Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

Sally Hemings was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson

Slave cabin in Monticello
A recreated enslaved worker cabin is part of the official tour of President Thomas Jefferson's historical Monticello plantation, in Charlottesville, Virginia. During Jefferson's time, over 400 enslaved people worked the land and built his home, including Sally Hemings.

 Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images

Sally Hemings was a woman enslaved 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, Betty, was said to be the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a White ship captain; Betty's own children were said to have been fathered by her owner, John Wayles, making Sally a half-sister of Jefferson's wife.

Fast Facts: Sally Hemings

Known For: Enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and potential mother of his children.

Also Known As: Sally Hemmings (common misspelling)

Born: c. 1773 in Charles City County, Virginia

Parents: Betty Hemings and John Wayles

Died: 1835 in Charlottesville, Virginia

Children: Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings

A Note About the Term "Mistress"

The terms "mistress" and "concubine" are often applied to Sally Hemings, but both are inaccurate descriptions. The terms refer to a woman who lives with and is sexually involved with a married man and—importantly—imply consent. Sally Hemings would not have been able to give consent because of her status as an enslaved woman, meaning she could not have been his mistress. Instead, she was an enslaved teenager who was forced to have sex with her enslaver.

What Was Sally Hemings' "Relationship" With Thomas Jefferson?

From 1784, Sally served as a maid and companion of Mary Jefferson, Thomas 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, 14 years old at the time, was sent with Mary. After a brief stop in London to stay with John and Abigail Adams, Sally and Mary arrived in Paris.

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. And according to French law, Sally was free in France.

Allegedly, Thomas Jefferson began raping Sally Hemings in Paris. When Sally returned to the United States at the age of 16, she was pregnant and Jefferson had made a promise to release any of her children from enslavement when they reached the age of 21. The child conceived in Paris died young, and the only record of it is statements made by one of Sally's later children.

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 light skin and the resemblance of several of Sally's children to Thomas Jefferson were remarked upon by a 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.

In 1802, James Thomson Callender, a journalist and former political ally of Jefferson's, published an article in the Richmond Recorder breaking the story to the public. He wrote: "It is well known that the man... keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY."

After Jefferson's Death

While Jefferson never technically freed Sally, she was permitted to leave Monticello after his death. This was an informal way to release someone from enslavement in Virginia which would prevent the imposition of the 1805 Virginia law requiring freed formerly enslaved people to move out of the state. Sally Hemings is recorded in the 1833 census as a free woman.

Bibliography

  • 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.
  • Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy: Annette Gordon-Reed and Midori Takagi, reprint 1998.
  • Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture: Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf, and Jane E. Lewis, editors, 1999.
  • 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.
  • 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. Virginius Dabney, 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.