Sally Hemings

From Academic Kids

Sally Hemings (17731835) was a slave, probably born at Guinea Plantation, Cumberland County, Virginia, who was initially owned by John Wayles, who died in 1774, leaving Sally to his daughter Martha Wayles, wife of Thomas Jefferson. Martha and Sally were half-sisters: both were fathered by John Wayles.

Martha Jefferson died in 1782, and in 1784 Thomas Jefferson took up residence in Paris as American envoy to France. In 1787 after the death of Lucy Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson sent for 9 year old Mary (Maria) Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had requested that Isabel, an older woman be sent as a companion for Mary, but as Isabel was pregnant Mary (Maria) Jefferson was accompanied by 14 year old Sally Hemings instead.

Rumors that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were sexually involved circulated well before Jefferson assumed office in 1801, and they were published in 1802. The truth of these rumors has long been debated. Evidence in support of the theory that Jefferson was father of Sally Hemings' children is that (1) Jefferson and Hemings were together at Monticello at the time of the conceptions of her children; (2) Madison Hemings, Sally's son, stated in an 1873 interview that Sally named the President as her children's father; (3) Sally's children were said to resemble Jefferson physically; and (4) Sally's children, unlike Jefferson's other slaves, were allowed to slip away, or were manumitted, before Jefferson's death.

The main argument advanced against the proposition was that of personal incredulity, "beyond belief."

Some had argued that the resemblance to Jefferson was because the children had been fathered by one of Jefferson's nephews (Samuel or Peter Carr), sons of Jefferson's sister.

In the November 5, 1998 issue of the journal Nature, a study on the available DNA evidence was published. In the study, the Y chromosomal haplotypes of several of Sally Heming's descendants (in the male line) were compared with the Y chromosomal haplotype of several of Thomas Jefferson's grandfather's descendants (in the male line). Some of these (descendants of Thomas Woodson) did not match, ruling out a Jefferson as direct male line ancestor, but the descendants of Eston Hemings did match, providing strong evidence that Jefferson (or someone related to him) had fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children.

The Y chromosomal haplotype of the Carr family was found to be different from the Jefferson haplotype.

The National Genealogical Society Quarterly of September 2001 examined the totality of the available historical, genealogical, and scientific evidence and concluded that four children of Sally Hemings were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

The controversy was distorted by its politicization in 1998 when, during the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis defended Clinton by comparing him to Jefferson, whom he said had also been sexually dalliant, claiming that DNA tests "proved" Jefferson fathered a child by Hemings.

However, Stephen Goode wrote in Insight Magazine that:

"Ellis lied by saying DNA tests showed 'beyond any reasonable doubt that Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with his mulatto slave.' The tests showed nothing of the kind. What they did indicate was that the last child Hemings bore had Jefferson genes, likely from Jefferson's brother or his nephews." [1] (

(In fact, the tests did not say anything about the 'likelihood' of Thomas Jefferson, as opposed to his brother as the source of the Jefferson haplotype, but they did rule out the Carr nephews.)


"pathologist Eugene Foster told the British science journal Nature that the DNA evident hadn't proved Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings's children. It merely showed that he was one of twenty-five males in the Jefferson clan who might have been the father." [2] (

While it is certainly true that the DNA evidence alone does not indicate which particular Jefferson was father of Sally Heming's children, the DNA testing was designed to discriminate between two competing theories, the Jefferson paternity vs the Carr paternity, and strongly supported the former.

In 2000, a group of experts commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Historical Society formed the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission and conducted a substantial examination of the paternity question, examining the full range of scholarly, scientific, and historical evidence. On April 12, 2001, they issued a 565-page report detailing their findings. Their near-unanimous (one dissenting member) conclusion was that almost certainly Jefferson did not have a sexual relationship with Hemings and fathered neither Eston nor any of her other children. Rather, they suggest the most likely alternative is that Randolph Jefferson, Thomas's younger brother, was the father of Eston.



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