- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
What provoked Eston to leave Ohio at age forty-four, change his name, and pass for white? We know that Chilicothe was a favorite station on the underground railway for slaves seeking freedom. It was also a favorite area for slave owners seeking runaways and for kidnappers who frequently spirited free-born blacks as well as slaves back into slave territory. In 1851 the new federal fugitive slave law resulting from the Compromise of 1850, with its appallingly repressive provisions, promised to make life for any ex-slave in southern Ohio even more perilous. It is possible that this served to trigger Eston’s decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin, “go Caucasian,” and take the name Jefferson, which he considered rightly his in any case. Properly protective, Madison Hemings in his memoir revealed that Eston had moved to Wisconsin but did not reveal the change in name. It is the United States Census, that remarkable “bureau of missing citizens,” which documents the passing.
By the time of the 1860 census Eston was dead and his daughter Anne had married an Albert Pearson. But his wife and sons are listed as whites bearing the name Jefferson. All are described as born in Virginia, and the dates of their births coincide with those of the 1850 census in Ohio. The son Wayles has now become John; other documents show that henceforth he called himself John W.Jefferson. The pictures of John W., Beverly, and Anne that have been preserved by their descendants show no Negro characteristics. John’s official Union army record describes him as gray-eyed and (like Jefferson) red-headed.19 See the U.S. Census for Dane County, Wisconsin, 1860. A copy of the army records of Beverly and John Wayles Jefferson was provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Importantly for the security of the new identity, the family dropped the name Hemings. A letter from Julia Anne Jefferson to her eldest son indicates that her husband (Eston) had been known simply as E. H. Jefferson. This letter reveals a sensitive, devout woman who, nearing death, was intent on a fair distribution of her scanty worldly goods. She willed Eston’s piano to her nephew, Walter Pearson. To her eldest son, John Wayles, then a wealthy citizen of Memphis, she wrote on March 22, 1889: “Would like a good gold ring given to each of my seven grandsons, if you can do it. … Lay me beside your father without pomp or show. … Let the stone be plain. … ‘Wife of E. H. Jefferson, born November 21, 1814, and died ___’. … What more can I say than God bless my, save my dear son.”20 Courtesy of Julia Jefferson Westerinen. Her obituary in the Madison Democrat , March 23, 1889, described her as “a kind and tender-hearted woman, beloved most by those who knew her best.” There was no indication that in Wisconsin she had ever been considered anything but white.
Two scrapbooks of faded clippings compiled by Eston’s sons Beverly and John Wayles provide invaluable data about this family and their descendants. John wrote frequently for newspapers, and his articles are carefully preserved. Shortly after he joined the Union army in Wisconsin in 1861, one of his letters home was published in the Madison Argus and Democrat . He described his “dreary feelings” in passing through Missouri towns with “miserable, old, dilapidated, mud plastered, moss-covered log cabins, built without the least regard to architectural taste.” Signs of affection for the Union were as rare, he wrote, “as a diamond found in a coal pit.” When one judge hung out a Union flag, his fellow soldiers gave “cheer after cheer,” until “the whole surrounding country resounded with the outbursts of patriotic ardor.”
Appalled by Missouri illiteracy, he wrote: “I have conversed with but one person that could read and write.” Many “rebel against their Government because they are not intelligent enough to know any better. If our missionaries, who have been spending their lives among foreign nations, had let their light shine among these benighted people, much good would have resulted for the country.” And he related with relish the story of his colonel’s “colored body servant,” who considered it insulting when a “sesh gent” (secessionist) thrust some blankets into his arms and ordered “Hold them, nigger.” The youth had retaliated by “holding them” all the way to the tent in which he was billeted.
John Wayles Jefferson was wounded at Vicksburg and Corinth. Mustered out of the Union army as a lieutenant colonel, he moved to Memphis, where he became a banker and founder of the Continental Cotton Company. He raised cotton in Arkansas and bred blooded trotting horses on his plantation near Memphis. Articles under his name in the Memphis Daily Avalanche cover such matters as improving streets, enlarging the city’s boundaries, and preventing cotton-warehouse fires. An ardent but not active Republican, he corresponded with President Benjamin Harrison and published one reply—a short promise to promote the general good in disturbed areas of the South—in the Daily Avalanche . He never married. After his death at fifty-seven, on June 13, 1892, a Wisconsin county history described him as “enterprising, progressive and warmhearted … engaged in numberless enterprises tending to the public good, of a genial and chivalrous disposition … well known through the South, his adopted home.”21 Biographical Review of Dane County, Wisconsin , p. 402.