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Betsey Hemmings was born at Monticello in 1783, daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings's oldest child, Mary, and an unidentified father.1 As an infant she was taken to the house of a respected white merchant on Charlottesville's Main Street. Her mother, hired to merchant Thomas Bell while Jefferson was in France, lived openly with Bell as his common-law wife and had two children with him. 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."2 Twelve-year-old Joe Fossett and his nine-year-old sister Betsey returned to live in bondage at Monticello, while their mother and younger half-siblings became free and inherited Bell's estate.3
In 1797 Betsey Hemmings, then fourteen, left Monticello and family again, moving to Chesterfield County eighty miles to the east. Jefferson had given her to his daughter Maria and her husband John Wayles Eppes as part of their marriage settlement.4 After the death of Maria in 1804, Eppes moved with his young son Francis to Millbrook, in Buckingham County, where he and his second wife, Martha Burke Jones, lived and had four children. Evidence of Betsey Hemmings's relationship to this second family is found in the Eppes family burial ground where only two grave markers remain visible. Both are substantial stone slabs with chiseled inscriptions: one for John Wayles Eppes, who died in 1823, and one for Betsey Hemmings, who died at age 73 in 1857. The inscription on her gravestone reads: "Sacred to the Memory of our Mammy, Betsey Hemmings who was Mother, Sister & Friend to all who knew her."
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 Betsey Hemmings's own children. However, her known descendants 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 Betsey Hemmings. They tell of her distress when some of her children were taken by Francis Eppes to Florida in 1828, and they hint that John Wayles Eppes may have been the father of her children - a possibility the two surviving memorials, so similar and so near, do nothing to dispel. As a testament to the love felt by those with whom she lived, Betsey Hemmings's inscription concludes with the epitaph, "The pure in heart shall see God."
- Lucia Stanton, 2008
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family. New York: Norton, 2008.
- Jacques, Edna Bolling. The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia. A website maintained by descendants of Betsey Hemmings, relating their family history.
- Stanton, Free Some Day.
- Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Getting Word Project. "Betsey Hemmings." Entry on Betsey Hemmings from Monticello's oral history project, Getting Word, including interviews where she is mentioned by descendants.
- 1. Betsey's last name is spelled with two "m"s, unlike most other members of her family, because this is the way it was spelled on her gravestone.
- 2. Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis, April 12, 1792, in PTJ, 23:408.
- 3. Albemarle County Will Book, 4:59-60.
- 4. "Negroes Alienated from 1784 to 1794, Inclusive," in Thomas Jefferson Farm Book, p. 25, Sol Feinstone Collection, David Library of the American Revolution.