In Media


Monticello's Other Children
Daryl Royster Alexander
The New York Times "Week in Review"
November 8, 1998

IF family trees are sometimes truncated by missing dates or ancestors, think about last week's discovery that Thomas Jefferson had neatly sawed off a branch. A report in last week's issue of Nature said Jefferson did father at least one child, Eston Hemings, with Sally Hemings, his black and comely slave.

The study, conducted by Eugene A. Foster, a retired Tufts University pathologist living in Charlottesville, Va., found a DNA match between the descendants of Eston Hemings and those of Jefferson. The descendants of Thomas Woodson were also tested but no match was found. (Historians' earlier assessments of the Jeffersonian character appear on Page 7.)

Jefferson was not the first Southern aristocrat to cross the color line and father a child; his father-in-law, John Wayles, had preceded him. Wayles's wealth was measured not only in land but in humankind. In his will, he left his daughter, Martha Jefferson, 135 slaves, which, added to her husband's estate, made Jefferson one of the richest men in the state. Six of the slaves were Wayles's children by his black mistress, Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings.

But the Hemings tree has its richest irony in its founding. Wayles owned an African woman who was the beloved mistress of a British sea captain named Hemings. Learning that she was pregnant, the captain tried to buy her freedom so he could take her to England. Wayles refused, apparently curious about what the half-white child would look like and perhaps intent on adding it to his inventory. Captain Hemings sailed away, never to see his daughter, Betty Hemings. After Wayles's third wife died, he took Betty as his mistress. Their last child was Sally Hemings, half-sister to Jefferson's wife.

The descendants of Eston Hemings are not surprised by the DNA match; the facts were consistent with their family tradition. But they were elated. "I feel wonderful about it," said Julia Jefferson Westerinen, a Staten Island artist and Eston's great-great-granddaughter. "I feel honored." She was more reticent on the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. "I was a history major, and we learned not to say, 'I feel this, I think that,' without knowing the facts. They had a relationship of 38 years. I would like to think they were in love, but how would I know?"

Some historians have theorized that sex between the races was relatively rare before Reconstruction. But if the story of the Hemingses is any indication, colonial America was already a mingling of races, whites with blacks, blacks with Indians, Indians with whites, making this country's family tree one deeply rooted in race. DARYL ROYSTER ALEXANDER

GRAPHIC: Photos (Columbus Dispatch); (Erica Freudenstein/Saba); (Michael Branscom for The New York Times)

Chart The tree below shows Jefferson's extended family, including children by his wife and slave mistress.

Following the death of Martha Eppes, John Wayles married two other women who bore him three daughters.

Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, the daughter of a British sea captain (Captain Hemings) and an unnamed, African-born slave, bore 14 children by four men, including three sons and three daughters by her owner John Wayles.

When Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, she was a widow with a young son, who died soon afterward.

Sally Hemings is said to have had seven children by Thomas Jefferson, although there are no records verifying the claim of the descendants of Thomas Woodson. Two daughters died in infancy; her son, Beverly, and daughter, Harriet, disappeared into the white population.

Five Living Descendants

ROBERT GILLESPIE—Jefferson's great- great-great-great-great-grandson through Jefferson's daughter, Martha.

LANTZ BALTHAZAR—Jefferson's great-great-great-grandson through Madison Hemings.

SHAY BANKS-YOUNG—is Jefferson's great-great-great-great-granddaughter through Madison Hemings.

JULIA JEFFERSON WESTERINEN—is Jefferson's great-great-great- granddaughter through Eston Hemings.

JOHN JEFFERSON—is Julia's brother; his DNA matched that of the Jefferson family.

(Peter C. T. Elsworth/The New York Times)

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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