February 04, 2011

Feb. 4 – Sally Hemings: Mother of a President’s Children?

Portrait Sketch of Sally Hemings
Sally Hemings (~1773 – 1835) was the mixed-race slave of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. She was the daughter of Betty Hemings – also a mixed-race slave – and purportedly, attorney/slave trader/tobacco plantation owner, John Wayles, who was also father to Martha Wayles (Jefferson), Thomas Jefferson’s wife. This never-disputed lineage would have made Sally and Martha half-sisters; and there were several documented accounts that they strongly resembled each other.

Described as ‘dashing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘near white’ with ‘long, straight hair way down her back’, Sally, her mother and other Hemings family members arrived at Jefferson’s Charlottesville, Virginia plantation estate, Monticello, in 1776, as part of Martha Wayles’s dowry.  As was often the custom, the Hemingses were house slaves (rather than field slaves) because of their light-skinned complexions.

Following Martha’s death in 1782, Jefferson became an American envoy to France, two years later, and moved to Paris with his oldest daughter, Patsy. He also brought Sally’s, brother, James to be an apprentice chef. In 1787, he sent for his younger daughter, Polly; and 14-year-old, Sally, accompanied her. They lived in Paris for 26 months.

Due to French law, Sally and James were paid wages – the equivalent of $2.00 and $4.00, respectively, per month, and much lower than those of the white servants – but nevertheless, paid.  Jefferson also purchased many, fine clothes for Sally – presumably for her to accompany his daughters to formal events.

In 1789, the French abolished slavery, so Sally and James could have petitioned for their freedom. However, by this time, Sally was pregnant with her first son, Tom, who was born in 1790 (at Monticello) and bore an extremely striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. Rather than petition for freedom, Sally chose to negotiate the freedom of any of her yet-to-be-born children, when they turned 21, and Jefferson agreed.

When Martha Jefferson died, she made her husband promise that he would never remarry, which he honored.  However, it is rumored that Jefferson and Sally maintained a relationship until his death in 1809, and that she bore six more children: Harriet, Beverley (a son), [Thenia], (another) Harriet, Madison and Eston. Sally and her children were always given special treatment by Jefferson, and some were even ‘allowed to escape’ and were not pursued.
Partial, 'presumed' Family Tree
(note: three children are missing)
Many newspaper accounts spread the rumors about their relationship, and were extremely unkind to Sally, calling her all kinds of names – the least offensive being, ‘Sooty Sally’ and ‘African Venus’. The Virginia Gazette went so far as to ask, “Why have you not married some worthy woman of your own complexion?"

The relationship between Sally and Jefferson has been hotly disputed on both sides of the argument, for decades; and remains until this day. Some reports say that Jefferson’s brother, sons (with Martha) or nephews fathered Sally’s children; and some DNA tests have remained inconclusive. Dissenters, such as the authors of the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission adamantly declare that Thomas Jefferson did not have a relationship with Sally, nor father any of her children. However, The Monticello Foundation, The National Geographical Society, The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and leading Jefferson biographers have declared the opposite with their own DNA tests, as is evidenced by this (click link) BBC report in 2000.  

There have also been several books written and films made about the subject, including the 1995 Merchant-Ivory Film, Jefferson in Paris, starring Thandie Newton, Nick Nolte and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which ironically states that, 'all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'. Upon his death, appraisers ‘valued’ the 56-year-old Sally at $50.00, and his legitimate daughter, Patsy, gave her an informal freedom. Sally reportedly lived the rest of her life in Charlottesville and was buried at a site, which is sadly, now beneath a downtown parking lot.

Did Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson have a relationship? Did Jefferson father any, if not all, of her children? The jury is still out and depends on which you side you believe. I would like to think that the answer is ‘yes’ to both, if for no other reason than I really like a good love story – especially a mysterious and intriguing one.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, New World Encyclopedia, BBC, Robert Turner, Google Images


  1. I just wanted to tell you that when I saw your sketch, my heart chakra vibrated. I do believe you have captured her energy well!

    Rebecca Joy Gabriel

  2. Did Martha Jefferson treat her as a sister? I've read Hemming's was at Martha's deathbed, and Martha gave her a golden bell.

  3. fantastic post

    I am making a copy of Sally's dress....could you give me ideas about fabric...thanks Charlotte.Mehmke@gmail.com

  4. This story has always intrigued me.