In 1792, when nine-year-old Betsy was returned to Monticello, she fared better than many slave children, since her Hemings family awaited her – among them, Grandmother Betty, Aunt Sally, Uncle John and numerous others. At Monticello, Betsy’s life appeared uneventful, recorded in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book as a housemaid. But in 1797, Thomas Jefferson gave her as a wedding present to his youngest daughter Maria and her husband – also first cousin – John Wayles Eppes. Again leaving Monticello and her Hemings family, fourteen-year-old Betsy began a new life with the Eppeses in Chesterfield County. After Maria Jefferson Eppes’s death in 1804, John Wayles Eppes moved to his new plantation Millbrook, located in Buckingham County, accompanied by his young son Francis and Betsy Hemmings. Millbrook became Betsy’s permanent home and eventually her final resting-place.
It is this final resting-place that sparks the public interest in Betsy Hemmings. Why is Betsy Hemmings’s grave in the Eppes family cemetery, as opposed to the Millbrook slave cemetery, which was the custom in Buckingham County? Why is Betsy’s tombstone so elaborate, when at best most slave graves had fieldstones as markers, or none at all? How did her grave survive the racist times when blacks were brutalized and their property destroyed? Why was this seemingly insignificant Hemings slave honored with such a grave, while her famous Aunt Sally, her wealthy mother Mary, and her talented Uncle John lie in unmarked graves?
The answers to these questions are found in stories that have been passed down for generations by descendants of the Hemmings and Eppes families; former slaves from Millbrook and Chellowe plantations; my great-aunt Olive Rebecca Bolling (1847-1953); and descendants of people who lived in the vicinity of Millbrook. Probably additional information on Betsy’s life at Millbrook existed, but was lost in two Buckingham fires. In 1866, the plantation house at Millbrook was destroyed by fire, supposedly by whites angered because blacks occupied the house. Rumors have persisted that the arsonists were members of a prominent old Virginia family with blood ties to the Eppeses and Randolphs. In 1869, Buckingham County Courthouse, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1821, also burned, resulting in a loss of records.
Central to any discussion of Betsy Hemmings is the issue of paternity, hers and that of her children. Many of Betsy’s descendants have remained in Buckingham County since her lifetime, passing down their oral history from generation to generation. That oral history says that Betsy Hemmings was a daughter of Thomas Jefferson and mistress of John Wayles Eppes: Betsy’s lifestyle at Millbrook and the location of her elaborate grave corroborate her descendants oral history.
Until recent times, most historians have ignored or denied the existence of interracial plantation families. But as circumstantial evidence from the antebellum period is reevaluated and more credence given to oral history, the complexity of race relations on the plantation becomes evident. For instance, there were some slave and master families who maintained intimate relationships with each other, often spanning generations. In some of these families, first cousin marriages were common among the whites, while intimate relationships between the white and black family members were as close, if not closer. Nothing about life on the plantations should come as a surprise, since the plantations were essentially fiefdoms. Although laws governing behavior existed, planters were able to live as they pleased, unless their activities became a public issue.
Betsy Hemmings was a product of entwined black and white plantation families. Her grandmother, Betty Hemings, was owned by Francis Eppes IV, paternal great-grandfather of John Wayles Eppes and maternal grandfather of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Then, as part of a dowry, Betty Hemings became the property of John Wayles, father of Martha Jefferson and John Wayles Eppes’s mother, Elizabeth. After John Wayles’s third and last wife died, Betty Hemings became his mistress. Upon her father’s death, Martha Jefferson inherited the entire Hemings family, which she brought to Monticello, but prevailing law dictated that they become the property of her husband Thomas Jefferson. The newly arrived Hemings family rapidly assumed the key household positions at Monticello, and one explanation for their ascent is that Martha Jefferson and Betty Hemings had a close relationship.
In 1782, Martha Jefferson died surrounded by her family, with Betty Hemings and her daughters in attendance, several of whom were reported to be Martha Jefferson’s half sisters. In 1783, Betsy Hemmings was born, a year when her mother Mary was thirty, Thomas Jefferson forty and Sally Hemings ten. (Edna Bolling Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia”; for entire account, see http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)