- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
“Does it trouble you,” I asked Mrs. Sanford, “that the white society insists on labeling as black even those who show only the faintest trace of black ancestry?” She answered gravely: “I was not really conscious of the fact that I was black till nine or ten. I went to an all-white school, and it was not until my sister, who is darker than I am, came to the same school that people took any notice of our color. My mother would take me to a pediatrician and he would put down ‘Caucasian’ for both of us, and she would correct him. I myself have never suffered from discrimination of any kind.”
She went on to express, with a wonder that may have masked some pain, “I don’t really understand my small daughter. Already at seven she is very race-conscious. I remember that when she was four and I first told her she was black, she was astonished and for a time refused to believe it.” Mrs. Sanford noted that her husband, who is also extremely light, had suffered job discrimination and has a strong sense of being black. But of herself she said: “I have a strong sense of personal identity, not racial identity. I am myself.”
The fate of Thomas, the eldest son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and his children remains less certain, though promising material has been forthcoming. Minnie S. Woodson, genealogist for the Thomas Woodson family, which claims descent from Jefferson, informs me that three branches of this black family have independently maintained strong oral traditions that they were descended from “the son of the slave girl who was half sister to Jefferson’s dead wife.” One tradition has it that this son quarreled with Jefferson as a youth and left Monticello; another holds that Jefferson gave him money and he moved on into Ohio and purchased land upon which coal was discovered. All three traditions hold that he took the name Woodson from the owner of the farm to which he had been sent when he left Monticello, and one of the older family historians has stated that he came to Ohio by way of Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Many of these oral traditions prove to be accurate when checked against the United States Census records. A Thomas Woodson listed as “free coloured” and head of a family appears on the 1820 census listing of Greenbrier County. His age is uncertain, given the lack of specificity of the census recorder, who was asked to report only general age groupings; but a careful tracking of this man through the Ohio census records of later dates shows that in 1870 he gave his age as eighty years, which would mean that he had indeed been born in 1790, the year after Sally Hemings’ return from Paris.30 For the 1820 listing see the U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia), p. 197. For the 1870 and earlier listings in Jackson County, Ohio, see Minnie Woodson, “The Woodson Source Book,” ms., 1975. pp. 4-5.
If he was, in truth, Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ son, how did he get from Monticello to Greenbrier County, a distance of about one hundred miles? And where did he change his name to Woodson? There were no white men named Woodson listed on the Greenbrier County census of 1820. There were, however, two well-known white men named Woodson in Jefferson’s own county of Albemarle. Tarleton Woodson and John Woodson appear not only on all the early census listings up to 1810 but also in Jefferson’s account books.
The census of 1810, Albemarle County, tells us that Tarleton Woodson had six slaves or free blacks working for him; the census category in that year simply lumped together everyone who was not “free white male” or “free white female” as “persons other than Indians, not taxed.” There is no way of knowing for certain, without additional evidence, if the young adolescent described in the Virginia press as “President Tom” and “bearing a striking though sable resemblance” to Jefferson became one of the six “persons” working for Tarleton Woodson. There certainly was some connection with Monticello; Jefferson’s account book for December 19, 1804, shows a purchase of $416 worth of corn from Tarleton Woodson.
John Woodson, who had been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, also lived in Albemarle County. The 1810 census lists him as having one “persons other than Indians, not taxed.” Either John or Tarleton Woodson might have given “Thomas Hemings” the Woodson name.