Hear the Stories

“The Answers Are Found In Stories”

…. After Maria Jefferson Eppes’s death in 1804, John Wayles Eppes moved to his new plantation Millbrook, located in Buckingham…
“The Answers Are Found In Stories”

Edna Jacques writes about her ancestor Betsy Hemmings and the family oral history.

…. 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 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…. (Edna Bolling Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia”; for entire account, see http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)

Themes: Family

“An Act Of Separation”

...When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of contact,” as being the most powerful…
“An Act Of Separation”

Lewis Woodson uses the Declaration of Independence in his argument for separate black settlements.

…When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of “contact,” as being the most powerful means of destroying antipathies, the history of our own country must have entirely escaped your memory.  The very act which gave it political existence, was an act of separation.  Is the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, therefore, a “weak and foolish” document, and were its framers “weak and foolish” men?  Have you forgotten the history of the separation of the Friends, the Methodists, and even the Presbyterians?  Of the utility of these several separations I do not now pretend to speak.  My object in referring to them is, to show that other men than me, or old father Abraham, have been “weak and foolish” enough to resort to separation, and the formation of societies of their own, as a means of curing existing antipathies.

The principle which I have endeavored to maintain in my three preceding letters on separate settlements is this, that it is right, and in accordance with the mind of God, for men whose condition has been rendered unhappy in one place, to better it if they can, by removing to another; and that the manner, time, and place of such removal, should be exclusively matters of their own choice.  And through what kind of glasses you were looking, Mr. Editor, when this simple principle appeared to you like “colonization magnified,” I am at a loss to know.  Those which I use are a plain pair of Parisian manufacture;–and when I look at it through them, it has no such appearance.  Purchasing contiguous tracts of land from the Congress of our native country, and settling upon them, so as to have society, churches, and schools of our own, without being subject to the humiliation of begging them from others, looks very much like being exiled to the cheerless coast of Africa, don’t it?  Surely your readers will be able to distinguish the difference….

But I can assure you that in the West it [issue of separate black settlements] is not merely a matter of theory; it has long since been reduced to practice.  My father now resides, and has been for the last eight years residing in such a settlement, in Jackson county, Ohio.  The settlement is highly prosperous and happy.  They have a church, day and Sabbath school of their own.  The people of this settlement cut their own harvests, roll their own logs, and raise their own houses, just as well as though they had been assisted by white friends.  They find just as ready and as high market for their grain and cattle, as their white neighbors.  They take the newspapers and read many useful books, and are making as rapid advancement in intelligence and refinement as any people in the country generally do.  And when they travel out of their settlement, no colored people, let them reside where or among whom they may, are more respected, or treated with greater deference than they are….” (“Augustine” [Lewis Woodson] to editor, 13 July 1838, in Colored American, 28 July 1838)

Themes: Struggle for Equality

“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.                  Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I…
“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

In 1863 Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson writes his brother Beverly Jefferson during the siege of Vicksburg.

“HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.

                 Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I cannot write much, as I have no time or spirits. Since the 2nd of May up to yesterday (excepting two days I was in Jackson, Miss.,) I have been continually on the March and fighting the rebels. I had not until to-day changed my clothes or had a decent meal for nineteen days. We marched around Vicksburg on the Louisiana side 90 miles, crossed the river at Grand Gulf, marched about 170 miles in a roundabout way to Jackson, Miss. Our brigade charged the rebel works at Jackson, and were the first troops in the town. Four days before this we met the rebels at Mississippi Springs, and had a hard skirmish but whipped them (I am speaking about our regiment and our brigade); we have had a number of other battles. At Jackson Major General Sherman made me Provost Marshal of the town, had also charge of all the prisoners and was ordered to destroy five million dollars worth of rebel property. We are now in the rear of Vicksburg, and in sight of the city. We have been fighting for four days, and have them surrounded. Their entrenchments and breastworks are awful to attack. Their works were stormed to-day by part of our army, and to-morrow all the army will attack the works at 9 a. m. We are losing a great many men, and there will be an awful slaughter to-morrow.  We have captured 81 cannon, 10,000 stands of small arms at the different battles (not Vicksburg). I was ordered to turn over 5,500 prisoners in my charge to-day, and that is why I am here. Will return to my regiment in one hour which is only five miles distant. We just lived on what we could pick up during the past three weeks, and I have been almost completely exhausted from hunger, loss of sleep and fatigue. Vicksburg will be ours in a day or two, but it has and will cost as many thousand lives.

I write this hoping you may get it in season.

Yours &c.                       

J. W. JEFFERSON.” (Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, 13 June 1863)

Themes: Civil War

“Wife Of E. H. Jefferson”

My dear Son: …. What I wanted to say, my dear son, in regard to Margaret, is that I would…
“Wife Of E. H. Jefferson”

A few months before her death, Julia Jefferson provides for the support for her Irish servant, Margaret Bryan, and specifies the inscription for her gravestone.

My dear Son:

…. What I wanted to say, my dear son, in regard to Margaret, is that I would be glad if you would see that she does not come to want after I am gone. She has been with me off and on for a long time, and now is not young or strong enough to make her living. We have had our ups and downs. I forgive all and believe now she would do more for me than any other woman. She is not faultless; neither am I. I have always given her more comforts than I have allowed my own body. When I took B[everly]’s children, I had a bargain and have paid her, though the account stands now imperfect for want of time, which if lengthened out a little longer, I may fix it more correctly. I would like for you to let her have a sum at my decease, say $50. or more to enable her to go or stay or do what she pleases and also to allow her at least $3.00 per week as support during her life, but more if misfortune or old age overtakes her. Whatever she may desire of my few effects to furnish a room for herself she can take. The greater part of furniture belongs to Beverly. She knows which is mine. The portraits of my daughter and granddaughter are to be given Fred and Walt Pearson and anything else of my effects they may desire.  The piano, being bought by their father, I give Walter. He can do what he pleases with it. My portrait is for you, yours for Beverly. Two large silver spoons, marked J.J. – one for you, the other for Beverly. The silver set is yours. Whatever either of you desire of what I call mine, take it. There may be a few gifts to some old friends of which I will tell Margaret and she can tell you or I may live to write it down; it matters not. The sale of the house will more than three times cover all debts and expense whenever you sell it. I shall endeavor to make it with as little trouble to you, my dear son, as I can. You have had your share of it. Would like a good gold ring given to each of my seven grandsons as a keepsake for me if you can do it.  Lay me beside your father without pomp or show, if you deem it as a duty or something like that.  Let the stone be plain like that of dear Julia’s, costing about $20.00 or $25.00, no more.  Say on the arch (where it says Julia on hers) “Mother” or “Julia”, etc. (on the front side) “Wife of E. H. Jefferson, born Nov. 21, 1814 and died – -.”  This is all.  This has been disagreeable because I know it will make you feel sorrowful, but I could not let it go longer, seeing the uncertainty of my condition. What more can I say than God bless my save [sic] my dear son. If I live, I will write again. (Julia Jefferson to John Wayles Jefferson, 16 Nov. 1888, courtesy of Julia Westerinen)