- Historic Sites
Children Of Monticello
In Virginia, a quarrel is going on about who can be allowed to lie in a family graveyard. Because the family is Thomas Jefferson’s, the outcome of the dispute is important to every American.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Most members at the 1998 reunion weren’t alarmed by the upcoming DNA tests. They maintained that one or both of the “Carr nephews” had fathered Sally’s children.
In November 1998 the journal Nature printed those results. A laboratory in Great Britain compared Y-chromosome blood samples from lines of the Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings families with Y-chromosome samples from family lines of Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson. The Y chromosome is passed down virtually unchanged from father to son and so is an almost certain indicator of paternity. Descendants of Field Jefferson had been sought out because Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, had no sons who survived to adulthood, and Thomas and Field shared the same Y chromosome from their common ancestors.
In the case of the Woodson family, there was no DNA match with Field Jefferson’s descendants. But the lab did find a match for a male descendant of Eston Hemings, establishing that he at least was fathered by a “Jefferson male.” The DNA samples of the Hemings descendants also were compared to Y-chromosome samples from the descendants of the “rascally” Carrs. That test came back negative. The Jefferson male most likely to have fathered Sally’s children was Thomas himself. By the time more than 30 Hemings descendants walked through the gates of the Monticello graveyard in May 1999, an American history Rubicon had been reached, if not crossed: Now it was impossible to consider the towering figure of Jefferson without also considering Sally Hemings.
The reunion that year was covered by a throng of reporters that rivaled the media mob outside the O. J. Simpson trial. Having Hemings descendants at the reunion alarmed many members, and the presence of so many TV cameras and reporters added tension. Most Association members on the lawn were clustered tightly, warily glancing at the invaders. There were several regrettable incidents of outright hostility, when members made racist comments to Hemings descendants.
When the Association’s Sunday afternoon “business meeting” was gaveled open, the first motion from the floor was to dismiss Hemings descendants and other guests from the meeting and have the membership immediately go into “executive session” to discuss the question of membership for Hemings descendants. Several members rose to oppose the motion. One of us pointed out that nobody had yet finished lunch, and it would be unseemly to banish people, including our own husbands and wives, not to mention the Hemingses, in the middle of a meal.
The motion was defeated by a comfortable margin, surprising me and most probably the outgoing president of the Association, Mr. GiIlespie, who the afternoon before had told the press he was certain that many members opposed allowing Hemingses into the Association.
Several Hemings descendants then rose to address the Association. One of them, Mary Jefferson, startled several members when she said it was not only they who were considering the issue of membership; she and other Hemings descendants were considering whether or not this was the kind of organization they’d want to join.
Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Gillespie announced that the executive committee had met earlier and appointed a membership advisory committee to consider the criteria for membership and the issue of whether or not descendants of Sally Hemings were also descendants of Thomas Jefferson; the new committee would issue its report before the next May and the 2000 reunion. James Truscott, my uncle, was elected the new president of the Association, and he gaveled the meeting to a close as the media hordes descended to feed on its corpse.
In January 2000, before the membership advisory committee had really begun its work, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and runs Monticello, did a remarkable about-face and issued a report that concluded that “although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.”
Shortly afterward, the membership advisory committee hastily convened and decided it needed more time to issue its report. My uncle James announced that the committee would issue an interim report that year but that both the committee and the Association would wait until 2001 to consider a final report.
Even so, by the time we gathered at Monticello last May, it seemed that a good deal of the advisory committee’s work had already been done. The Foundation report had not been researched and prepared by historians unknown to the Association. Although they’ve shared a sort of church-state arrangement over the years, the officers and directors of the Monticello Association and of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation have enjoyed a close relationship. The current president of the Memorial Foundation, Dan Jordan, was made an honorary Association member some time ago, and the Foundation hosts the annual reunion reception at Monticello with the friendly cooperation of the Association.