In 1804, when Betsy Hemmings arrived at Millbrook, she was twenty-one years old and the Millbrook nurse of Francis Eppes. In 1809, thirty-six-year old John Wayles Eppes married nineteen-year old Martha (Patsy) Jones from North Carolina. We will never know what this young bride suspected about the relationship between Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes, but eventually, she did learn the truth.
According to my oral history, the liaison between Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes began at Millbrook and lasted until his death. After his second marriage, Betsy continued officially as a nurse, this time to the second Eppes family. But her presentation and the respect that she received in the household and her community were not in keeping with a slave woman. She was known in her environs as “Mam Betsy” and to her loved ones at Millbrook as “Mammy Bessie.” It was said that she had a lot of polish, something that was evident in some of her grandchildren after the Civil War, in spite of their poverty. I have been told that Betsy Hemmings wore beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry and was known as a beloved lady.
On September 15,1823, John Wayles Eppes died, almost three years before Thomas Jefferson. Patsy Eppes, a thirty-three-year old widow, was left with young children ranging in age from three to thirteen and Millbrook that was heavily in debt. After Eppes’s death, Betsy’s life at Millbrook appears to have remained unchanged. But with the deaths and burials of Betsy Hemmings and Patsy Eppes some of Millbrook’s secrets were finally revealed.
On August 20, 1857, Betsy Hemming died, thirty-four years after John Wayles Eppes. Stories have been passed down about the day that Mammy Bessie died. I’ve heard that on that day everything at Millbrook stopped and people wept and wailed in grief. Betsy was a institution at Millbrook, having been there since its inception, and there is no doubt that she was loved by the Millbrook family. The location of her grave and the inscription on her tombstone are testimony to that love. She was buried next to John Wayles Eppes with a tombstone more elaborate than his.
In 1862, Patsy Eppes died. She is not buried at Millbrook beside her husband, but at Chellowe, the plantation of her daughter Mary Eppes Bolling and her husband, Philip A. Bolling. This plantation is also located in Buckingham, not far from Millbrook. It was said that Patsy Eppes is not buried at Millbrook because of Betsy Hemmings. If this reason is correct, which I believe it is, then more questions are raised. It is difficult for me to comprehend how a widow could live for thirty-four years in close proximity to her deceased husband’s slave mistress and yet find the prospect of being buried in the same cemetery with her an anathema. Nothing makes sense, because after John Wayles Eppes’s death, one would have thought that Patsy Eppes would have sold Betsy. But perhaps she couldn’t sell her!
As has often been the case in Virginia, certain slaves were difficult to sell and an embarrassment to the community when they were put on the auction block. My Auntie told me that some of the most difficult slaves to sell were a young “white” mother with her young “white” children, since they personified the horrors of slavery. Likewise, slaves suspected of or believed to be the offsprings of prominent fathers were equally undesirable to many slave traders, because their presence on the auction block confirmed the hypocrisy and debauchery of slavery, creating an atmosphere not conducive to business.
Betsy Hemmings would have been a difficult slave to sell. For decades, rumors abounded in the community that she was a daughter of Thomas Jefferson, and her lifestyle at Millbrook did nothing to dispel these rumors. In addition, Thomas Jefferson maintained a close relationship with John Wayles Eppes and would visit Millbrook.
Since Thomas Jefferson was revered in Virginia, it would have been unthinkable to put a slave believed by many to be his daughter on the auction block. Even in those horrific times, there was a peculiar sense of honor. It’s most likely that agreements concerning Betsy’s future had been reached, but we shall never know what transpired and speculation is futile. Betsy lived a “charmed” life at Millbrook, especially when you consider the feelings of her mistress. But her powerful protectors, though deceased, still controlled her destiny. Betsy was safe at Millbrook for her entire life, and in death she was memorialized in a manner unlike any other Monticello Hemings.
Today, in a remote spot in Buckingham, the graves of Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes remain undisturbed. Their graves survived turbulent times: the Civil War, the destruction of the plantation house at Millbrook, and the racism and violence that followed Reconstruction. Present day people may say what they wish about Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes, but the legacy of their graves stands as a testimony to the bond that must have existed between them.
Whenever I think about their graves, my thoughts turn to those courageous 19th century people, who buried Betsy Hemmings next to John Wayles Eppes. What a defiant statement they made in pre-Civil War Virginia! How I marvel at their strength and wish that more people of that era had been committed to preserving the truth as opposed to erasing it. One hundred and forty-five years ago, it would have been so easy for those people to have dumped my great-great-grandmother in an unmarked grave, but they chose to do otherwise and for this I salute them. (Edna Bolling Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia”; for entire account, see http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)