Sally Hemings was born circa 1773 in Virginia, the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and according to family legend, John Wayles. Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s sons, told his family history in an article published in 1873. He stated that his great-grandmother was a fullblooded African and the property of John Wayles. She became pregnant by an englishman, Captain Hemings, and had a daughter, Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. The family used the Hemings name from that time. According to Madison, family legend is that Captain Hemings wanted to buy his daughter Elizabeth from John Wayles, but Wayles was curious to see how a mixed-race child would develop, and would not sell. John Wayles was said to have thwarted a kidnapping scheme planned by Captain Hemings by moving Elizabeth and her mother into his house, where they worked as indoor servants. Madison Hemings states that after John Wayle’s wife died he took Elizabeth as concubine. Elizabeth had six children fathered by John Wayles, one of whom was Sally Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson had married John Wayle’s widowed daughter Martha Skelton. When John Wayles died, she inherited 135 slaves, among them Elizabeth Hemings and her children. They were brought to Monticello around 1775.
In 1787 Sally Hemings traveled with Jefferson’s daughter Mary to France where Thomas Jefferson was serving as minister for the United States. Madison Hemings states that while in France Thomas Jefferson took Sally as concubine. If Madison Hemings is correct, Sally was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha. In France, slavery was illegal, and therefore Sally was free there. Madison Hemings states that in order to persuade Sally to return with him to the United States, Thomas Jefferson agreed to free her children by the age of twenty-one.
In 1802, while Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, published stories of a relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings began to appear in newspapers. Thomas Jefferson never confirmed or denied the stories, remaining silent on the issue.
Madison Hemings reported that Sally had three sons and one daughter by Thomas Jefferson: Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Beverly went to Washington, D. C. and passed into white society. Harriet married a white man in the Baltimore area. After Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826 Madison and Eston rented a house near Monticello where Sally lived until her death in 1835. Madison and Eston left Virginia and settled in Ohio.
Biographers of Thomas Jefferson often discounted the connection between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson by citing his writings in which he stated that slavery was wrong and the system should be ended, and also his statements that mixing races was immoral. They also cite his legitimate descendant’s denials of the relationship, or the possibility of such a relationship. However, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and only the Hemings slaves were given freedom during his lifetime or in his will. The other slaves owned by Jefferson, numbering over 200, were sold at auction after his death. DNA testing done in 1998 with male descendents of Sally Hemings indicates that Thomas Jefferson (or a related Jefferson male) was the father of some of Sally Heming’s children.
Click on the links below to learn more about Sally Hemings: