Sally Hemings was born in Virginia in 1773. It is believed that her parents were Betty Hemings and John Wayles.
Betty was an enslaved mixed race woman owned by John. John was also the father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha.
Sally came to live with the Jeffersons as an infant when John died. Treated as property, she and her mother were part of Martha’s inheritance. Sally’s grandfather and father were white, but because her mother was enslaved, Sally was too.
Martha died on September 6, 1782.
In 1784, Thomas became Ambassador to France and moved to Paris. He took his oldest child, Martha, with him. He left his two younger daughters, Mary and Lucy, at his home, Monticello, in Virginia.
When Lucy died in 1784 of Whooping Cough, Thomas sent for Mary.
Mary was just 9 years old when she arrived in Paris in 1787. She was too young to travel alone, but the enslaved woman originally intended to travel with her became pregnant, so Sally was sent in her place. Sally was 14 years old.
By the time she was 16, it is believed that Sally and Thomas were in a sexual relationship and she was pregnant with his child.
In France, Sally was a free woman. She was paid a weekly salary of $2 a month by Thomas while there.
Thomas returned to Monticello with Sally and his children in 1789. In an interview, Sally’s son, Madison, stated that she told him many times that she originally did not want to return to Virginia, but she agreed to go if Thomas promised to free her future children at the age of 21.
The child with which Sally was pregnant was born at Monticello and died in infancy.
There is some debate about the relationship between Thomas and Sally. It was common for slave owners to have relationships of all natures with the enslaved women they owned. Some men raped these women. Some were engaged in consensual sexual relationships and some were in committed loving relationships.
There is no way to know what the situation was between Thomas and Sally. It is thought that he fathered all of her children and there is evidence that the Hemings children received better treatment than other enslaved individuals at Monticello during this time.
Sally, and probably Thomas, had 6 other children: Harriet (female, died at 2 years old) in 1795, Beverley (male) in 1798, a daughter in 1799 (who died soon after birth), Harriet (female) in 1801, Madison (male) in 1805 and Eston (male) in 1808.
These births, and all enslaved births at Monticello, were recorded by Thomas. For many of the births, a father is recorded. No father is recorded for any of the Hemings children.
Sally worked as a nursemaid to Thomas’s older children, as a chambermaid and as a seamstress. She was responsible for Thomas’s wardrobe, in particular.
Madison later said that he and his siblings were allowed to stay close to Sally and work in the main house. They never worked in the fields and, as children, often ran errands.
At 14 years old, the children began learning a trade. The boys were taught carpentry and also learned to play violin. Harriet was taught to weave.
There are no known images of Sally and she left behind no writings. It is not known if she was literate. Sally was described as good looking and fair complected. It was also noted that she had long straight hair.
Beverley ran away in 1822. The following year, Harriet also fled. It was believed that they were given money and allowed to leave. They lived together after they left Monticello.
Beverley and Harriet were mixed race but light skinned and lived as white individuals in Washington D.C. They both married into well-to-do white families.
Madison, Harriet and Eston were freed in Thomas’s will. Harriet was the only enslaved female set free in this document.
Sally was never freed, but Thomas’s daughter, Martha, allowed her “her time.” This was a common practice of allowing older enslaved individuals to live freely with family away from their owner.
Sally moved to Virginia to live with Madison and Eston. She died in 1835.
Eston changed his last name to Jefferson as an adult. He was a talented musician.
Madison was a carpenter and owned a small farm.
The lives of Beverley and Harriet as adults are unknown. They probably changed their names.
In 1998, DNA was tested that showed a link between the Jefferson family and the Hemings descendants. There are still those that argue another member of the Jefferson family fathered Sally’s children.
In 2017, a room believed to be Sally’s was discovered. It was close to and accessible from Thomas’s bedroom.
The room is part of the current Monticello tour that has taken great strides to educate the public about the lives of the enslaved at the home during that time. The owners of the home and designers of the tour are convinced that Thomas is, in fact, the father of Sally’s children.
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at