- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Although he married only once, Thomas Jefferson had two families. The first was by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson; the second, after her death, was by her young half sister, Jefferson’s quadroon slave Sally Hemings. This was known and eagerly publicized by the anti-Jefferson press during his first term as President. Despite pleas of Republican editors to deny the liaison, Jefferson maintained then, and thereafter to his death, a tight-lipped silence.
In any President’s life the silences can reverberate as loudly as his speeches. Some have held that Jefferson’s silence reflected only disdain for the chief accuser, James Callender, who though a notorious defamer of the great was also a talented writer, a generally accurate reporter, and Jefferson’s former friend. Others have written that Jefferson had a necessity for privacy, which is true enough. But where a private silence is characteristic of a silence indulged in by a whole society, and where admission of guilt can result in oppressive social punishment, the silence can be a matter worth special study.
The enforced secrecy, the guilty pleasures, the implicit denial of paternity of mulatto children—all were common during Jefferson’s day and have not yet disappeared. The joys and tragedies in Jefferson’s own liaison—evidence of which is available not only in the press expose but also in Jefferson’s own Farm Book , account books, and correspondence—were a reflection of the joys and tragedies in the lives of countless others, so much so that it can be said that Jefferson in his intimate life reflected the psychosexual dilemma of the whole South.
The stories of what happened to Jefferson’s slave children and their descendants, long shrouded in mystery, are now emerging as a flood of information is being released by these long-silent heirs. Jefferson’s treatment of his “black” children now appears as typical among those slave owners who detested the slave system. He never publicly acknowledged paternity; to do so in defiance of the omnipresent racial taboo would have meant social ostracism and political annihilation. But he educated his children privately, if casually (two became musicians); he allowed those who came of age during his lifetime to “run away,” aiding them with money; and he freed the two youngest sons in his will. Those of his children who “passed” and married whites were protected by a mantle of silence at least as essential to their welfare as to his own.
Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings lasted thirtyeight years and resulted in seven children, two of whom died in infancy.1 For a detailed account of the entire “Sally Hemings story” and an analysis of the evidence see Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York, 1974). For a condensation of the major evidence see Brodie, “The Great Jefferson Taboo,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , Vol. XXIII , June, 1972, pp. 49–57, 97–100. It began in 1787 in Paris, where Sally at age fourteen or fifteen had been sent as a maid, accompanying Jefferson’s youngest motherless daughter, Mary (called Polly). But Sally Hemings, though a slave, was also Polly’s aunt. She was the slave daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Her mother, Betty Hemings, the mulatto daughter of a British sea captain named Hemings and an African slave woman, had become Wayles’s concubine after the death of his third wife. She bore him six children, and after Wayles’s death they were brought to Monticello as a part of Martha Wayles Jefferson’s inheritance.
All of Betty Hemings’ children were house slaves and thus accorded special treatment. James Hemings, a few years older than Sally, accompanied Jefferson to Paris in 1785, and when Sally arrived with Polly in 1787 he was studying to be a chef. Both James and Sally were tutored in French and paid wages. At a crucial point in 1789 Jefferson’s account books show him beginning to spend almost as much money on clothes for sixteen-year-old Sally as for his eldest daughter, Martha. We know from a memoir written by Sally’s third son, Madison, that she became pregnant by Jefferson in Paris in 1789, that she wanted to remain in France, where she was free, but that Jefferson persuaded her to return with him to America, promising that all her children would be freed at age twenty-one. The son born shortly after the return to Monticello in December, 1789, was called Tom. When the “Dusky Sally” story broke into the Virginia press in 1802, Tom was described as ten or twelve years old and as having “features bearing a striking though sable resemblance to the president himself.”2 Richmond Recorder , September 1, 1802.
Sally bore two daughters, Harriet and Edy, in 1795 and 1796, when Jefferson was in temporary political retirement at Monticello following his resignation as Washington’s Secretary of State. Edy died in 1796 and Harriet in 1797. A second son, Beverly, was born in 1798, and another daughter, also named Harriet, in 1801. Two sons, Madison and Eston, were born in 1805 and 1808, respectively, after the crisis of exposure. There is documentary evidence that all these children save Tom, fathered in Paris, were conceived when Jefferson was at Monticello. We know from Jefferson’s own Farm Book that Sally conceived no children when Jefferson was not there. And there is subtle evidence in many of Jefferson’s letters attesting to the continuing warmth and satisfactions of his life at Monticello, where, he wrote, “all is love and peace.”
Sally Flemings was in charge of his “chamber and wardrobe” and was recognized among Jefferson’s neighbors, according to several Virginia editors who researched the story, as the virtual mistress of Monticello. This lasted until Jefferson’s only surviving white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, moved to Monticello permanently with her husband and family in 1809. Sally remained, however, in “the big house” until after Jefferson’s death in 1826, when Mrs. Randolph quietly freed her. Then about fifty-three, she left and moved in with her son Eston. The census taker of Albemarle County in 1830 listed both her and her son as “whites,” thus inadvertently underlining the irony and tragedy in their lives.
Sally Flemings died in obscurity in 1836, aged sixty-three or sixty-four. What had happened to her children? Tom had disappeared early from Monticello, apparently after the scandal of disclosure, which was sporadically aired in the Federalist press from 1802 to 1805. In 1805 he would have been fifteen. Beverly and Harriet had been permitted to “run away” in 1822, and the fact was noted in Jefferson’s Farm Book . Madison and Eston had been freed in 1826 by the terms of Jefferson’s will. All of these children then disappeared into the “historical silence” that was engulfing hundreds and thousands of other slave children fathered by white men.
Though the practice was decried and denied, miscegenation was common during Jefferson’s lifetime. The Richmond Examiner on September 25, 1802, in a rare admission, stated that “thousands” of mulatto children were then being born in the South. The United States Census, which before the Civil War distinguished among whites, blacks, and mulattos, revealed in 1860 that there were by then over 500,000 mulattos in the slave states, though the number of slave owners was only 385,000. But the penalties for public acknowledgement of paternity for any mulatto child were often savage. In 1806 a grandnephew of Jefferson’s law teacher, George Wythe, enraged because Wythe had willed one third of his estate to his mulatto mistress and another third to their “yellow” son, poisoned all three. Only the woman survived. The murderer escaped altogether because the testimony of blacks was deemed inadmissible at his trial.3 See Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 389–91.
Some years after Jefferson’s death, when Richard Johnson, Vice President under Martin Van Buren, tried to make a place for his almost-white daughters on a public platform in Kentucky, where he was speaking, they were forcibly removed in an embarrassing and brutal confrontation. The daughters, according to the New York Morning Herald of June 17, 1835, “possess a fine, clear even complexion—dark to be sure, but not darker than many pure white bloods in every part of the country.”4 Quoted in John M. McFaul, “Expediency us. Morality: Jacksonian Politics and Slavery,” Journal of American History , Vol. LXII , June, 1975, pp. 24–39.
During Jefferson’s Presidency ballads about “Long Tom” and “Dusky Sally” appearing in print varied from bawdy to pornographic. Had Jefferson admitted the liaison, he would have risked losing the election of 1804 and suffered social ostracism in his own community. The example of the murder of George Wythe, who in his will had named Jefferson as executor in charge of the education of his “yellow” son, served in 1806 as the grimmest kind of warning against a lessening of Jefferson’s determination to maintain his public silence. To have denied everything by public lying would have affronted his deepest nature. To have acknowledged his octoroon children would have meant special suffering for them, since they would have been singled out publicly thereafter and denied the advantages of secret admission into the white society. The only way he could save his surviving slave children was to lose them.
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.
Some of their stories illuminate the dramatic but eversecret problems involved in “passing,” which have not notably changed since Jefferson’s day. They also illuminate the difficulties in the definition of white and black, and the white man’s arrogance in deciding when the “almost white” is white enough to be granted the enormous benefits accruing from the transition to the white world. Jefferson himself wrote about the problem of definition with much perplexity in 1815. When asked by Francis C. Gray at what point a black man becomes white, he replied by citing the Virginia law of his time: “Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of negro blood.” Then he went on to write a complicated chart of mathematical possibilities, which actually included a theoretical model of the genealogy of his own slave children. “The third cross,” he wrote, “clears the blood.” By his own computation his slave children were thus legally white. The slave status of such children, he noted, was determined legally not by color but by the status of the child’s mother.11 Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, March 4, 1815, Writings , Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., Vol. XIV , pp. 267–71.
Two of Jefferson’s five surviving slave children passed into the white world and established a white identity during his lifetime. Madison Hemings, who described their passing with some irony in his recollections, revealed the bitterness of the almost-white who does not pass. “Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City,” he wrote, “whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.”12 Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 473.
Edmund Bacon, a white overseer at Monticello, wrote of Harriet: “He [Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. … by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars.” Bacon insisted that someone other than Jefferson was the true father, but he did not come to work at Monticello until Harriet was five years old and never lived at the big house. Moreover, the name he gave as Sally Hemings’ alleged lover was blanked out of his reminiscences when they were published, and the original manuscript has disappeared.13 The original editor, Pierson, expunged the name; and since the manuscript has disappeared, it is impossible to discover what name was deleted. See Jefferson at Monticello , James A. Bear, Jr., ed. (Charlottesville, 1967), vi, 102.
Beverly Jefferson, according to his brother Madison, “went to Washington as a white man. He married a white woman in Maryland, and their only child, a daughter, was not known by the white folks to have any colored blood coursing in her veins. Beverly’s wife’s family were people in good circumstances.”14 Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 473. Such details indicate that Sally Hemings’ children were given some schooling at Monticello and special grooming for acceptance in the white world.
Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson’s white granddaughter, who had moved with her mother, Martha Randolph, and her father and brothers and sisters to Monticello in 1809, knew the Hemings children well. All of Sally’s children were “fair,” she wrote privately to her husband in 1858, and “all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.” She wrote further in this revealing letter:
It was his principle (I know that of my own knowledge) to allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed. I remember four instances of this, three young men and one girl, who walked away and staid away. Their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves—for they were white enough to pass for white.15 The complete letter, first printed in the New York Times on May 18, 1974, has been-reprinted in the latest printings of Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 494-5. The owner, Harold J. Coolidge, permitted me to publish this fragment in the first printing. See p. 292.
Ellen’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in a confidential interview with an early Jefferson biographer, admitted that Sally Hemings “had children which resembled Mr. Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins.” In one case, he said, “the resemblance was so close, that at some distance in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have been mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.” Both Randolph grandchildren tried to protect Jefferson’s reputation by insisting that one of their uncles, either Peter or Samuel Carr, was probably the real father. But the Carr brothers were already married, with families and slaves of their own, during most of the years that Sally Hemings was bearing children. No one has explained how either could have fathered the eldest son, Tom, who had been conceived in Paris. Nor has the presence of these men at Monticello on the other crucial dates ever been established.16 See my discussion of this evidence in Appendix III , “The Family Denial,” Thomas Jefferson , pp. 493–501.
Eston, the youngest of the slave children, also passed into the white world, but much later in life than Harriet or Beverly. He is the only one, so far as we know, who took the name Jefferson. Thanks to his descendants, especially Julia Jefferson Westerinen and Jean Jefferson Stang, and to important United States Census listings, we are now able to trace his life, and that of his children, in surprising detail. His own record is a fascinating example of the capriciousness of black-white identification in American society. The United States Census of 1830 in Virginia listed him as a white man; the census of 1850 in Ohio listed him as a mulatto; in Wisconsin he was accepted again as white.
In classic cases of miscegenation and passing, the family connection is obliterated at the critical point when the “almost white” young man or woman decides to pass. The decision is accomplished by moving out of the family, changing the place of residence and name, and breaking off all future family communications except on terms involving elaborate secrecy. The “passer” expects and gets protective cooperation from black relatives and friends. But he or she denies the white parent as well as the black and becomes, for all practical purposes, parentless. The new identity is not false, for any black who is white enough to pass for white is by any genetic standard white indeed. But the persons who pass are technically without a genealogy. The collective oral memory about their parentage remains only within themselves and their immediate relatives and near friends. This memory may disappear in a single generation, especially if those who pass have children from whom they conceal all knowledge of the fractional black ancestry.
Many so-called blacks who pass never have children. The wholly unnecessary fear that a “black baby” may appear unexpectedly in a future generation—common to folklore but actually impossible genetically—contributes to this. The oral genealogical memory may, however, be extremely tenacious and carry down through the generations despite the pressures toward oblivion, especially if the white ancestor is a man of prominence. This has been true of the descendants of Eston Hemings.17 The name Eston is extremely rare. Mr. Wilson Randolph Gathings, collateral kin to Jefferson, who searched in vain to find the name in Virginia tax records and genealogies, has suggested to me that Jefferson chose it because it was the name of the birthplace of William Randolph, his maternal ancestor in Yorkshire, England. It was also the middle name of Jefferson’s favorite Randolph cousin, Thomas Eston Randolph. I am indebted to Professor Armstead Robinson of the University of California at Los Angeles for information on the phenomenon of passing.
Eston married what his brother Madison described as a colored woman, and when he moved to Chilicothe, Ohio, with his children in 1836, he stayed in the colored community. The 1850 census gave his age as forty-three, that of his wife, Julian (Julia Anne), as thirty-six. By then their son Wayles was fifteen, and their daughter Anne fourteen. The youngest son, named Beverly after his uncle, was then twelve. Eston was described on the census as a professional musician worth two thousand dollars. Madison Hemings was also a musician; one Monticello slave described him as “a great fiddler.”18 This was the slave named Isaac. See Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4. Who furnished the instruments for these sons? Who taught them how to play? Who gave them the encouragement essential for professional competence? We know that Jefferson was an accomplished violinist with an enormous affection for music, and that during his lifetime he had purchased harpsichords for his wife and for both his white daughters, Martha and Polly. It would seem most likely that Jefferson also encouraged both slave sons as musicians; but Madison Hemings’ memoir on this subject is silent.
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.
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.
On March 13, 1873, the editor of the local newspaper, the Pike County Republican , published Madison’s detailed recollections of life at Monticello as Jefferson’s slave son. In December he published a similar memoir from another Monticello slave, Israel Jefferson. The latter did not claim to be Jefferson’s son but corroborated the claim that Jefferson had indeed been Madison’s father.25 The Israel Jefferson memoir is reprinted in Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 477–82.
Two of Madison’s sons fought on the Union side in the Civil War: Thomas Eston, who died in a Confederate prison in Meridian, Mississippi, and William Beverly, who enlisted to fight in the last year of the war at age sixteen. He died in a Kansas veterans’ hospital.26 According to a letter owned by Lucile Roberts Balthazar, descendant of Madison Hemings, who permitted me to examine it in Los Angeles in 1975. A third son, James Madison, moved to Colorado, where he disappeared into the white society.27 According to tradition in the Roberts family, descendants of Madison Hemings in Los Angeles.
The gray-eyed, sandy-haired Madison had seven daughters. All remain “lost” except the youngest, Ellen Wayles, about whom we know a great deal, since her descendants form one of the most remarkable black families in southern California. Though Ellen was white enough to be mistaken for white all her life, she chose not to “go Caucasian,” as her grandchildren describe it, but instead married Andrew Jackson Roberts, an Oberlin College graduate then teaching in a black school in the lower Scioto Valley, not far from Waverly, Ohio. The family Bible has a tintype of Ellen as an adolescent. Her grandson, Andrew Giles Roberts, furnished me a picture taken in Los Angeles when she was in her eighties. It shows a remarkable resemblance to Jefferson.
“Grandma Roberts was about five-foot-ten,” Roberts reports, “with big bones and very blue eyes. When the children would ask her if she was white or black she would not answer.” Roberts’ sister, Lucile Roberts Balthazar, said: “You couldn’t tell her from a white woman. When she was an old lady and rode in the back seat with our father driving in front, many thought her to be a wealthy white woman driven by her chauffeur. The minister who preached her funeral sermon said: ‘There is something important I could tell you about Ellen Hemings Roberts, but I will not.’ ”
Ellen Roberts and her husband moved to Los Angeles at the turn of the century, and he quickly became important in the business community. One of their sons, Frederick Madison Roberts, after graduating from college in Colorado, taught for a time in Mississippi and then returned to enter California politics. The first black to be elected to the California State Assembly, he served from 1918 to 1936 and became known as the dean of the assembly. He founded a newspaper, The New Age Dispatch , became a good friend of Earl Warren’s, and helped found the University of California at Los Angeles. He gave Ralph Bunche his first job. In 1938 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, losing to Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who later lost to Richard Nixon. Roberts’ daughter, Gloria, is presently touring Europe and Africa as a pianist.28 These data were furnished me by Frederick Madison Roberts’ widow, Pearl Hinds Roberts. Both were described in their earlier years in Delilah L. Beasley, Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles, 1919), pp. 137, 215-16. An early picture of Roberts appears on p. 40.
Roberts’ widow, Pearl Hinds Roberts, who as a young woman studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, is now a frail and delicately featured woman of eighty-three. After her marriage in 1921, she said, she and her husband for twelve years lived with Ellen Wayles Hemings Roberts. She was an extremely quiet woman who enjoyed reading, Pearl Roberts says, but did have an occasional cutting wit. “But she never discussed her family or her past, and never talked about Jefferson. It was my husband who told me briefly about the family descent after we were married. But he made it clear, ‘We just don’t talk about it.’”
When I asked the reason for this reticence, Mrs. Roberts replied with some deliberation: “Well, there was the illegitimacy thing. And then, too, people simply did not believe us.”
Mrs. Roberts learned most of the details about Sally Hemings and Jefferson from her husband’s cousin. “Nell told us how Sally had journeyed from Virginia to Paris with Jefferson’s small daughter and had become pregnant there. She did not want to return to America. She wanted no more illegitimate children and she wanted her children to grow up free. Jefferson dearly loved her, I was told, but marriage was impossible because it was forbidden by Virginia law.”
“Cousin Nell” was Mrs. Nellie E. Jones, a granddaughter of Madison Hemings through his daughter, Mary Hemings Johnson. In 1970, researching manuscript material in Charlottesville, Virginia, I saw a letter written by Nellie Jones on August 10, 1938, to Stuart G. Gibboney, then head of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. She stated that she had a pair of spectacles, a silver hairbuckle, and an inkwell that had once belonged to Jefferson. Her great-grandmother Sally Hemings had given them to Madison Hemings, she said, and at his death they had been inherited by her mother.29 Noted in Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 476. When I asked Pearl Roberts if she had ever seen these heirlooms, she replied that when Mrs. Jones moved to California from Watseka, Illinois, she had taken them with her. “I displayed them once at a party,” she said. “The spectacles were meant to be worn low on the nose, with lenses about the size of a quarter.” Mrs. Jones is now dead, and no one in the Roberts family knows what has happened to her adopted children or the artifacts from Monticello.
Ellen Wayles Hemings Roberts had two children. Her second son, William Giles Roberts, lived until May, 1975. His obituary in the Los Angeles Sentinel on May 15 said: “Mr. Roberts reportedly was the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.” His children showed me in the family Bible not only pictures of their grandparents but also dates of birth, which coincide with those on the United States Census records of Huntington Township, Ross County, Ohio, in 1850, 1860, and 1870. Andrew Giles Roberts, who furnished me the photograph taken of his grandmother in her eighties, sitting in a rocking chair, takes a certain satisfaction that her resemblance to Jefferson’s portraits helps bear out the truth of the old family tradition. Like the black historians with whom I have talked, he resents the fact that oral history coming from blacks is frequently not believed, that the burden of proving a white ancestor is always placed on blacks and often disbelieved even if the data are impeccable.
All the members of this family with whom I talked knew instances of friends or relatives passing, and all conceded that they were automatically protected by the black community. They fiercely resent the white notion that African blood “taints” white blood, and they also resent the fact that total whiteness is so sensationally rewarded socially and economically. They deplore the tradition that blacks who succeed in passing must keep their Negro ancestry secret from their children. This means that the splitting of families is swift and irreversible. It means loss, abandonment, and guilt.
“We blacks have always known that light-skinned people get along better economically than dark-skinned people,” Pearl Roberts said, “but I’m glad my husband was dark enough to be unmistakably Negro. It solved certain problems.” She herself is so light-skinned that when years earlier she was given a job as a saleswoman in the May Company, a Los Angeles department store that then refused to give clerking jobs to blacks, she was thought by her friends to be “passing over,” and this caused her much distress.
“My husband never liked the word ‘Negro,’” she said. “He preferred ‘Americans of African descent.’” And then she added ruefully: “You can tell how old one is by what words one uses. The very old say ‘colored’; the middle-aged say ‘Negro’; and the young say ‘black.’” She gave me pictures of her politician husband and pianist daughter with obvious pride, and showed me a cherished letter Governor Earl Warren had sent to her at Roberts’ death.
The “black is beautiful” movement has clearly had an effect on the younger descendants of Ellen Wayles Hemings. Elmer Wayles Roberts, a tall (six-foot-five) sociology graduate of U.C.L.A. who now works in the Los Angeles County probation department, said: “I’d like to know the history of my grandfather’s people as well as my grandmother’s. But it’s not easy to trace the records back to Africa.” When asked about his feelings in having Jefferson as an ancestor, he said: “I don’t have any special feelings of pride. I don’t have any feelings at all.” He first heard the story in childhood, he said, not from his parents but from their preacher, Reverend Bean. When asked if he had doubted the story, he replied with a wry smile: “I didn’t think the Reverend Bean would lie.”
Elmer Roberts’ daughter, Mrs. Paula Sanford, an attractive mother of two who works in an administrative office at U.C.L.A. and is majoring in economics, relates that she learned about her Jefferson ancestry when she was about nine but that it had little impact. Her deepest pride as a child came, she said, from the knowledge that her family—maternal as well as paternal—had been among the earliest and most influential black families in Los Angeles. “Family expectations among all the Roberts people were extremely high. We all felt we were members of a special family.” And indeed most of her aunts, uncles, and cousins are college graduates, active in public service and education in the city. One of all that I spoke to admitted that she had dropped out of college, adding somewhat impishly: “I’m the black sheep of the family.”
“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.
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.