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Mary Hemings Bell

Mary Hemings (1753-after 1834), born probably in Charles City County, was the oldest known child of Elizabeth Hemings. After the division of the estate of Martha Jefferson's father, John Wayles, in 1774, Mary was brought with her family to Monticello, where she was a valued household servant. She accompanied Thomas Jefferson and his household to Williamsburg and Richmond when Jefferson was Governor of Virginia. Between 1772 and 1783, Mary Hemings gave birth to four children; the identity of their father or fathers is not known with certainty.

While Jefferson was in Paris as minister to France in the 1780s, a Charlottesville merchant, Thomas Bell, hired Mary Hemings as a domestic servant. Hemings became Bell's common-law wife and, briefly, his property, when she asked Jefferson to sell her to her husband. Bell freed her, acknowledged their two children, and bequeathed his estate to them. Jefferson was unwilling to sell Mary Hemings Bell's older children, Joseph Fossett and Betsey Hemmings, who remained in slavery at Monticello; he had already given Daniel and Molly to his sister and daughter.

Mary Hemings Bell maintained close ties with her still enslaved children. Because of her free status and her life estate in Bell's property after his death in 1800, she could provide them with items of clothing and personal possessions that were inaccessible to other slaves. During the crisis of 1827, when members of her family were sold at the Monticello dispersal sale, Mary Bell's economic standing enabled her son Joseph Fossett to arrange for the purchase of a number of his own children.

Thomas and Mary Bell's free daughter, Sally Jefferson Bell, married Jesse Scott, an accomplished musician. Scott and his sons played for dances and entertainments all over Virginia. Mary Hemings Bell and her descendants occupied a house on Charlottesville's Main Street for a century.

Learn more about Mary Hemings Bell and her extraordinary descendants at the Getting Word - The African American Families of Monticello »

Further Sources


Filed In: 
People, Slavery
Related Links:
Blacksmith Shop
Monticello Classroom: An Enslaved Cook
Plantation Database


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