Mary Hemings Bell

Dates Alive: 1753-post 1834

Family: Hemings-Elizabeth

Occupation: Household servant

Mary Hemings was Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest child. After the 1774 division of the estate of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, she was brought with her family to Monticello, where she was a valued household servant. She had six children, the two youngest with white merchant Thomas Bell, who became her common-law husband.  Bell purchased Mary Hemings and their children, Robert and Sarah, freed them, and bequeathed them his considerable property.

Jefferson was unwilling to sell Mary Hemings Bell’s older children, Joseph Fossett and Betsy Hemmings, who remained in slavery at Monticello. After Thomas Bell’s death in 1800, Mary—described in one court document as his “relict & widow”—lived with her children and grandchildren in a house on Charlottesville’s main street. She maintained close ties with her still-enslaved relations at Monticello.  Her free status and property helped her son Joseph Fossett minimize the fragmenting of his family at the Monticello dispersal sale in 1827.


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“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,”