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The Life of
Sally Hemings

Daughter, mother, sister, aunt. Inherited as property. Seamstress. World traveler. Enslaved woman. Concubine. Negotiator. Liberator. Mystery.

Sally Hemings (1773-1835) is one of the most famous—and least known—African American women in U.S. history. For more than 200 years, her name has been linked to Thomas Jefferson as his “concubine,” obscuring the facts of her life and her identity. Scroll down to learn more about this intriguing American.


The Life of Sally Hemings

Drawn from the words of her son Madison Hemings

View The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello online.

Overview

Such is the story that comes down to me.

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, 1873

Like countless enslaved women, Sally Hemings bore children fathered by her owner. Female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances. Sally Hemings was the child of an enslaved woman and her owner, as were five of her siblings. At least two of her sisters bore children fathered by white men. Mixed-race children were present at Monticello, in the surrounding county, across Virginia, and throughout the United States. Regardless of their white paternity, children born to enslaved women inherited their mothers’ status as slaves.

Though enslaved, Sally Hemings helped shape her life and the lives of her children, who got an almost 50-year head start on emancipation, escaping the system that had engulfed their ancestors and millions of others. Whatever we may feel about it today, this was important to her.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, 2017

Unlike countless enslaved women, Sally Hemings was able to negotiate with her owner. In Paris, where she was free, the 16-year-old agreed to return to enslavement at Monticello in exchange for “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her unborn children. Over the next 32 years Hemings raised four children—Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston—and prepared them for their eventual emancipation. She did not negotiate for, or ever receive, legal freedom in Virginia.

It seems especially appropriate to tell one part of the story of slavery through life at a place that holds such symbolic importance for many Americans —Monticello. For it is there that we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans. We should not get too far into the twenty-first century without looking back at the Hemingses and their time to remember and learn.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Story, Annette Gordon-Reed, 2008

Childhood

On the death of John Wales, my grandmother, his concubine, and her children by him fell to Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, and consequently became the property of Thomas Jefferson, ...

Madison Hemings

Sally Hemings left no written accounts, a common consequence of enslavement. Jefferson’s plantation records and reminiscences, especially those of her son Madison, are the most important sources about her life.

Family Tree

Click to Enlarge

Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings are half-sisters. What do they share?

  • Same father (John Wayles)
  • Little documentation and no images of either
  • Both described as industrious
  • Both had at least six children and lost children in infancy

1773 Sally Hemings is born. The exact date and month is not known. Tradition holds that she is the child of Martha Jefferson’s father, John Wayles, and Elizabeth Hemings, an enslaved woman, making Martha and her half-sisters. Madison Hemings later stated that Elizabeth Hemings and Wayles had six children together. Likewise, Sally would go on to bear at least six children to her master.

Family Tree
Elizabeth Hemings's Family Tree

1774 She came to Monticello as a toddler with the rest of her enslaved family after the death of her father. The Hemingses were part of Jefferson’s inheritance through his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. From a young age, Sally Hemings was a nursemaid to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria. Few other details of her childhood are known.

Time in Paris

She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, ...

Madison Hemings

1787When Sally Hemings was 14, she was chosen by Jefferson’s sister-in-law to accompany his daughter Maria to Paris, France, as a domestic servant and maid in Jefferson’s household. Within ten weeks, Hemings was transported from the plantations of Virginia to what Jefferson described as “the vaunted scene of Europe!”

Paris in the 1780s was at the apex of its grandeur, a global center of politics, culture and the arts. The city itself was home to over half a million people (close to the entire population of Virginia at the time), 1,000 of whom were free black residents. While in France, Hemings was also legally free.

In Paris, Hemings was reunited with her older brother James, whom Jefferson had brought with him two years earlier to study French cooking. They lived at Jefferson's residence, the Hôtel de Langeac. Maria (Polly) and Martha (Patsy), Jefferson’s older daughter who was already in Paris, lived primarily at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, where they were boarding students. Shortly after her arrival, Jefferson’s records indicate that Hemings was inoculated against smallpox, a common and deadly disease during that time. 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 and was occasionally paid a monthly wage of twelve livres (the equivalent of two dollars). She learned French (historians do not know if she was literate in either language she spoke) and sometimes accompanied Jefferson’s daughters on social outings.

Why did she return to Monticello?

Madison Hemings recounted that his mother “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine” in France. When Jefferson prepared to return to America, Hemings said his mother refused to come back, and only did so upon negotiating “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her future children. He also noted that she was pregnant when she arrived in Virginia, and that the child “lived but a short time.” No other record of that child has been found.

We don’t know if she tried to negotiate for her personal freedom, or why she trusted Jefferson would keep his promise.

1789 Hemings arrived back in Virginia and slavery at the age of 16. According to Madison Hemings, she was pregnant with Jefferson's child.

Sally Hemings went to France with Maria Jefferson when she was a little girl. Mr. Jefferson was Minister to France, and he wanted to put her in school there. They crossed the ocean alone. I have often heard her tell about it.

Edmund Bacon, an overseer at Monticello. From Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862)

Life at Monticello

It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing.

Madison Hemings

Sally Hemings returned with Jefferson and his daughters to Monticello in 1789. There she performed the duties of an enslaved household servant and lady’s maid (Jefferson still referred to her as “Maria’s maid” in 1799).

Sally Hemings had at least six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Four survived to adulthood. Decades after their negotiation, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’s children – Beverly and Harriet left Monticello in the early 1820s; Madison and Eston were freed in his will and left Monticello in 1826. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.

Hemings's & Jefferson’s Descendants

1790 Sally Hemings’s first child is born. According to Madison Hemings, “It lived but a short time.”

1795 A daughter, Harriet Hemings, was born. She died two years later in 1797.

1798 A son, Beverly was born. He survived to adulthood, becoming a carpenter and fiddler.

1799 An unnamed daughter was born and died.

1801 Harriet was born. She was their only surviving daughter, and was a spinner in Jefferson’s textile factory.

1805 A son, Madison was born. He survived to adulthood, becoming a carpenter and joiner.

1808 Son Eston was born. He also survived to become a carpenter and a musician, leading a prominent dance band in Ohio after gaining his freedom.

1822 Beverly and Harriet Hemings were allowed to leave Monticello without being legally freed. Madison Hemings later reported that both passed into white society and that neither their connection to Monticello nor their “African blood” was ever discovered.

1826 Thomas Jefferson died.

Sally Hemings was never legally emancipated. Instead, she was unofficially freed—or “given her time”—by Jefferson’s daughter Martha after his death.

1826 Jefferson’s will freed Hemings’s younger children, Madison and Eston.

1830 Sally Hemings and her sons Madison and Eston are listed as free white people in the 1830 census. Three years later, in a special census taken following the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, Hemings described herself as a free mulatto who had lived in Charlottesville since 1826.

1835 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 is not known.

Why did some of Sally Hemings’s children identify themselves as white and others as black?

Annette Gordon-Reed

Madison resettled in southern Ohio in the late 1830s, where he worked at his trade and had a farm. He chose to remain in the black community. He died in 1878.

Eston, also a carpenter, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1830s. There he was a well-known professional musician before moving around 1852 to Wisconsin, where he changed his surname to Jefferson along with his racial identity. He died in 1856. Both Madison and Eston made known that they were sons of Thomas Jefferson.

Consequences of Freedom

When Beverly and Harriet Hemings passed into white society, they had to deny their family lineage. Historians and family members have been unable to locate their descendants. Both Madison and Eston Hemings acknowledged that they were sons of Thomas Jefferson and passed that knowledge onto their children. Madison and Eston Hemings’s descendants have shared family histories with Monticello’s Getting Word African American Oral History Project.

On Harriet Hemings: “This girl who is born a slave...then lives the life of a free white woman, but it has to be a secret. She leaves her mother...and she can never come back.”

Sex, Power, and Slavery

So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years.

Madison Hemings

Was it rape? Was there any affection? Was compliance part of her agreement with Jefferson?

“She was in an untenable position. Today we would be looking at sexual harassment.”

Descendant Diana Redman shares her views on Sally Hemings.

Hear what other descendants of Sally Hemings say about her.

Enslaved women had no legal right to consent. Their masters owned their labor, their bodies, and their children.

Sally Hemings’s descendants and historians have a range of opinions about the dynamic between Jefferson and Hemings, given the implications of ownership, age, consent, and dramatically unequal power between masters and enslaved women.

The nature of Sally Hemings’s sexual encounters with Thomas Jefferson will never be known.

“People in that area acted towards them as if they were a married couple.”

Annette Gordon-Reed shares the story of Mary Hemings Bell, Sally Hemings's older sister who lived as the "wife" of the man who owned her.

Madison Hemings said very little about what his mother thought of his father, only that she “implicitly relied” on Jefferson’s promise. Hemings also said that he and his siblings “were the only children of [Jefferson’s] by a slave woman.”

“The power aspect of it is very real because obviously he could have sold her if he wanted to. She could not refuse his advances... but his wife Martha could not say no to him either... I think it would be easy for Jefferson to rationalize this relationship because males were supposed to dominate women.”

Annette Gordon-Reed

This is a painful and complicated American story. Thomas Jefferson was one of our most important founding fathers, and also a lifelong slave owner who held Sally Hemings and their children in bondage. Sally Hemings should be known today, not just as Jefferson’s concubine, but as an enslaved woman who – at the age of 16 – negotiated with one of the most powerful men in the nation to improve her own condition and achieve freedom for her children.

Notoriety

She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston - three sons and one daughter.

Madison Hemings

The historical evidence points to the truth of Madison Hemings’s words about “my father, Thomas Jefferson.” Although the dominant narrative long denied his paternity, since 1802, oral histories, published recollections, statistical data, and documents have identified Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. In 1998, a DNA study genetically linked one of Hemings’s male descendants with the male line of the Jefferson family, adding to the wealth of evidence.

Jefferson never responded to the accusation. His recognized family denied his paternity of Hemings’s children, while his unrecognized family considered their connection to Jefferson an important family truth.

Virginian Luxuries 1825
Virginian Luxuries, anonymous, ca. 1825. This satirical image, depicting an unknown master and his slaves, illustrates the commonly accepted, exploitive power of the master over his human property.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

1802 James Callender, a disaffected former political ally of Jefferson, broke the story of Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine” and the mother of a number of his children in a Virginia newspaper.

Callender Accusal newspaper cutout
Journalist James Callender accused Thomas Jefferson of having children with an enslaved woman named Sally. His article was the first public acknowledgement of Sally Hemings.
Library of Virginia

1853 John Hartwell Cocke, a close friend of Jefferson’s, writes in his journal about the prevalence of interracial sex: “Were [such cases] enumerated … they would be found by the hundreds. Nor is it to be wondered at when Mr. Jefferson’s notorious example is considered.”

...the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds...

Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina, ca. 1861

1858 Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge writes to her husband, Joseph Coolidge, denying that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. Other family members name one of Jefferson’s Carr nephews as the father.

1862 Former overseer Edmund Bacon publishes his recollections of his life at Monticello. In it, he states, but does not name, another man as the father of Sally Hemings's daughter Harriet. Bacon was not employed at Monticello until five years after Harriet Hemings's birth.

1873 Madison Hemings and Israel Gillette separately record reminiscences of life at Monticello. Both identify Thomas Jefferson as the father of all of Sally Hemings’s children.

Virginian Luxuries 1825
A Philosophic Cock, engraved by James Akin, 1804. This political cartoon mocked President Jefferson, the strutting rooster, with his concubine Sally Hemings (pictured as a hen)–at the same time denying her humanity and privacy.
American Antiquarian Society

1974 W.W. Norton and Company publishes Fawne Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which makes the case that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’s children. The book sells well despite negative reactions from prominent historians.

the story of Black Sal is no farce – That [Jefferson] cohabits with her and has a number of children with her is a sacred truth.

Elijah Fletcher, 1811
As heard from Jefferson’s neighbors during a visit to Monticello

1993 Monticello launches the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, a groundbreaking project that has recorded interviews with nearly 200 descendants of Monticello's enslaved community. The oral histories of Getting Word become an important part of the Monticello slavery tours, also launched in 1993 and taken by nearly 100,000 people each year.

1997 The University Press of Virginia publishes Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which challenges prevailing arguments against Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s children and detailing oversights and bias.

Such relationships ranged from acknowledged affairs that lasted for a lifetime, produced many children, and were familial in every sense but a legally recognized one to brutal acts of rape and sexual assault where slaveowners showed the inhumanity for which slavery was notorious among its opponents.

Joshua Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood, 2003

1998 A DNA study, published in the journal Nature, establishes that a male with a Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston. The study rules out Jefferson’s Carr nephews as his father.

2000 A report by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concludes there is a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children listed in Monticello records.

How do you respond to people who do not believe Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings?

Annette Gordon-Reed

2001 The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society publishes The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report on the Scholars Commission, challenging the conclusions of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and citing Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, as most likely to have been the father of Sally Hemings’s children.

“Concubine”

In Sally Hemings’s lifetime, the word “concubine” defined a woman who had sexual contact with a man to whom she was not married. A concubine had no legal or social standing, and her offspring could not inherit from their father. Madison Hemings used the word to describe the long-standing sexual encounters between his mother and father, as well as those of his grandmother, Elizabeth Hemings, and his grandfather, John Wayles. Israel Gillette also called Sally Hemings a “concubine” in his recollections of life at Monticello. In an incendiary 1802 article, political journalist James Callender also described Sally Hemings as Jefferson’s “concubine.”

I also know that his servant, Sally Hemmings, (mother to my old friend and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemmings,) was employed as his chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.

Israel Gillette Jefferson, a former Monticello slave, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, 1873

Finding Sally Hemings at Monticello

Sally Hemings Room

The Life of Sally Hemings Exhibit

An immersive multimedia exhibit based on the recollections of Sally Hemings’s son Madison.

Learn More

Monticello Day Pass and House Tour

Monticello Day Pass and House Tour

Feel the power of place at Monticello. Learn about Thomas Jefferson, the ideas of freedom, and the realities of slavery that made the United States.

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Hemings Family Tour

Hemings Family Tour

This 1-hour, 45-minute, small-group interactive tour explores Monticello using the stories of several members of the Hemings Family.

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Behind-the-Scenes Tour

Behind-the-Scenes Tour

The Behind-the-Scenes tour provides a fuller picture of life at Monticello, and a better understanding of the complex world surrounding the man who authored the Declaration of Independence.

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Slavery at Monticello Tour

Slavery at Monticello Tour

These guided outdoor tours focus on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation. Included in the price of admission.

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The Textile Workshop on Mulberry Row

Textile Workshop

From 1790 to 1793, Sally Hemings is believed to have lived in this building, which later was likely converted to a Textile Workshop where her daughter, Harriet, learned to spin and weave fabric.

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David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center

David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center

The 21st-century gateway to Jefferson’s timeless Monticello, with films, innovative exhibitions, cafe, gift shop and experiences for young people that transform the visitor experience.

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Common Questions

What was the nature of the connection between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson?

“Certainly a relationship between a master and his slave is one that’s incredibly unbalanced in terms of power. I have no idea what kind of affection or love was involved. But he made a promise that he would free her children when they turned 21. And he did so.”

Lucia Stanton, Historian

When it comes to the specific dynamic between Jefferson and Hemings, descendants and historians have a range of opinions. Some believe that Hemings had more agency than might be imagined. Others consider any connection of this type a form of assault or rape. And there are many opinions in between. The reality is, we just don’t know.

Look Closer: Sex, Power, Slavery

How do we know that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children?

The historical evidence points to the truth of Madison Hemings’s words about “my father, Thomas Jefferson.” Although the dominant narrative long denied his paternity, since 1802, oral histories, published recollections, statistical data, and documents have identified Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. In 1998, a DNA study genetically linked one of Hemings’s male descendants with the male line of the Jefferson family, adding to the wealth of evidence.

Look Closer: Read more about the evidence in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account

Were people aware of the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings at the time?

“He talks about Jefferson keeping a woman as a substitute for a wife ... and he described this as something as being prevalent and not uncommon in the south.”

Annette Gordon-Reed

Yes. Prior to James Callender’s 1802 article, which pointedly identified both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, newspaper articles, vulgar poems, and local gossip alluded to the matter. Historians assert that Callender confirmed the details he published about Jefferson and Hemings by speaking with Jefferson’s Albemarle County neighbors. Similarly, in his 1811 visit to Charlottesville, Elijah Fletcher heard about Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their children from people he met. Decades later, Jefferson’s close friend John Hartwell Cocke commented twice about Jefferson and Sally Hemings in his diary.

What did Sally Hemings look like?

We don’t know. There are no known images of Sally Hemings from her lifetime, and her appearance was described by only two individuals who knew her:

Sally was mighty near white...Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.

Formerly enslaved blacksmith Isaac (Granger) Jefferson (1847)

Light colored and decidedly good looking.

Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph (ca. 1851)

Although evocative, these descriptions leave out nearly every detail—height, frame, eye color, hair color, and the shape of her face and its features—needed to construct an adequate representation of her looks.

Where did Sally Hemings live at Monticello?

Sally Hemings may have lived in the stone workmen’s house (now called the “Textile Workshop”) from 1790 to 1793, when she—like her sister Critta—might have moved to one of the new 12’ × 14’ log dwellings farther down Mulberry Row. After the completion of the South Wing, Hemings lived in one of the “servant’s rooms” there.

How do we know Sally Hemings lived in the South Wing?

Evidence that Sally Hemings lived in one of the spaces in the South Wing comes from Jefferson’s grandson Thomas J. Randolph through Henry S. Randall, who wrote one of the first major biographies of Thomas Jefferson and was in contact with many members of the Jefferson family. Randolph did not specifically point out the exact room, but the description related through Randall suggests that Sally Hemings and her children occupied one of two rooms in the South Wing.

Was Sally Hemings ever freed?

Sally Hemings was never officially freed. However, after Jefferson’s death, she was allowed to live in Charlottesville in unofficial freedom with her two sons, Madison and Eston, who were granted freedom in Jefferson’s will.

Did Sally Hemings and her children receive special treatment at Monticello?

No, and yes. Jefferson’s written records indicate no special treatment for Sally Hemings or her family. They received the same provisions of food, clothing and housing as other enslaved individuals at Monticello.

But in his recollections, Madison Hemings stated that Jefferson promised Sally Hemings “extraordinary privileges” for returning to Monticello from Paris. Chief among these were freedom for her children who “were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long” and were “always permitted to be with our mother who was well used.”

All of their children learned skills that could support them in freedom. Harriet Hemings spun yarn and wove cloth, an occupation that was not solely associated with slavery. Plenty of white women spun and wove. Their male children learned woodworking under the direction of their uncle John Hemmings, a master carpenter and joiner. Woodworking at Monticello likely brought them in regular contact with their father. Madison noted that his father “always had mechanics at work for him, such as carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, coopers, &c. It was his mechanics he seemed mostly to direct, and in their operations he took great interest.”

All four surviving children of Jefferson and Hemings were granted their freedom, either being allowed to leave Monticello with Jefferson’s knowledge and assistance, or through his will.

What was Sally Hemings’s racial identity?

We don’t know how Sally Hemings would have identified herself. She was three-quarters-European and one-quarter African. In two separate censuses taken near the end of her life, Hemings’s race is recorded as white in one and as mulatto in the other, hinting at shifting notions of her identity. Of her surviving children, who were 7/8 European and 1/8 African, three passed as white and one identified as black.

Race did not cement Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings’s status as slaves; it was the fact that their mother was enslaved. Children, no matter their racial background, inherited slavery from their mothers.

Was Jefferson a racist?

Like many other 18th-century intellectuals in Europe and North America, Jefferson believed blacks were inferior to whites. In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson expressed racist views of blacks’ abilities, though he questioned whether the differences he observed were due to inherent inferiority or to decades of degrading enslavement. He also believed that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two “separate nations” who could not live together peacefully in the same country. Of this inevitable rift, he wrote:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained ... will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.

Look Closer: Learn more through our additional resources.

Getting Word

Getting Word

African American Families of Monticello

Getting Word

Getting Word

African American Families of Monticello