson’s will, left for Ohio in the 1830s and chose to live on different sides of the color line.
Sally Hemings became publicly linked to Jefferson in 1802, when a Richmond newspaper named her as Jefferson's mistress. Jefferson's family denied the existence of such a relationship, while Hemings's descendants passed on their connection to Jefferson as part of their family history. A 1998 study genetically linked her male descendants with male descendants of the Jefferson family.