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Robert Hemings

Robert Hemings (1762-1819) was the son of Betty Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles. Born in 1762, Robert was the first child of her alleged liaison with Wayles.

Betty Hemings and her children became the property of Thomas Jefferson after John Wayles's death in May 1773. A few weeks later, eleven-year-old Bob (as Jefferson always called him) became part of the Jefferson domestic staff.1

By 1775 at least, Robert Hemings seems to have been serving as Jefferson's bodyservant, a position formerly held by Jupiter. Hemings, described as a "bright mulatto,"2 accompanied Jefferson to Philadelphia in 1775 and 1776. In 1775, he was inoculated against smallpox by Dr. William Shippen, the same physician who had inoculated Jefferson almost a decade earlier.

Until Jefferson left for France in 1784, Robert Hemings accompanied him everywhere. An advertisement Jefferson placed in 1791 for Hemings's position sheds light on his duties and skills: "Wanted, A Genteel Servant, who can shave and dress well, attend a gentleman on horseback, wait at table, and be well recommended."3 Or, as Jefferson wrote a friend, he sought someone to "shave, dress and follow me on horseback."4 Since Hemings received some months of training under a barber in Annapolis in 1784, he may not have given Jefferson his morning shave until that time. It appears that Hemings also could drive Jefferson's phaeton when the need arose.5

Daily association as master and servant ended when Jefferson and Robert Hemings parted in Boston on July 1, 1784. Hemings returned to Virginia with Jefferson's horses and soon apparently found another place as a servant, keeping his wages for himself. This pattern continued after Jefferson's return from France. Although Hemings accompanied Jefferson to New York in 1790, he left after three months to find a place as a servant in Virginia.6 Jefferson recalled him to Monticello during his vacations, often having difficulty learning his whereabouts.7

Robert Hemings's reason for wishing to remain in Virginia was no doubt his wife Dolly, a slave living near Fredericksburg and later in Richmond. After some years of shuttling between Monticello (or wherever he was working) and Fredericksburg and Richmond, Hemings seized an opportunity to live permanently with his family when it was offered in 1794. Robert and Dolly Hemings had two children, Elizabeth and Martin.

The transaction that resulted in Robert Hemings's freedom is not fully understood. Dr. George Frederick Stras (1746-1811), a French émigré living in Richmond, agreed to advance the purchase price of Hemings's freedom, while Hemings agreed to pay his debt to Stras with service. Jefferson complied reluctantly with this agreement — he thought that Robert Hemings had been "debauched" from him and had been valued too low (£60, or $200), especially considering the loss of his service "for 11. or 12 years past."8 The deed of manumission, which Stras kept until Hemings paid for his freedom in service, was signed at Monticello on December 24, 1794.9 Martha Jefferson Randolph saw Robert Hemings in Richmond in the next weeks: "[H]e expressed great uneasiness at having quitted you in the manner he did and repeatedly declared that he would never have left you to live with any person but his wife."10

Robert Hemings, the first slave freed by Thomas Jefferson, had evidently fulfilled his engagement by 1799, when he first appears in the Richmond tax rolls. Later entries give the impression that he operated a livery or hauling business. In 1802, he lived on a half-acre lot he owned at the corner of Grace and Seventh Streets.11 At some point, according to Isaac Granger Jefferson, Robert "had his hand shot off with a blunderbuss,"12 and he died in 1819.13

Primary Source References

1794 December 24. (Deed of Manumission for Robert Hemings). "This indenture witnesseth that I Thomas Jefferson of the county of Albemarle have manumitted and made free Robert Hemings, son of Betty Hemmings: so that in future he shall be free and of free condition, with all his goods and chattels and shall be discharged of all obligation of bondage or servitude whatsoever: and that neither myself, my heirs executors or administrators shall have any right to exact from him hereafter any services or duties whatsoever."14

1794 December 26. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph) "You will find by the inclosed that Bob’s business has been hastened into such a situation as to make it difficult for me to reject it. I had certainly thought it just that the person whom I suppose to have debauched him from me, as well as the special inconvenience of my letting him go for 2. or 3. years to come, and a total abandonment of his services for 11. or 12 years past should have been known and operated in estimating his value as a mulct on Mr. S. However all that has been kept out of view, and I have too much respect for the gentlemen who have valued him to have the subject revised. It remains therefore only to receive the money and deliver the deed, which you will find inclosed in the letter to Mr. Stras. I have made it to Bob himself, because Mr. Stras mentions it is for his freedom he is to advance the money, and his holding the deed will sufficiently secure the fulfilment of Bob’s engagements to him. When you shall have received the money, be so good as to pay £41–16 currency of it to Mr. Lyle with the sum delivered you before, and hold up the balance, as I expect in 2. or 3 posts from Philadelphia to learn whether I owe it there or am to apply it to certain purposes here. Stras’s letter and the valuation to be returned to me."15

1795 January 15. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "I saw Bob frequently while in Richmond he expressed great uneasiness at having quitted you in the manner he did and repeatedly declared that he would never have left you to live with any person but his wife. He appeared to be so much affected at having deserved your anger that I could not refuse my intercession when so warmly solicited towards obtaining your forgiveness. The poor creature seems so deeply impressed with a sense of his ingratitude as to be rendered quite unhappy by it but he could not prevail upon himself to give up his wife and child."16

1795 January 22. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "In my last to him [Thomas Mann Randolph] I asked the favor of him to remit the balance of Stras’s money (after taking out Mr. Lyle’s and Taylor’s) to Mr. Mussi in Philadelphia."17


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