Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

Was Hemings the mistress of Thomas Jefferson?

Slave quarters at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson

Authenticated News / Getty Images

An important note on terms: the term "mistress" refers to a woman who lived with and was sexually involved with a married man. It does not always imply that the woman did so voluntarily or was completely free to make the choice; women through the ages have been pressured or forced into being mistresses of powerful men. If it was true—and examine the evidence outlined below—that Sally Hemings had children by Thomas Jefferson, it is also undoubtedly true that she was enslaved by Jefferson (for all but a brief time in France) and that she had no legal ability to choose whether or not to have a sexual relationship with him. Thus, the often-used meaning of "mistress" in which the woman chooses to have a relationship with a married man would not apply.

In the Richmond Recorder in 1802, James Thomson Callendar first began to publicly allege that Thomas Jefferson kept one of his slaves as his "concubine" and fathered children with her. "The name of SALLY will walk down to posterity alongside Mr. Jefferson's own name," Callendar wrote in one of his articles on the scandal.

Who Was Sally Hemings?

What is known of Sally Hemings? She was a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, inherited through his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (October 19/30, 1748–September 6, 1782) when her father died. Sally's mother Betsy or Betty was said to be the daughter of a black slave woman and a white ship captain; Betsy's children were said to have been fathered by her owner, John Wayles, making Sally a half-sister of Jefferson's wife.

From 1784, Sally apparently served as a maid and companion of Mary Jefferson, Jefferson's youngest daughter. In 1787, Jefferson, serving the new United States government as a diplomat in Paris, sent for his younger daughter to join him, and Sally was sent with Mary. After a brief stop in London to stay with John and Abigail Adams, Sally and Mary arrived in Paris.

Why Do People Think Sally Hemings Was Jefferson's Mistress?

Whether Sally (and Mary) lived at the Jefferson apartments or the convent school is uncertain. What is fairly certain is that Sally took French lessons and may also have trained as a laundress. What is certain is that in France, Sally was free according to French law.

What is alleged, and not known except by implication, is that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship in Paris, Sally returning to the United States pregnant, Jefferson promising to free any of her (their) children when they reached the age of 21.

What little evidence there is of a child born to Sally after her return from France is mixed: some sources say the child died quite young (the Hemings family tradition).

What is more certain is that Sally had six other children. Their birth dates are recorded in Jefferson's Farm Book or in letters he wrote. DNA tests in 1998, and a careful rendering of the birth dates and Jefferson's well-documented travels puts Jefferson at Monticello during a "conception window" for each of the children born to Sally.

The very light skin and the resemblance of several of Sally's children to Thomas Jefferson were remarked upon by a good number of those who were present at Monticello. Other possible fathers were either eliminated by the 1998 DNA tests on male-line descendants (the Carr brothers) or dismissed because of internal inconsistencies in the evidence. For example, an overseer reported seeing a man (not Jefferson) coming from Sally's room regularly—but the overseer did not start working at Monticello until five years after the time of those "visits".

Sally served, probably, as a chambermaid at Monticello, also doing light sewing. The affair was revealed publicly by James Callender after Jefferson refused him a job. There is no reason to believe she left Monticello until after Jefferson's death when she went to live with her son Eston. When Eston moved away, she spent her last two years living on her own.

There is some evidence that he asked his daughter, Martha, to "give Sally her time", an informal way to free a slave in Virginia which would prevent the imposition of the 1805 Virginia law requiring freed slaves to move out of the state. Sally Hemings is recorded in the 1833 census as a free woman.


  • Sally Hemings: Redefining History. A video from A&E/Biography: "Here is the complete story of the woman at the center of the first presidential sex scandal." (DVD or VHS)
  • Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire in Monticello. Andrew Burstein, 2005. (compare prices)
  • Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy: Annette Gordon-Reed and Midori Takagi, reprint 1998. (compare prices)
  • Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture: Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf, and Jane E. Lewis, editors, 1999. (compare prices)
  • Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History: Fawn M. Brodie, trade paperback, reprint 1998.
  • A President in the Family: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson: Byron W. Woodson, 2001.(compare prices)
  • Sally Hemings: An American Scandal: The Struggle to Tell the Controversial True Story. Tina Andrews, 2002.
  • Anatomy of a Scandal: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story.  Rebecca L. McMurry, 2002.
  • The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty.  The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, Eyler Robert Coates Sr., 2001
  • The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal.  Virginus Dabs, Reprint, 1991.
  • Jefferson's Children: The Story of an American Family. Shannon Lanier, Jane Feldman, 2000. For young adults.
  • Sally Hemings: Barbara Chase-Riboud, reprint 2000. Historical fiction.