- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
We know that Thomas Woodson married a mulatto woman named Jemima, six years older than himself.31 See “The Woodson Source Book,” p. 6. Her gravestone reads: “Jemima, wife of Thomas Woodson, March 18, 1868, Age 85 years 10 mos. 6 days.” There was no slave named Jemima at Monticello.32 At least no slave named Jemima appears on the pages of Jefferson’s Farm Book . There seems to be good evidence that their oldest son, Lewis Frederick Woodson, was born in Virginia in 1806, which would mean that Thomas Woodson was a father at the precocious age of sixteen.33 “The Woodson Source Book,” p. 8. From the later writings of the son, who became famous as a black abolitionist in Pittsburgh, we know that Thomas Woodson eventually became the leader of an all-Negro community in Jackson County, Ohio. We know also that he was an agent for distributing the Palladium of Liberty , an abolitionist newspaper published in Columbus, Ohio, and that he attended a state convention of blacks in 1844.34 Palladium of Liberty , September 25, October 2, 1844, cited in “The Woodson Source Book,” p. 4. The United States Census tells us that in 1860 he had property worth $13,500.
There is no written record to document the move from Monticello to a Woodson farm and then to Greenbrier County, where the name Thomas Woodson first appears. Should the final decisive evidence come to light supporting the oral history of this Woodson family, then historians could point with some certainty to still another remarkable Jefferson grandson. For Lewis Frederick Woodson moved on to Pittsburgh, where he wrote against slavery for The Colored American in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s under the pseudonym Augustine. His essays, collected and reprinted in the Woodson family genealogy, “The Woodson Source Book,” reveal a fine writing style and a passionate dedication to Negro freedom. Woodson argued that blacks and whites should move into separate communities “as a means of curing antipathies,” an argument that set him apart from many other abolitionists and that gives him a place in black history as one of the forerunners of black nationalism. Like Jefferson, he was also a founder of schools.35 One of his students was Martin R. Delaney, an early proponent of Afro-American nationalism. For a detailed discussion of Lewis Frederick Woodson’s career see Floyd J. Miller, “The Father of Black Nationalism, Another Contender,” Civil War History , Vol. XVII , No. 4, December, 1971.
The tie relating Thomas Woodson to Jefferson and Sally Hemings is not yet binding, but further research may uncover the essential links. The tenacious Woodson family oral history cannot be discounted just because all the links have not yet appeared. But oral history, whether it comes from whites or from blacks, cannot stand quite by itself. The desire to claim closeness in blood to great men in history is as old as leadership. It is a spur to much modern genealogical research. It was also a spur to the creation of the false genealogies so common in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. “The family romance,” the fantasy of one’s being a foundling, the natural or lost child of an aristocrat or monarch, has been a favorite theme in literature and is a well-known phenomenon in psychoanalytic literature.
In recent months several whites as well as blacks have come to me with queries and oral traditions about the possibilities of blood ties to Jefferson. Other family traditions I had already examined and rejected.36 It is frequently reported in the press that Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts is a descendant of Jefferson. The senator’s secretary, Sheila Crowley, on February 11, 1976, in reply to my inquiry, stated that Senator Brooke has done no research himself and makes no claim. The rumor stems from the fact that his paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Dolly Madison Jefferson. There seems to be no other “evidence.” Some descendants of Joe Fosset, who was freed in Jefferson’s will, claim descent from Jefferson, as do descendants from John Hemings. For a discussion of why I believe their claims to be invalid see Thomas Jefferson , footnote 47, pp. 554-5, and footnote 45, p. 558. Of the new families whom I have studied, reliable evidence has been wanting in all save the descendants of Madison and Eston Hemings and those of Thomas Woodson, presumably Thomas Hemings. All of the new data would seem to bear out the contention of Madison Hemings in his memoir that “we were the only children of his by a slave woman,” indicating that Jefferson was not the callous débaucher of slave women suggested by some abolitionists but a man devoted for thirty-eight years to a single woman whom he could not acknowledge or marry lest he suffer social and political ostracism.