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Eston Hemings Jefferson (1808–1856) was born a slave at Monticellomarker, the youngest child of Sally Hemings, a slave in the household of Thomas Jefferson. Family tradition and oral history hold that he was one of the sons of President Thomas Jefferson. Evidence from a 1998 DNA test showed that Eston's descendants are indeed descendants of the male Jefferson line, but because Jefferson had no male descendants, the tests cannot show conclusively whether they are descended from Thomas Jefferson.

Based on other historical and genealogical evidence, most historians believe Jefferson was Hemings' father. The National Genealogical Society published articles in 2001 contending that together with the weight of historical evidence, the DNA tests support the conclusion that Jefferson fathered the Hemings children. Former prominent skeptics, such as Jefferson historian Joseph Ellis, biographer Andrew Burstein, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which runs Monticellomarker, changed their views to come to this conclusion. Other historians continue to dispute the finding.

Early life

What is known of Eston's life is derived from his brother Madison's 1873 memoir, a few entries in Thomas Jefferson's farm book, a handful of newspaper accounts, various census and land/tax records, and the stories of his descendants.

Eston was born to the Hemings family, which was at the top of the slave hierarchy at Monticello. According to his brother Madison's account, Eston and his siblings "were permitted to stay about the 'great house', and only required to do such light work as going on errands." At age 14 Madison and Eston began their training in carpentry, under tutelage of their uncle John Hemings, a highly skilled artisan. Eston and his brother Madison were manumitted at the age of 21, in accordance with President Jefferson’s will. Additionally, Jefferson had ensured that they had permission from the legislature to stay in Virginia after being freed. In his 1873 memoir, Madison stated that this was due to an agreement made between Jefferson and Sally Hemings prior to their return to the United Statesmarker from Francemarker in 1789. After Jefferson's death, Sally Hemings was "given her time", and went to live with her sons in Charlottesville. In the 1830 census, the census taker in Charlottesville classified all three Hemings as white.

Post-Slavery Life

Upon gaining freedom, Hemings initially pursued a career in woodworking and carpentry in Charlottesville, Virginiamarker. In 1830, Eston Hemings purchased property and built a house on Main Street, where his mother lived with him until her death in 1835. In 1832, he married a mixed-race free woman of color, Julia Ann Isaacs (1814-1889). She was the daughter of successful Jewish merchant David Isaacs from Germanymarker, and Ann (Nancy) West, a former slave. Isaacs and West lived together as man and wife and had seven children.

Eston and Julia Ann Hemings had three children: John Wayles Jefferson (1835-1892), Anne Wayles Jefferson (1836-1866), and Beverly Frederick Jefferson (1838-1908). The first two were born in Charlottesville. About 1837 Hemings moved with his family to Chillicothe, Ohiomarker, a town with a thriving community of free blacks and numerous white abolitionists as well, that had stations linked to the Underground Railroad. There Hemings became a professional musician, playing the violin and leading a successful dance band.

In a 1902 newspaper article, an observer wrote that while Hemings lived in Ohio in the 1840s, it was widely rumored that he was the son of Jefferson. The correspondent also recollected: “Eston Hemings, being a master of the violin, and an accomplished "caller" of dances, always officiated at the "swell" entertainments of Chillicothe.”

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act increased pressure on the black communities in Ohio. In towns of the Underground Railroad, slave catchers invaded the communities, sometimes capturing and enslaving free people.

In 1852 the Hemings decided to move their family further north for more security, and migrated to Madison, Wisconsinmarker. They changed their surname to Jefferson and lived as part of the white community. Their eldest son John Wayles Jefferson served as an officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War.

John W. Jefferson led the Wisconsin 8th Infantry. He was wounded twice in battle, and promoted to colonel in 1864. After the war, he published articles about his experiences. He also ran the American House hotel in Madison, which was later taken over by his brother Beverly.

Beverly Jefferson also ran the Capitol House hotels and established an omnibus line in the capital. He was a popular figure among politicians in the capital. The entire Eston Hemings/Jefferson family is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin.

Descendants

In the 1970s, two of Eston Jefferson's descendants, unaware of their connection to the Hemings family, read Fawn Brodie's book Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait. They recognized Eston's name in the book. With Brodie's help, they soon started putting the pieces of their family history back together. They discovered that in the 1940s, the family had decided against continued telling of the Jefferson-Hemings story to their children out of fear they would be discriminated against. The new knowledge of family history enabled DNA researchers in 1998 to locate John Weeks Jefferson, a male descendant of Eston Hemings, for testing.

DNA testing and changing historians' opinions

In 1998 testing of the Y male DNA, John Weeks Jefferson was shown to be a descendant of the Thomas Jefferson male line. While this does not conclusively prove that Thomas Jefferson was Eston's father, for many historians and researchers, it adds sufficient weight of evidence together with other documentation to convince them this is the most likely conclusion. As Dr. Eugene Foster noted in his Nature article about the DNA testing, historical evidence included Thomas Jefferson’s recorded presence at Monticello at the conception of all Hemings’s known children, a fact earlier noted by historian Winthrop Jordan.

Prominent former skeptics of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship were convinced. For example, Andrew Burstein in a 1995 biography Thomas Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist wrote that "as to actual evidence... nothing really satisfies." In his later volume Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, Burstein provided evidence in medical thinking in Jefferson's time that would have helped Jefferson justify his relationship with Sally Hemings. "The prevailing medical theory specifically gave permission to men of letters, upper class men, to find suitable sex partners to safeguard their physical and emotional health." Burstein came unambiguously to believe Jefferson forced himself upon an enslaved Hemings.

Similarly, historian Joseph Ellis, who in his 1996 book Thomas Jefferson: The American Sphinx concluded the Hemings-Jefferson liaison was not likely, reassessed his opinion in light of the DNA evidence. In 1998 he publicly stated his new opinion in an interview on Lehrer's Newshour:

It's not so much a change of heart, but this is really new evidence. And it—prior to this evidence, I think it was a very difficult case to know and circumstantial on both sides, and, in part, because I got it wrong, I think I want to step forward and say this new evidence constitutes, well, evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Jefferson had a longstanding sexual relationship with Sally Hemings.


The Monticello Foundation, which operates Monticello, put together a committee to evaluate the evidence and issued their report in 2001 on the Monticello website. The majority of the committee concluded that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of Eston Hemings and all his siblings.

Another group, the Thomas Jefferson Historical Society (TJHS), continued to resist the evidence. They published a report in 2001 concluding there was not enough evidence to support finding Thomas Jefferson the father of Hemings' children, and suggested his younger brother Randolph Jefferson was a more likely candidate. (It was not until the 20th century that this Jefferson was proposed as a possible father.)

In 2001 the National Genealogical Society published articles that concluded that the weight of historical and genealogical evidence supported the finding that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Hemings' children. In addition, they stated the TJHS report had ignored the weight of evidence and showed bias. In a lecture the following year at the Library of Congress, genealogist Helen F.M. Leary said,

[M]uch of the evidence marshaled against the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has proved to be flawed by reason of bias, inaccuracy or inconsistent reporting.
Too many coincidences must be accounted for and too many unique circumstances "explained away," she said, if a competing theory is to be accepted.
She concluded by saying that the sum of the evidence points to Jefferson as the father of Hemings' children.


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