It’s Official: Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings


It was announced on June 6, 2018.  Here is the press release:

The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles in 1802 (when Jefferson was President) to scholarly debate well into the 1990s. It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.

A considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond) describes Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. It was corroborated by the findings of the Y-chromosome haplotype DNA study conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998. The DNA study did prove paternity of a Jefferson family member and corroborated the ample documentary and oral history evidence. Other evidence supports Thomas Jefferson’s paternity as well, including his presence at Monticello during Sally Hemings’s likely windows of conception, the names of Hemings’s surviving children, and the fact that all of her children were granted freedom – they were either allowed to leave the plantation, or legally emancipated in Jefferson’s will, a unique occurrence among Monticello’s enslaved families. The summary of the most important evidence proving Jefferson’s paternity is listed below.1

  1. Madison Hemings provided an account of his mother’s life that was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The basic outline of Madison Hemings’s account, including his mother’s “treaty” with Jefferson and the freedom granted to him and his siblings, was well known to his community before it was published. His narrative is the most important extant evidence and much of the corroborating evidence supports the outline of his narrative.
  2. The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype.  This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. This result not only corroborates Madison’s account in the Pike County Republican, it definitively refutes the claims by Jefferson grandchildren, including Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that either Peter or Samuel Carr (they could not agree on which one) was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
  3. Madison Hemings was described by a U.S. census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson in 1870.
  4. Israel Gillette Jefferson, formerly enslaved at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim in the same newspaper, referring to Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine.”
  5. Eston Hemings changed his racial identity to white and his surname to Jefferson after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1852.  Newspaper accounts in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1887 and 1902 recalled that Eston resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  6. The two oldest surviving children of Sally Hemings, Beverly Hemings (a male) and Harriet Hemings, were both allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and were described as “run away” in Jefferson’s inventory of enslaved families. In an 1858 letter to her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, (while denying Jefferson’s paternity) described Sally Hemings’s children as “all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.”
  7. Jefferson’s records of his travels and the birthdays of Sally Hemings’s children reveal that he was present at Monticello during the estimated dates of conception for all six of Hemings’s documented offspring. Statistical modeling shows the likelihood of this coincidence for any other male (if we assume that Thomas Jefferson is not the father) as 1 percent, or 1 chance in 100 — strong evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.2
  8. Oral tradition connecting the Hemings and Jefferson families was transmitted among the descendants of both Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings over many generations. Madison Hemings calls Jefferson his “father” in his 1873 recollections, a fact repeated by his descendants.  Eston Hemings’s descendants altered their family history to state that they were related to one of Thomas Jefferson’s relatives in order to hide Eston Hemings’s decision to change his racial identity when he moved to Wisconsin.
  9. Jefferson freed all four surviving Hemings children (in accordance with the terms of his negotiation with Sally Hemings, as reported by her son Madison). He did not grant freedom to any other enslaved nuclear family.
  10. The names of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children — William Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, James Madison Hemings, and Thomas Eston Hemings — suggest family ties to Thomas Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed outlines these naming connections in her book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  A man named William Beverly accompanied Jefferson’s father on an expedition through Virginia in 1746, and he was connected to Jefferson’s mother’s family by blood and marriage. There were multiple Harriets in the Randolph family, including a sister and a niece of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law. Madison Hemings was named at the request of Dolley Madison, whose husband, James Madison, was one of Jefferson’s close friends. Historian and biographer Fawn Brodie offered two possible explanations for Eston Hemings’s name: Eston was the birthplace of Jefferson’s maternal ancestor, William Randolph, in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eston Randolph was also a first cousin of Jefferson; Jefferson described their two families as being “almost as one.”3Furthermore, it was convention for Jefferson to be involved in the naming of family members. His children with Martha Jefferson were given the names of his sisters and mother, and he personally named each of his grandchildren.4

Why Remove the Qualifiers?

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings.

In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

  • 1.All the evidence enumerated comes from the unpublished Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, TJMF, January 2000, section IV, pp. 6-8, and Appendix F, “A Review of the Documentary Evidence,” pp. 1-7. The entire report and other resources are available online at….
  • 2.Bayes’ theorem allows us to measure just how strong. To take advantage of it, we need to be willing to summarize the strength of evidence that Jefferson was the father, based on other evidence (say the DNA result and Madison’s testimony), as a “prior” probability. Bayes’ theorem allows us to rationally update this prior probability, using the 1 percent likelihood, to yield a posterior probability that Jefferson was the father of all six children. Given a prior probability of 50%, Bayes’ theorem yields a posterior probability of 99%: 99 chances out of 100 that Jefferson was the father of all six children.
  • 3.Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).
  • 4.Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) pp. 196-201.

FOUND: The Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings


Slave manacles from Monticello (Creative Commons)

She was mother to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.  She was also Thomas Jefferson’s slave.  Archaeologists at Monticello have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings.

Here is a taste of a report from NBC News:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”

Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”

Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.

Read the entire news report here.

I am sure Annette Gordon-Reed‘s phone has been ringing today.

Thomas Jefferson on the Run


Check out Michael Kranish‘s piece at The Washington Post on the time Thomas Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Kranish is the author of Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson’s flight made him a mockery. He was called a coward and worse. His political enemies began an investigation into his conduct and he faced the possibility of censure for leaving the state without leadership while looking out for his own interests. One legislator wrote that Jefferson’s flight left Virginia “in a most distressed condition from sea to the mountains.” Jefferson would later explain that he knew he was no military man; he was a planter and scientist and intellectual, not a warrior; it was best, he reasoned, to have a seasoned general take over. He knew his limitations. But he was tormented by the criticism.

“I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treasons of the heart and not merely weakness of the head,” Jefferson wrote. “I felt that these injuries … had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

Jefferson rebutted his critics the way he knew best, with his writing. He was in the midst of composing chapters for his only full-length book, “Notes on the State of the Virginia,” which featured rhapsodic descriptions of the state’s natural beauty. He delivered his defense of his actions in a chapter about the Navy, which consisted of one paragraph. His point was that the state in effect didn’t have one and that it wasn’t his fault. Since the British invaded, he wrote, “I believe we are left with a single armed boat only.”

Read the rest here.

Slavery and Historical Interpretation at Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn-Highland

slaveryatmonticello C-Ville, a website covering life in the Charlottesville, VA area, is running a nice piece on slavery interpretation at the homes of Virginia presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Here is a taste:

The sickeningly horrible institution of slavery was a blight on our nation until the Civil War ended it in 1865 at the cost of 750,000 American lives. Despite the passage of 150 years, however, and despite the country’s best attempts at education, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites—the presentation of the lives of those enslaved—is still controversial, emotionally charged. At some historic properties, the perceived emotional comfort of the visitors, and that of the guide staff itself, preclude the accurate retelling of the awful conditions under which slaves toiled and lived. Here in central Virginia, however—at the plantations owned by Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe—slavery interpretation is thriving. Indeed, it’s expanding.

“Slavery is an important part of the American story,” says Katherine “Kat” Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that operates Montpelier, the Orange County home of our fourth president, Madison. After his presidency from 1809 to 1817, he lived out his remaining 19 years at Montpelier.

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era,” says Imhoff, “you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us. As the leader of a cultural institution dedicated to telling a complete, accurate and human story about our country, I see the improved interpretation of slavery as crucial.”

Read the entire piece here.

What Happened to Monticello After Thomas Jefferson Died?

Michael Beschloss has an interesting piece at The New York Times called “The Near Death, and Revival, of Monticello.”  Read this article to find out what can happen to historic properties when their fate is determined by the real estate market.

Jefferson’s heirs had hoped they could auction Monticello for $20,000 (about $477,000 today). But the site was hilly and remote, and such iconoclastic Jeffersonian details as narrow staircases and ill-defined bedrooms struck some well-heeled Virginia couples as the enemy of gracious living.

The estate, reduced by land sales from about 5,000 acres to 522, sold in August 1831 for $7,000 to James Turner Barclay, an eccentric local druggist whom Martha Jefferson Randolph considered to be a madman. He grew experimental silkworms on the property before becoming a missionary and decamping for the Holy Land.

In 1834, Barclay sold Monticello to Uriah Phillips Levy, who braved anti-Semitism in the United States Navy to become the first Jewish commodore, and also helped persuade Congress to end the naval practice of flogging. Levy admired Jefferson as “an absolute democrat” who had helped to mold a republic in which “a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or government life.” He was imprisoned after his United States brig was captured by the British during the War of 1812, and he amassed a fortune in New York real estate.

When Levy died in 1862, he willed Monticello to the federal government as a school for Navy orphans, but in the heat of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy seized and used it as a convalescent home for wounded rebel soldiers. Thanks to souvenir-seekers and vandals, the estate soon became, as one visitor recalled, “an absolute ruin,” with caretakers herding cattle during the winter into Jefferson’s old basement.

Read the rest here.

Hemmings’s Cabin at Monticello

I just stumbled across this post from the Monticello website.  Really interesting.  Here is a taste:

While study of Mulberry Row has been underway for nearly 60 years, Monticello curators just discovered new important information about the furnishings of John and Priscilla Hemmings’s cabin. We could hardly believe our luck to find a very rare, first-person account about the interior of a slave dwelling. It was written by the last great-grandchild born at Monticello, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke (1826–1915). Amazingly, Martha Burke vividly remembered the interior of the Hemmngs’s dwelling because of the strong impression it made upon her at 2 ½ years of age. Written in her own hand in a lined notebook in 1889, she notes,
 “I remember the appearance of the interior of that cabin, the position of the bed with it’s white counterpane & ruffled pillow cases & of the little table with it’s clean white cloth, & a shelf over it, on which stood an old fashioned band box with wall paper covering, representing dogs running, this box excited my admiration and probably fixed the whole scene in my mind…”

Beyond the Mansion 2.0

The NEH has awarded Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and The Hermitage (home of Andrew Jackson) $300,000 to create “Beyond the Mansion 2.0,” a web project that will make archaeological research at these sites available to the public.  Here is the press release:

MONTICELLO, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced that they will provide a $300,000, three-year grant to enable archaeologists at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to complete Beyond the Mansion 2.0., an innovative, web-based collaboration with The Hermitage.
Beyond the Mansion 2.0 will make thirty years of archaeological research at The Hermitage available to scholars and the general public. The project focuses on the First Hermitage, a cluster of archaeological sites occupied around 1800 by Jackson and a small group of enslaved people.  By 1821, the site was populated by Jackson’s rapidly growing slave labor force.  Beyond the Mansion 2.0 will support digitization and analysis of the artifact assemblages and field records generated by extensive excavations. Funding will also support faunal analysis by Colonial Williamsburg’s Laboratory of Zooarchaeology and macrobotanical analysis by the Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Tennessee.  The digitization will utilize protocols and software developed by the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS)  and its collaborators.
“Bringing together these different kinds of archaeological information will allow us to discover how and why the use of consumer goods like stylish ceramics and the consumption of domestic and wild animals and plants varied within the enslaved community and changed over time at The Hermitage,” said Dr. Jillian Galle, the principle investigator for the new grant and project manager for DAACS. 
At the end of the project, data from Beyond the Mansion 2.0 will be available online via the DAACS website, along with data from sites at the Hermitage Mansion Backyard and the Hermitage Field Quarter. Because the First Hermitage data will conform to DAACS classification and measurement protocols, it will be seamlessly comparable to data from Monticello, previous Hermitage sites, and scores of sites in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Jamaica, and Nevis. This will allow researchers to document and understand how the Hermitage data fit into larger patterns of spatial variation and change in the slave societies of North America and the Caribbean.
“We are very grateful to NEH and its peer reviewers for funding the Hermitage project.  This is another important step to our overall goal:  to facilitate the kind of rigorous, quantitative, and comparative analysis that will help us document and explain variation in the life ways of enslaved people in the early-modern era,” said Dr. Fraser Neiman, co-principle investigator on the new grant and director of archaeology at Monticello.
Built and maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and based in the Department of Archaeology at Monticello, the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) is a web-based initiative providing free access to archaeological data in order to foster inter-site comparative archeological research on slavery. DAACS has received major funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Reed Foundation, and Monticello. For more information, visit

The Significance of the Obama and Hollande Visit to Monticello

I wrote this post on Monday morning and forgot to publish it.  It is a little late, but I still think readers might find it interesting.

In case you have not heard, Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande visited Monticello today.  Over at “Here and Now,” historian and Thomas Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis explains the significance of the visit.  Listen to the seven-minute interview:

Monticello Gets Philip Mazzei Papers


The Jefferson Library at Monticello has acquired 2500 manuscripts, works of art, and decorative objects associated with Italian physician Philip Mazzei (1730-1816). Thomas Jefferson and Mazzei met when the later came to the British American colonies in 1773 to teach Virginians how to cultivate vineyards. Here is a taste of an Associated Press article on Monticello’s latest acquisition:

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation was to formally accept 2,500 manuscripts, works of art and decorative objects at a reception Tuesday afternoon at the Jefferson Library at Monticello. The items donated by Sister Margherita Marchione are related to Jefferson’s longtime friend, Philip Mazzei.

“The materials shed new light from different angles on Jefferson, Monticello, and the whole founding generation,” Jack Robertson, Monticello’s foundation librarian, told The Daily Progress ( ).
Mazzei was a merchant, surgeon and horticulturist who came to Virginia in 1773. He was Jefferson’s friend for about 40 years.
“Mazzei’s perspectives, as a European enlightenment figure, cast interesting and useful light on the American founders, and he contributed to the formulation of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” Robertson said. “He was a radical political thinker and writer, but also an innovator in viticulture and agriculture.”

Conference: Telling the History of Slavery

The full title is “Telling the History of Slavery: Scholarship, Museum Interpretation, and the Public.”  The folks at Monticello are billing the February 22-23 event as a “mega-conference.”  Speakers include Annette Gordon-Reed, Lucia Stanton, and a host of experts in the field of public history, digital history, and museum studies.  Here are the session titles:

Studying Slavery in the Information Age 
Technological advances in computer technology, digital imaging, and the internet have revolutionized the ability of scholars to assemble and describe large datasets pertaining to the transatlantic and inter-colonial slave trades, the spread of slave ownership among disparate classes of planters, and the demography of enslaved people. This session will examine the new information that has been made available over the last 15 years, what aspects of slavery is it most suited to address, and to what new questions and insights has it and might it continue to lead?

Reinterpreting Slavery: New Scholarly Approaches
The last 20 years have also seen profound changes in the interpretive methodologies that scholars utilize to study slavery and the lives of the enslaved. New approaches such as gender analysis and group biography have had a significant impact on the field, and generated new insights into the ideological foundations of racial slavery, cultural formation processes in African-American communities, and a host of other important topics. This session seeks to examine in what ways the scholarly literature on slavery has changed since the 1980s, what new types of questions historians are asking and answering, and where slavery studies might be headed in the future.

From Scholarship to Public Interpretation
How does scholarship on slavery make its way to the public? How has public interpretation of slavery at historic sites and museums evolved over the last 20–25 years? How do standards and formats for presentation get set, and how do museum professionals involved with interpretation of slavery approach the work of academics and scholars? Who is the assumed audience for public interpretation?

The Consumption of Slavery Research– Who Decides?
This session will use as a case study the debate over whether or not to reconstruct absent slave dwellings at historic sites. What does the public want to see? How does this relate to historical research and historians’ debates about landscape and authenticity? What experiences are visitors to historic sites looking for, and what responsibility do scholars and museum professionals have in response to those demands? Does public demand influence future slavery research and interpretation?