- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Three of these five children did indeed pass into the white world and were until recently—when knowledge of one has come to light—truly lost, not only to Jefferson but also to history. The two children of Jefferson and Sally Hemings who stayed in the black society were also lost to history, though not for lack of documents. Madison Hemings freely described Jefferson as his father in a memoir published in 1873.5 This was first published in the Pike County [Ohio] Republican , March 13, 1873, and republished as Appendix I in Brodie, Thomas Jefferson . But scholars eager to absolve Jefferson of the so-called sin of miscegenation chose to disbelieve the “black” son; Dumas Malone wrote that his mother made the claim of being Jefferson’s mistress out of “vanity.”6 Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805 (Boston, 1970), p. 498n.
Since the publication of my Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), which published for the first time the abundant material supporting the Jefferson and Sally Hemings relationship, descendants of Madison, Eston, and Thomas have come forward with scrapbooks, family Bibles, private genealogies, and pictures that have been quietly preserved over the generations. Their material is an exciting addition to the Jefferson family literature. None of the present-day heirs in one family knows the descendants in the other two families. The black heirs had chosen to remain silent in the past mostly because they were not believed. The whites, descendants of the children of Eston Hemings who “went Caucasian,” retained a tenacious tradition of descent from Jefferson but found the connections obscure.
Scholars have abundant information on Jefferson’s descendants by his only surviving white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who had twelve children grow to maturity. Several fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, and one grandson, George Wythe Randolph, was for a time secretary of war under Jefferson Davis.7 Jonathan Daniels, The Randolphs of Virginia (New York, 1972), pp. 292-3, 297. Before his death Jefferson had written passionately against secession, calling it “an act of suicide” and “treason against the hopes of the world.”8 Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, Writings of Thomas Jefferson , A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh, eds. (Washington, D.C., 1903-4, 20 vols.), Vol. XV , pp. 248–50. But only one Randolph greatgrandson fought on the Union side—Sydney Coolidge, a son of Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge. He died at Chickamauga.
We know now that at least four of Jefferson’s grandsons through Sally Hemings fought for the Union, two as white men and two as black. One became a lieutenant colonel; one died in a Confederate prison.9 I am indebted to the Wisconsin Historical Society for copies of the Civil War records of Eston Hemings’ two sons, who had taken the name Jefferson. Beverly Jefferson enlisted in Wisconsin in 1861 and was mustered out after three months’ service. John W. Jefferson enlisted in 1861 and was mustered out as a lieutenant colonel. Both are described as whites. Eston Hemings’ descendants, who took the name Jefferson and moved easily in the white world, became prominent in railroading in Chicago, hotel management in Madison, and cotton raising in Memphis. One descendant, Beverly Jefferson, married a granddaughter of Charles G. Dawes, Vice President under Calvin Coolidge.10 I am indebted to Julia Jefferson Westerinen, Jean Jefferson Stang, and Margaret Jefferson, who furnished me invaluable family data and pictures. They provided two books of clippings compiled by Beverly and John Wayles Jefferson, letters written by Eston Hemings’ (Jefferson) widow, and family traditions. The scrapbooks are now in the library of the University of California at Los Angeles.
One daughter of Madison Hemings stayed in the black community, married, and moved to California. Her son, Frederick Madison Roberts, was the first black to be elected to the California State Assembly. The numerous descendants from both families whom I have interviewed are people of talent, education, and dedication to public service, and form an extraordinary cross section of American society. All of them, black and white, are fascinated by their lineage if somewhat ambivalent about it.