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.
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 (Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, 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 Bell, Betty 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.