Sally Hemings' Children

How likely is it Sally Hemings' children were fathered by Jefferson?

Slave quarters at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson
Slave quarters at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. Authenticated News / Getty Images

When James Thomas Callender published allegations in 1802 alleging that Sally Hemings was not just Thomas Jefferson's slave, but his "concubine," it was the beginning but not the end of public speculation on the parentage of Hemings' children.

Sally Hemings' Own Genealogy

Sally Hemings was a slave owned by Jefferson who came to him through his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. She may have been Martha Jefferson's half-sister, fathered by Martha's father, John Wayles.  Sally's mother, Betsy (or Betty), was herself the daughter of a white ship captain and a black slave woman, so Sally may have had just one black grandparent.  Nevertheless, the laws of the time made Sally, and her children no matter who was the father, also slaves.

Birth Dates

The birth dates of six children of  Sally Hemings were recorded by Thomas Jefferson in his letters and records. Descendants of Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings are known.

The evidence is mixed for a son who may have been born to Hemings when she returned from Paris. Descendents of Thomas Woodson claims that he was that son.

One way to look at the likelihood of Jefferson as the father of the Hemings children is to see whether Jefferson was present at Monticello and whether that is within a reasonable "conception window" for each child.

The following chart summarizes the known birth dates and the dates of Jefferson's presence at Monticello within that "conception window":

Name Birth Date Jefferson at
Death Date
Harriet October 5, 1795 1794 and 1795 -- all year December 1797
Beverly April 1, 1798 July 11 - December 5, 1797 probably after 1873
Thenia? about
December 7, 1799
March 8 - December 21, 1799 soon after birth
Harriet May 1801 May 29 - November 24, 1800 probably after 1863
Madison January (19?), 1805 April 4 - May 11, 1804 November 28, 1877
Eston May 21, 1808 August 4 - September 30, 1807 January 3, 1856

What Happened to These Children and Their Descendants?

Two of Sally's documented children (a first Harriet and a girl possibly named Thenia) died in infancy (plus, possibly, the child named Tom who was born shortly after the return from Paris).

Two others―Beverly and Harriet―"ran" in 1822, were never formally freed, but disappeared into white society. Beverly probably died after 1873, and Harriet after 1863. Their descendants are not known, nor do historians know what names they used after their "escape." Jefferson spent minimal effort to track them after their departure, lending credence to the theory that he let them go purposely. Under an 1805 Virginia law, if he'd freed them or any slave, that slave would not be able to remain in Virginia.

Madison and Eston, the youngest of the children, both born after the 1803 Callendar revelations, were freed in Jefferson's will, and were able to remain in Virginia for some time, as Jefferson had requested a special act of the Virginia legislature to permit them to stay contrary to the 1805 law. Both worked as tradesmen and musicians, and ended up in Ohio.

Eston's descendents at some point lost their memory of being directly descended from Jefferson and from Sally Hemings, and were unaware of a black heritage.

Madison's family includes descendents of three of his daughters.

Eston died January 3, 1856 and Madison died November 28, 1877.