Five generations of Hemingses lived at Monticello over Thomas Jefferson’s lifespan with over one-third of the enslaved people of Monticello belonging to this one family. An activity can be found below, where the reader can put together the Hemings family tree. To understand this section in more detail, performing this activity before reading is advised.

Hemings Family Tree

Elizabeth Hemings was reported by Madison Hemings as having a relationship with John Wayles, the father-in-law to Jefferson. With him, she had six children: Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and Sally. With the death of Wayles in 1773, the Hemingses family were transferred over to Jefferson to work as in-house servants. They performed tasks involving sewing and cleaning, being personal maids and valets, and possibly being supervisors to other enslaved people. The daughters of Elizabeth were house maids. Mary was recorded as being a seamstress, Betty did the mending, and Sally was a chambermaid and seamstress. Martin, the oldest of Elizabeth’s sons, was the butler and when Jefferson was in France he worked for James Monroe. Robert replaced Jupiter as Jefferson’s personal servant.[1]

The experience of the Hemings family was very different from the experience of other enslaved families at Monticello. During Jefferson’s presidential years, Edmund Bacon, an overseer, recorded that Elizabeth Hemings and her daughters had very little to do and he was instructed to have no control over them. Furthermore, they were not charged with helping with the harvest and the sons could hire themselves out to other people in order to make monetary gain. Jefferson never treated any of his other captive like he treated the Hemingses. He would purchase them nice clothing, commonly made up of muslin or Irish linen while the other common Monticello slave would usually receive a coarse brownish linen and baggy stockings.[2]

Sally Hemings started her life out as being owned by John Wayles, her father. She became the maid of Jefferson’s niece Mary (Polly), in 1775 and joined her on a voyage across the sea from America to France. She was only thirteen or fourteen at the time. They made a stop in London where they stayed with John and Abigail Adams. In France, Sally stayed with the Jeffersons and continued to be a maid to Polly. As she grew older, she would dress Polly up for balls and sometimes would accompany her to them. When it came time to go back to Virginia, Sally did not want to go because she knew she would be re-enslaved. In France, she was free. However, Jefferson convinced her by stating she would gain privileges that none of his other enslaved people had and  would be promised freedom for any children she had. [3]

When Sally returned to Mulberry Row at Monticello, she took care of Jefferson’s chamber and wardrobe, and spent her days doing light housework. She probably lived in a stone dwelling on Mulberry Row and at one point moved into a room located at the South Terrace of the main house. Other Hemingses also lived in that area of the house: Peter, Sally’s brother, lived in a room nearest to the kitchen and another room was Critta’s. These rooms were deemed as comfortable and was insulated well. In all this luxury, nonetheless, the Hemings were still owned by Jefferson and were the victims of any decision he made.[4]

Talk of Jefferson’s relations with Sally Hemings was first a gossip piece that was reported by James Thomson Callender in a publication of the Recorder in 1802. He asserted that Jefferson and Sally had an intimate relationship, but that relationship was not confirmed until Madison Hemings, Sally’s son, reported later in his life that Sally had become pregnant in France and returned to Virginia to have the child. The child only lived a short time and was never recorded as having a name. Sally had other children: Harriet, Beverly, Madison, and Eston, who lived until adulthood. They were house servants and did light work for the Jeffersons. All of Sally’s children did receive freedom when they were old enough to care for themselves; Sally never let Jefferson forget his promise to her he made in France.[5]

Other Hemingses also gained freedom from Jefferson. Robert Hemings, Sally’s brother, received manumission papers from Jefferson in 1794 at the age of 32. He had found a wife, Dolly, and he wished to live permanently with her in Richmond, but was unable to because of his status as a slave. He arranged with Jefferson for him to be manumitted and join her. He was successful, and Jefferson in his diaries recorded having much anger over the arrangement. He believed that he had been coerced into a decision he did not want to do. Robert was one of the 11 Monticello slaves that were manumitted during Jefferson’s lifespan with all of them being in the Hemings family.[6]

Overall, around the main household of Monticello, Hemingses worked and lived. They experienced a lifestyle that was different from other enslaved families, which is important to note in terms of understanding that one enslaved person’s experience does not summarize the experience of all the other enslaved people in America. Their stories show desire for the protection of their family and for opportunities to advance their own dreams.

[1] Stanton, L. (2000) Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.: 102-104.

[2] Ibid.,105-106.

[3] Ibid., 106-111.

[4] Ibid., 111-113.

[5] Ibid., 113-115.

[6] Ibid., 116-119.