What the Census Taker Wrote

In part 8 of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider a single page from the United States Federal Census, enumerating the inhabitants of Washington Township, Ross County, Ohio, on July 7, 1870 (above left). (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.) This document is important because it includes the name Madison Hemings—male, aged 65, farmer, born Virginia—followed by the remarkable words: “This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson.”

This is the hand of the census taker William Weaver, and historians have no way of knowing what happened when he knocked on Hemings’s door that July 7th. Did they get to chatting and the name Thomas Jefferson just came up? It seems possible; after all, only three days earlier was the Fourth of July, celebrating Jefferson’s most fabled accomplishment: the Declaration of Independence.
Whatever the case, Annette Gordon-Reed has speculated that Weaver’s notation came to the attention of S. F. Wetmore, a fellow census taker in neighboring Pike County. Weaver may have told Wetmore—”Hey, you’ll never guess what happened while I was out canvassing!”—or Wetmore may simply have reviewed the paperwork. And being the editor of the Pike County Republican, based in Waverly, Wetmore decided he had to interview this guy and get the full story. What resulted, of course, was “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1,” published on March 13, 1873.
Those who have sought to discredit Madison Hemings have argued that Wetmore was a former abolitionist who helped Hemings make the whole story up. That Hemings was asserting his claim well prior to his interview with Wetmore stands as one small piece of evidence against that theory.
IMAGES: Monticello (; page from 1870 United States Federal Census, Waverly, Ohio; United States Post Office Waverly, Ohio by Jennifer Buckler, November 12, 2008 (Flickr)


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