Hemings was born enslaved in 1773 and belonged to John Wayles, a lawyer and planter originally from England. She was the daughter of the enslaved woman Elizabeth Hemings (known as Betty) and, according to Hemings family tradition, of Wayles himself. Sally Hemings’s son Madison Hemings said that after the death of his third wife, in 1761, Wayles took Betty “as his concubine.” In addition to her four to five children from previous relationships, Betty Hemings gave birth to six more by Wayles: Robert, born in 1762; James, born in 1765; Thenia, born in 1767; Critta, born in 1769; Peter, born in 1770; and Sally, whose given name, some historians contend, was Sarah. It is unclear whether Hemings was born before Wayles’s death on May 28, 1773.
Wayles’s will was proved on July 7, 1773, but the various issues involving his estate’s property, which included the Hemings family, were not sorted out until January 1774. In the meantime, Betty Hemings and her younger children were sent to Guinea, the newly inherited Cumberland County home of Wayles’s daughter Anne and her husband, Henry Skipwith. (They later renamed the plantation Hors du Monde.) The Hemingses, including Sally, eventually became the property of Anne Skipwith’s half-sister Martha Wayles Skelton, who, on January 1, 1772, had married Thomas Jefferson. English common law that was then in effect in Virginia upheld the doctrine of coverture, which stipulated that absent a written agreement to the contrary, a married woman‘s property transferred to her husband. This meant that, beginning in 1774, the Hemingses were owned by Jefferson.
Like the other main beneficiaries, Jefferson, who served as one of the executors of John Wayles’s estate, inherited large debts, including nearly £4,000 sterling owed to British mercantile firms. Jefferson immediately sold about half of his inherited land, or about 5,000 acres, but kept all the enslaved individuals until the mid-1780s and 1790s, when he sold a number of them to help repay the debt. Jefferson moved Betty Hemings and a number of her children, including Sally, from Guinea to his Elk Hill farm, in Goochland County, and then to Monticello, in Albemarle County.
The Jeffersons quickly installed the Hemings family in positions of responsibility at Monticello, presumably supplanting others. Betty Hemings may have supervised the household, Sally’s older half-brother Martin Hemings served as butler, and Robert Hemings accompanied Thomas Jefferson to Philadelphia as his personal servant in 1775 for the Second Continental Congress.
Monticello and Eppington
During the American Revolution (1775–1783), Sally Hemings remained at Monticello with her mother and siblings. Jefferson was elected governor in 1779, moving much of his household, including some of the older Hemings children, to Williamsburg and then to Richmond. Threatened by the advance of British troops under General Charles Cornwallis, Jefferson fled to Monticello in 1781, only to flee again just ahead of the arrival of British cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Eight-year-old Sally Hemings was among the enslaved individuals left behind at Monticello when Martin Hemings famously saw that the Jefferson silver was hidden and then faced down Tarleton’s troops, who, surprisingly, left the place unmolested.
By 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha Jefferson, had endured at least eight pregnancies with only two of her children surviving to adulthood: Martha (called Patsy), who was born in 1772, and Mary (called Polly, and later Maria), who was born in 1778. On May 8, 1782, she gave birth to Lucy Elizabeth. She then endured months of illness from complications relating to the pregnancy before dying on September 6. According to the Jefferson overseer Edmund Bacon, who was not present, on her deathbed Martha Jefferson gathered around her those closest to her: her half sisters Elizabeth Wayles Eppes and Anne Wayles Skipwith; her sister-in-law Martha Jefferson Carr; her two eldest daughters; Ursula Granger, the enslaved woman who had nursed her children; the women and girls of the Hemings family, including Sally Hemings; and, of course, Thomas Jefferson. Bacon related that Martha Jefferson told her husband that “she could not die happy, if she thought her four [actually, three] children were ever to have a stepmother brought over them.” (No record of this promise has been found in the Jefferson, Randolph, or Eppes papers.) Hemings family tradition, which in this instance historians have been unable to verify, also notes that Martha Jefferson presented Betty Hemings or one of Hemings’s daughters, possibly Sally, with a cast-iron handbell commonly used to summon servants.
Martha Patsy “Jefferson’s Education in Paris”
When Thomas Jefferson learned of his daughter’s death, he insisted that Polly join him in Paris, specifying the conditions by which she should travel. These included that Polly cross the ocean only under the protections, he wrote, of “some good lady passing from America to France, or even England,” or, alternatively, “a careful gentleman” accompanied by “a careful negro woman” who would serve as Polly’s nurse and maid. Finding such a person, as well as adhering to Jefferson’s other equally detailed instructions, took years and was complicated by the fact that Polly had grown attached to her aunt Elizabeth Eppes and was furiously opposed to leaving Eppington.
On May 1, 1787, the Eppeses took Polly aboard the Robert, a ship bound for England, and played with her until she fell asleep. They then quietly disembarked, leaving Polly in the care of Sally Hemings, her sole companion for the voyage. The overseer Edmund Bacon’s recollections suggest that the trip was a pivotal event in Hemings’s life. “They crossed the ocean alone,” he said. “I have often heard her tell about it.”
London and Paris
Against Jefferson’s wishes regarding his daughter’s escort, Sally Hemings was neither a fully grown woman nor had she had smallpox. Her presence likely would not have been sufficient to protect Polly from the journey’s many perils. Some historians have argued that the Eppeses must have judged Hemings mature enough to cope with a child who was prone to tantrums and who had strenuously resisted making the trip. Others have suggested that, more likely, the Eppeses entrusted Polly to the care of the Robert‘s captain, Andrew Ramsey.
The Robert arrived in London on June 26, 1787, and Abigail Adams, whom Jefferson had recruited to receive the travelers, was appalled when Captain Ramsey delivered Polly ragged, hysterical, and furious at her father. Adams could hardly believe that the Eppeses had sent a young enslaved girl to accompany the child, although Adams did write Jefferson that Hemings seemed “fond” of Polly and “good naturd.”
Adams also described Hemings, with an inferred dig at the decision to entrust Polly with such a person, as “quite a child,” although she guessed Hemings to be “15 or 16,” rather than her actual age of fourteen. It was not clear whether Hemings would stay with Polly or return to Virginia, and, according to Adams, Captain Ramsey suggested that Hemings would “be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him.” When Adrien Petit, Jefferson’s French butler, arrived in London to collect Polly, Jefferson’s daughter fell into a fresh round of fits at her father’s not coming himself. Ultimately, however, both girls left for France with Jefferson’s servant. Hemings, it is reasonable to conclude, was sent to Paris because Polly wanted her there.
On July 15, 1787, Petit, Jefferson, and Hemings arrived in Paris, a city of about 600,000 people, its population far outnumbering all of Virginia’s. It was a city of glittering wealth and miserable poverty, shuddering on the edge of revolution. While Monticello had been impressive, Jefferson’s residence on the Rue de Berri, the Hôtel de Langeac, was magnificent, with gilded mirrors and gleaming floors. The streets outside teemed with noise, odor, traffic, danger, and delight unlike anything Hemings had ever known.
Jefferson immediately had Hemings inoculated for smallpox, leaving her in the care of a Dr. Sutton (likely Robert Sutton Jr.) at a house outside the city, where she was quarantined for forty days. After that, Hemings likely returned to the Hôtel de Langeac, serving as a house maid, waiting on Patsy and Polly when they were home from their convent boarding school, and learning the complex art of caring for fine fabrics. (Her brother James Hemings served as Jefferson’s newly trained chef.) In January 1788, Hemings received a payment of twenty-four livres, plus twelve livres representing a New Year’s tip, and then, beginning in November 1788, an occasional monthly payment of twelve livres. According to the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, this latter payment is in line with, or even a little above, what French chambermaids would have received. If that was Hemings’s position within the house, then it may have brought her into contact with Jefferson inside his bedroom.
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson
In his recollections, which were the product of an interview given to the Ohio newspaper editor S. F. Wetmore in 1873, Madison Hemings said that sometime during Sally Hemings’s stay in Paris, she “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enceinte [pregnant] by him.” Wetmore later interviewed another former Jefferson slave, Israel Gillette Jefferson, who insisted that “Sally Hemmings … was employed as his [Thomas Jefferson’s] chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.”
Sally Hemings would have been sixteen years old at the time Jefferson was preparing to leave Paris. “He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him,” Madison Hemings told Wetmore, referring to Jefferson, “but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. 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.”
Had Hemings stayed in Paris, she would have owed her freedom to France’s longstanding commitment to the so-called Freedom Principle, which dictated that enslaved people who set foot in France were free. Jefferson might have circumvented this tradition by registering the Hemings siblings with the government, but French law already banned the importation of Black people, enslaved or free. (Anywhere from several hundred to a thousand Blacks lived in Paris at the time.) To alert the authorities, then, was to risk either the Hemingses’ deportation or their emancipation.
In any event, Sally Hemings chose Virginia over Paris, and slavery over freedom. She had reason to do so. She had lived through one revolution and likely saw the violent potential of another in the streets of Paris. Although beginning to learn the French language well, according to her son, she likely was not fluent and she lacked the security of permanent employment. Additionally, if she had stayed in France, Hemings would have been separated from the rest of her family. If she was pregnant, the support of that family would have been an important consideration. And, assuming Madison Hemings was correct, her enslaver had promised to free her child and any subsequent children.
Jefferson, his two daughters, and both Hemingses left Paris on September 26, 1789. They traveled first to Le Havre, crossed the English Channel, and then embarked from England on October 22 aboard the American ship Clermont. They finally arrived at Monticello on December 23. Not long after that, Madison Hemings said, his mother “gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time.” Although this child is not mentioned in Monticello records or family correspondence, those same papers reveal that Hemings gave birth to six more children: Harriet, who was born in 1795 and died two years later; Beverly, born in 1798; a daughter, born in December 1799, who died a year later; Harriet, born in 1801; Madison, born in 1805; and Eston, born in 1808.
Sally Hemings continued to live at Monticello, working as a house servant. According to her son Madison Hemings, “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, &c.” With Jefferson’s tacit consent, her children Beverly and Harriet Hemings left Monticello in 1822 and lived as white people. Jefferson freed Madison and Eston in his will.
In Jefferson’s Virginia, sex between enslavers and slaves was commonplace. Such relations were never equal; were always, to one degree or another, exploitative; and they ranged from the violence of rape to long-term and affectionate common-law marriage. While Sally Hemings was in Paris, her half-sister Mary Hemings entered into a relationship with a Charlottesville merchant, Thomas Bell. When Jefferson returned from France, Mary Hemings asked to be sold to Bell, with whom she now had two children, in addition to two older children. Jefferson granted her request, although not before reclaiming the older children and charging Bell for the years Mary had worked for him. Bell eventually freed his two children and bequeathed his property to them.
While enslaver-slave relationships were tolerated locally, they could become a political liability. Evidence suggests that rumors had existed for many years about Jefferson and one of his enslaved laborers. In 1800, Jefferson, then vice president and a Democratic-Republican, ran for president against the incumbent, John Adams, a Federalist. In June of that year, William Alexander Rind, editor of the Virginia Federalist, claimed to have “damning proofs” of Jefferson’s “depravity,” though he did not provide details. The next year, another of Rind’s newspapers, the Washington Federalist, accused a “Mr. J.” of having had “a number of yellow children and that he is addicted to golden affections.”
In 1802, James Thomson Callender, who once had been Jefferson’s own hatchet man against the Federalists, turned on his former patron, now president. Having joined the staff of the Federalist newspaper the Richmond Recorder, Callender published a series of vitriolic items beginning on September 1, 1802, when he wrote: “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is sally … By this wench Sally, our president has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighbourhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it.” Callender also suggested that Hemings had an eldest child, named Tom, “whose features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.” An anonymous poem criticizing Jefferson, which had originally been published in July in the Philadelphia Port Folio, appeared on the same page as the article.
The Republican press rushed to deny the story, while Federalist editors gleefully ran with the tale, adding details: that Sally Hemings lived at Monticello and worked as a seamstress and housekeeper; that, according to one editorial, she was “an industrious and orderly creature in her behaviour” and that she enjoyed good treatment and perhaps special privileges.
Jefferson never publicly commented on the charges. Neither did he ever send Sally Hemings or her children away from Monticello. He weathered the scandal and was resoundingly reelected to the presidency in 1804. But the rumors never went away. Two of his grandchildren, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, took pains to quash the tale. Randolph wrote, but apparently did not send, a letter to the editor of the Pike County Republican contradicting the account of Israel Jefferson. Coolidge, meanwhile, insisted that any relationship between her grandfather and an enslaved woman was unthinkable. “There are,” she told her husband, “such things, after all, as moral impossibilities.” She and her brother instead pointed to Jefferson’s nephews, Peter Carr and Samuel Carr, as likely fathers of Sally Hemings’s children.
Until the 1970s, most white historians and commentators accepted the Coolidge-Randolph version of the story. In addition to questioning Callender’s motives, they attacked the Madison Hemings recollections as being the product of former abolitionists and quoted favorably a contemporary writer who argued that Hemings was like a “scrubby” horse whose owner exaggerated his pedigree. In addition, historians pointed to the absence in Jefferson’s records of an enslaved person named Tom born in 1790, although descendants of Thomas Woodson (ca. 1790–1879) have argued that he was Sally Hemings’s first child.
In 1974, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie was published and included an extended argument on behalf of Jefferson’s paternity. Other historians, including the biographer Dumas Malone and the editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, insisted that in the absence of hard evidence, Jefferson must not be charged with what was then considered the sin (and even crime) of miscegenation. At the same time, the historian Winthrop Jordan established that Jefferson had been present at Monticello during the times that Sally Hemings would have conceived each of her children and that she never conceived when Jefferson was absent.
In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), the legal historian Annette Gordon-Reed presented what amounts to a detailed brief arguing that Jefferson was most likely the father of Hemings’s children. Then, the next year, Dr. Eugene A. Foster, et al., published the results of a genetic study concluding that “a Jefferson male” had fathered Eston Hemings. That study also ruled out the Carr brothers as possible fathers and found no link between the Jeffersons and Thomas Woodson. An investigation by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which has owned and operated Monticello since 1923, accepted in January 2000 that Jefferson was likely the father of Hemings’s children; in 2018 the foundation began treating Jefferson’s paternity as a fact.
The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society was founded in 2000 to combat that Monticello report, which it described as “the product of shallow and shoddy scholarship.” Some scholars and Jefferson defenders subsequently argued that Jefferson’s brother Randolph Jefferson may have been the “Jefferson male” in question, pointing to the recollections of the former Monticello blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson. He recalled in 1847 that Randolph Jefferson “used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” Prior to 2000, no family members or historians had argued for Randolph Jefferson’s paternity, and historians have found no solid evidence of his presence at Monticello during any of the known periods of conception. Most scholars now agree that Thomas Jefferson was the likely father of Sally Hemings’s children.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, leaving behind $100,000 in debts, the responsibility for which largely fell on his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who was the estate’s executor. Nearly everything Jefferson owned went on the auction block—horses, cattle, land, Monticello, and more than 100 enslaved people—to pay off his creditors. His will freed five enslaved people, all of them members of the Hemings family and two of them, Madison and Eston Hemings, likely his sons. Sally Hemings was not freed; her ownership transferred to Martha Jefferson Randolph.
After Jefferson’s death, and with Martha Randolph’s approval, Hemings moved to Charlottesville, where she lived in a house owned by Madison and Eston Hemings. Although Hemings remained Randolph’s legal property, she and her sons were listed in the 1833 parish censuses as “free people of color.” In a version of her will written on April 18, 1834, Randolph requested that her heirs give Hemings her “time,” a means of informally freeing her without forcing her to leave the state. Hemings died before Randolph, in 1835. She was buried in an unknown grave.