- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Eston’s daughter Anne, whose husband, Albert Pearson, also fought in the Union army, had two sons. The elder, Walter Beverly Pearson, became president of the Standard Screw Company of Chicago and at his death left an estate of two million dollars.
The youngest of Eston’s sons, Beverly, who enlisted in the Union forces in 1861, returned to Madison to live. Eventually he became the owner of two hotels, the America House and the Rasdell House, and a fleet of horse-drawn omnibuses. He was revered, as frequent newspaper clippings show, as “a genial, whole-souled man,” “the perfect boniface,” and host to the city. Like his grandfather Thomas Jefferson, he was an inventor, manufacturing a heating device to keep his omnibus patrons comfortable in the frigid Wisconsin winters. He had five sons; one became a physician in Chicago, and three others became prominent in railroading; the fifth died in his youth of tuberculosis.22 All avoided publicity about their lineage to Jefferson. All these family data may be found in the Beverly Jefferson scrapbook of clippings.
“This is not surprising,” Beverly’s great-granddaughter Jean Jefferson Stang explained recently. “In that generation the slightest rumor of a trace of Negro ancestry was enough to bar one from the fashionable clubs to which these men belonged.”
When Beverly Jefferson died, the Chicago Tribune printed an obituary on November 12, 1908. It did not mention the descent from Jefferson. But shortly afterward a friend, A. J. Munson, who knew the truth and saw no reason to hide it, wrote to the Tribune :
Milwaukee, Wisc., Nov. 12. (Editor of the Tribune). In the Tribune today is a notice of the death of Beverly Jefferson of Madison. His death deserves more than a passing notice, as he was a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, father of the doctrines of the democratic party, hence one of the FFV . Beverly Jefferson was one of God’s noblemen—gentle, kindly, courteous, charitable. He was friendly to everybody in his home city, and he will be missed there quite as much or more, perhaps, than any other citizen.
The name Beverly, uncommon today for a man, has persisted remarkably in this Jefferson family. Did Jefferson choose it because he liked Sheridan’s School for Scandal , where the hero, a young man named Beverly, the son of an aristocrat, conceals his identity?23 Beverly is the son of Sir Anthony Absolute. Sheridan’s reputation was well known to Jefferson, both as playwright and as politician. Maria Cosway wrote to Jefferson about a five-hour speech Sheridan made in the House of Commons, February 17, 1787. See Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Julian Boyd, ed. (Princeton, 1950–72, 18 vols.), Vol. XI , p. 149. We do not know. But the name continued down to Beverly Jefferson, son of Carl Jefferson and great-grandson of Eston. He was a graduate of Princeton who in the 1940’s tried to compile an accurate family genealogy. The lost name Hemings proved a stumbling block, and it was not until the publication of Madison Hemings’ memoir in my volume that his family was able to document the genealogy all the way back to Jefferson.
The last Beverly Jefferson, now dead, married Margaret Gates Dawes, a granddaughter of Charles G. Dawes, in 1933. Their daughter, Jean Jefferson Stang, who has helped me put together the complicated puzzle of her ancestry, says she is frankly more interested in her own identity than in the fact that she can now claim lineage to a President and to a Vice President. Still, she has been excited by the unraveling of the family mystery.
Her cousin, Julia Jefferson Westerinen, who furnished scrapbooks and pictures from the family archive, is a mother of four. “I wish I’d known for certain about all this when I was younger,” she said. “I’d have worked harder.” She is presently studying for her doctorate in creative arts at Rutgers University. She also teaches, paints portraits, and has had a one-woman show in New York. One of her sons, now in college, is named Jefferson.
Madison Hemings moved to southern Ohio after his mother’s death in Virginia in 1836. Unlike Eston, he remained in the black community all his life, working as a carpenter. He talked frankly to white friends as well as to his family about being a son of Thomas Jefferson, and seems to have been generally believed. William Weaver, a federal marshal recording United States Census data in Huntington Township, Ross County, in 1870, listed Madison Hemings as Virginia-born, aged sixty-five. He broke all the rules of census bureaucrats by writing on the same line, with an exclamation point: “This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson!”24 I am indebted to Mrs. Francis Obetz for the information about the census taker’s comment concerning Madison Hemings and for a photocopy of the record.