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Betsy Hemmings: Loved by a Family, but What of Her Own?

"... Mother, Sister & Friend to all who knew her" --  Inscription on Betsy Hemmings's gravestone

Betsy Hemmings (the surname is spelled with two m's by Betsy and her descendants) was born at Monticello in 1783, daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings's oldest child, Mary, and an unidentified father.  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."  Twelve-year-old Joe Fossett and his nine-year-old sister Betsy returned to live in bondage at Monticello, while their mother and younger half-siblings became free and inherited Bell's estate.

In 1797 Betsy 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.  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 Betsy 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 Betsy 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 Betsy Hemmings's own children. However, her descendants (one, Edna Jacques, pictured at left) 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, 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, Betsy Hemmings's inscription concludes with the epitaph, "The pure in heart shall see God."


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