Elizabeth Hemings

Farm book page including Betty Hemings and her children, 1774

The majority of those interviewed for the Getting Word project trace their ancestry to Elizabeth Hemings.  Her descendants occupied a special role at Monticello, serving in important positions within the household and on the mountaintop. They were enslaved cooks, butlers, seamstresses, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and musicians. Jefferson freed, or allowed to go free, three of Elizabeth Hemings’s sons and six of her grandchildren in his lifetime or in his will — the only slaves to whom he granted freedom.  Having gained freedom earlier than most Monticello slaves, some of Elizabeth Hemings’s sons and grandsons left Monticello, made lives for themselves in Charlottesville and beyond, and were able to achieve a measure of success well before the Civil War.

Jefferson’s deed of manumission for Robert Hemings, 1794

The daughter of an enslaved woman and an English sea captain named Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings was brought to Monticello with her children after the 1773 death of her owner John Wayles, Jefferson’s father in law. According to her grandson Madison Hemings, six of her children were fathered by Wayles (RobertJames, Thenia, CrittaPeter, and Sally).  More than seventy-five of her descendants lived at least some part of their lives in bondage at Monticello.

Oral histories passed through many generations of the descendants of Elizabeth Hemings’s daughters Mary Hemings BellBetty Brown, and Sally Hemings include the tradition of descent from Thomas Jefferson. Because of their appearance, some of her descendants passed into the white world, severing their connections to family members who maintained their African American identity.

Elizabeth Hemings descendants at an enslaved persons burial ground.


“The First Hemings To Be Manumitted”

Betsy Hemmings’s mother was Mary Hemings, the oldest child of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, matriarch of the Hemings family, but her…
“The First Hemings To Be Manumitted”

Edna Jacques writes about her ancestor Mary Hemings Bell, whom she had recognized as a patriot of the DAR.

Betsy Hemmings’s mother was Mary Hemings, the oldest child of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, matriarch of the Hemings family, but her father was not identified. During her early years, she lived in Charlottesville with her mother and half brother Joseph at the home of Thomas Bell, a wealthy Charlottesville merchant, to whom her mother had been leased during Jefferson’s absence in Paris. During this time, Thomas Bell and Mary Hemings began a common-law relationship, resulting in two children, Robert Washington Bell and Sally Jefferson Bell.

In 1792, at Mary Hemings’s request, Thomas Jefferson sold her to Thomas Bell, an unusual action for Jefferson, considering his stated views on slave women and miscegenation: Thomas Jefferson valued breeding slave women and considered their children a contribution to profit; his position on miscegenation has been widely quoted – “The amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent.” Yet Mary Hemings’s request to be sold to her acknowledged common-law-husband was granted by Thomas Jefferson. Could it have been that he and Mary Hemings had a special relationship? By complying with her request, Jefferson made a public mockery of his own words.

One condition of Mary’s sale had negative consequences for Betsy. Thomas Jefferson permitted Mary to retain only two of her four children; she kept the Bell children, whom Thomas Bell freed along with Mary. But Betsy and Joseph were returned to Monticello in bondage. In 1800, Thomas Bell died leaving Mary and the Bell children a sizable inheritance, increasing their prospects for a brighter future. Perhaps their slave sister, Betsy, also envisioned a brighter future. After all, she had seen her slave mother, now known as Mary Hemings Bell, become the first Hemings to be manumitted and an owner of property on Charlottesville’s Main Street. (Edna Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia,” http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)

“I Can Confirm His Statement”

I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello, that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife,…
“I Can Confirm His Statement”

Israel Jefferson speaks of Madison Hemings as the son of Thomas Jefferson.

“I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello, that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife, on her death bed, that he would not again marry.  I also know that his servant, Sally Hemmings, (mother to my old friend and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemmings,) was employed as his chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.  This I know from my intimacy with both parties, and when Madison Hemmings declares that he is a natural son of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that his brothers Beverly and Eston and sister Harriet are of the same parentage, I can as conscientiously confirm his statement as any other fact which I believe from circumstances but do not positively know.

I think that Mr. Jefferson was 84 years of age when he died.  He was hardly ever sick, and till within two weeks of his death he walked erect without a staff or cane.  He moved with the seeming alertness and sprightliness of youth.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

“Such Is The Story That Comes Down To Me”

I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my…
“Such Is The Story That Comes Down To Me”

Madison Hemings speaks in 1873 of his grandmother Elizabeth Hemings.

“I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my greatgrandfather.  He was captain of an English trading vessel which sailed between England and Williamsburg, Va., then quite a port.  My grandmother was a fullblooded African, and possibly a native of that country.  She was the property of John Wales, a Welchman [incorrect; she then belonged to the Eppes family].  Capt. Hemings happened to be in the port of Williamsburg at the time my grandmother was born, and acknowledging her fatherhood he tried to purchase her of Mr. Wales, who would not part with the child, though he was offered an extraordinarily large price for her.  She was named Elizabeth Hemings.  Being thwarted in the purchase, and determining to own his flesh and blood he resolved to take the child by force or stealth, but the knowledge of his intention coming to John Wales’ ears, through leaky fellow servants of the mother, she and the child were taken into the “great house” under their master’s immediate care.  I have been informed that it was not the extra value of that child over other slave children that induced Mr. Wales to refuse to sell it, for slave masters then, as in later days, had no compunctions of conscience which restrained them from parting mother and child of however tender age, but he was restrained by the fact that just about that time amalgamation began, and the child was so great a curiosity that its owner desired to raise it himself that he might see its outcome.  Capt. Hemings soon afterwards sailed from Williamsburg, never to return.  Such is the story that comes down to me.”

“Elizabeth Hemings grew to womanhood in the family of John Wales, whose wife dying she (Elizabeth) was taken by the widower Wales as his concubine, by whom she had six children—three sons and three daughters, viz: Robert, James, Peter, Critty, Sally and Thena.  These children went by the name of Hemings….”\

“My very earliest recollections are of my grandmother Elizabeth Hemings.  That was when I was about three years old.  She was sick and upon her death bed.  I was eating a piece of bread and asked her if she would have some.  She replied: ‘No; granny don’t want bread any more.’  She shortly afterwards breathed her last.  I have only a faint recollection of her.” (Madison Hemings, 13 Mar. 1873, Pike County Republican [Waverly, Ohio])