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Madison Hemings (18 January 1805 – 28 November 1877) was the formerly enslaved son of the American slave Sally Hemings and (possibly) president Thomas Jefferson, who held them both as master. This connection was claimed by Hemings in his memoir. It is supported by circumstantial evidence, including DNA tests linking his brother Eston Hemings to the male Jefferson line. Hemings' memoir, published in 1873 as a newspaper interview, attracted national and international attention.

Based on other historical and genealogical evidence, most historians believe Jefferson was the father of Madison and all of Sally Hemings' children. 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.


Born to an enslaved mother Sally Hemings, Madison was a slave by birth and grew up at Monticellomarker, home of his father, president Thomas Jefferson. He had an older brother and sister who survived childhood, as well as a younger brother. According to his 1873 memoir, Madison Hemings was named for Jefferson's close friend and future president James Madison at the request of Madison's wife Dolley, who promised Sally Hemings a gift for the honor, though no gift was ever given. He described his childhood as "measurably happy" in his memoir, living with his siblings and his mother, and spared from hard labor. He described Thomas Jefferson as a kind and even-tempered man who "was uniformly kind to all about him" but "very undemonstrative", demonstrating little or no paternal interest in Sally Hemings' children, though a loving grandfather to the children of his daughters, who were about the same age.

At 14 years of age, Madison was apprenticed to his uncle, Sally's brother John Hemings, the most skilled artisan at Monticello, to learn carpentry; his younger brother Eston joined him as an apprentice two years later. All three of the brothers studied and learned to play the violin, the instrument associated with Jefferson. Beverley, the oldest, was good enough to be invited to play at dances held by the Jeffersons at Monticello. As an adult, Eston Hemings made a living as a musician and entertainer.

Freed in Jefferson's Will

In his will, Jefferson gave immediate freedom to three slaves: John Hemings, and Hemings' two nephews: Joseph Fossett (son of John and Sally's sister Mary) and Burwell Colbert (son of John and Sally's sister Betty), bequeathing each the tools of their trade. He also made a cash gift of $300 (considered generous) to his valet Burwell. (John Hemings was a widower and evidently childless by 1826, but Colbert and Fossett were married and the fathers of large families. As Jefferson made no provision for the freedom of their wives and children, all were sold along with Monticello's other slaves at auctions held on Monticello in 1827 and 1831 by order of Jefferson's many creditors.)

To John Hemings, Jefferson also bequeathed "the service of his two apprentices Madison and Eston Hemings", with instruction that the brothers each receive his freedom upon their respective 21st birthdays.

In full knowledge that his estate was in debt (and thus his creditors could petition that skilled slaves, valuable assets, not be freed in his will), and in full knowledge that freed slaves could not legally remain in Virginiamarker for more than one year without risking a return to slavery, Jefferson's will "humbly and earnestly" requested the legislature of Virginia not only guarantee the manumission of the five named slaves, but that once freed, the men receive special "permission to remain in this State, where their families and connections are." Both requests were evidently granted.


Twenty-one year old Madison Hemings received emancipation almost immediately after Jefferson died; with his brother Eston, he rented a house in nearby Charlottesville. They lived there and their mother Sally joined them. (Sally Hemings was not freed in Jefferson's will or by any other known official document, but appears to have been "given her time"- an informal emancipation probably arranged by Jefferson's surviving daughter Martha Randolph). In the 1830 census, Madison, Eston and Sally Hemings were classified as white by the census taker in Charlottesville.

According to Madison's 1873 memoir, his older brother Beverley and his older sister Harriet had relocated to Washington D.C.marker in 1822. They "ran away" from Monticello, but Jefferson never tried to bring them back or track them down. In fact he made provision for Harriet to be given money before she left. Because of their light skin and appearance (they were octoroon), both assumed new identities as white citizens, married white spouses of good circumstances, and moved into white society. They apparently kept their paternity a secret, as it would have revealed their origins as slaves.

In September 1831, when he was in his mid-twenties, Madison Hemings was described in a special census of the State of Virginia as being "5:7 3/8 Inches high light complexion no scars or marks perceivable". Forty-two years later, a journalist described him as "five feet ten inches in height, sparely made, with sandy complexion and a mild gray eye"; the difference in height suggests one of these sources is wrong or less able to estimate height.Stanton, Lucia. "Madison Hemings." Dec 1998. Monticello. 28 May 2007 />.

In 1834 Madison wed Mary McCoy, a free woman of mixed-race ancestry. They had two children born in Virginia. Sally Hemings died sometime in 1835.

The following year Madison, Mary and their infant daughter Sarah left Charlottesvillemarker for Pike County, Ohiomarker, probably to join his brother Eston, who had already moved there with his own family. They lived in Chillicothemarker, which had a thriving free African-American community, abolitionists across the color line, and a station of the Underground Railroad. Surviving records in Pike County state that Hemings purchased for $150 on July 22, 1856, sold the same area for $250 on December 30, 1859, and purchased for $10 per acre on September 25, 1865.

In 1852 Eston Hemings relocated with his family to Madison, Wisconsinmarker. He and his wife, also mixed-race, had three children together. In Wisconsin they took the surname Jefferson and lived according to their white appearance and mostly white ancestry. Eston's oldest son John Wayles Jefferson served as an officer in the American Civil War, being promoted to colonel.


Madison and Mary Hemings were the parents of 10 children. According to his memoir, their daughter Sarah (named for his mother) and an unnamed son who died in infancy were born in Virginia; nine more children were born in Ohiomarker.

His three Ohio-born sons were
  • Thomas Eston (named for Madison's father and his brother Eston),
  • William Beverly (named for brother Beverley Hemings), and
  • James Madison (named after himself).

His six younger daughters were
  • Julia (who died before 1870),
  • Harriet (named for his sister),
  • Mary Ann (named after her mother),
  • Catherine,
  • Jane, and
  • Ellen Wayles (named for his maternal white great-grandmother)

In his memoir Madison stated that his son Thomas Eston Hemings died in Andersonville prison during the Civil War, after having fought on the Union side with the United States Colored Troops. His son William Beverly also served in Union ranks, where he was with the 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He was accepted as white at enlistment.

Jefferson paternity

Madison Hemings lived a quiet life as a modestly successful free black farmer and carpenter. He did not disclose his belief that Thomas Jefferson was his father until his later years after the Civil War, other than to family and intimate friends. Neighbors in Chillicothe later said the Hemings' brothers parentage had been commonly known and talked about in the 1840s.

The first public note of Madison's paternal claims appeared in the 1870 Census: on lines next to Madison's name and under columns intended for facts about parentage, education, and recent marriage and childbirth, the census taker, William Weaver, wrote the sentence, "This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson." The census listed Hemings as living with his wife, his 14-year-old youngest daughter, his 35-year old eldest daughter Sarah, widowed, and Sarah's two grandchildren. He possessed real estate valued at $1,500 and personal property valued at $300. Under "race", the entire family was classified as mulatto.

In 1873 Hemings discussed his paternity for publication when he granted an interview to journalist Samuel F. Wetmore in a series entitled Life Among the Lowly (the subtitle of Uncle Tom's Cabin), which appeared on March 13, in Wetmore's newspaper, The Pike County (Ohio) Republican. The article, entitled "Memoirs of Madison Hemings", met with immediate, widespread interest. It was soon reprinted in newspapers around the nation. Eight years after the end of the Civil War, a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 70 years after James Callender's allegations of the Hemings-Jefferson affair, Hemings' account gained international attention as well. Hemings' memoir is the most detailed primary source of information about the Hemings-Jefferson relationship and resulting children.

Some critics condemned the article, which became controversial, and certain commentators tried to deny its authenticity, revealing their own biases in the process. Historians have demonstrated that there is considerable evidence supporting most of Hemings' account, although he had some inaccuracies. These could be attributed to his age, the passage of time, and his viewpoint on events as a youth.

Detractors criticized that the interview appeared second-hand (i.e. Madison Hemings himself never publicly addressed the issue), and that the interviewer Wetmore was a highly partisan anti-South Republican. Then they said that even if were true, Hemings was not in a position to know about the details of his parents' relationship before his birth. Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph claimed that Sally Hemings' children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson's nephews, the sons of his sister Martha Jefferson Carr.

Wetmore also interviewed Isaac Jefferson, an elderly former slave also from Monticello. He confirmed that among the community at Monticello, the slaves all knew that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children.

Madison Hemings did not profit financially from his memoirs. Following the death of his wife in 1876 and his own death from tuberculosis on November 28, 1877, Hemings' debts were totalled at $963.93. His real estate and personal goods brought only $906.59 when auctioned to satisfy the debts.

Most Jefferson scholars and lay historians alike disputed the validity of Madison Hemings' claims for more than a century. In 1974, Fawn M. Brodie published a biography of Jefferson which championed Hemings' claims in detail in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Using historian Dumas Malone's timeline, developed to trace Jefferson's activities, Brodie demonstrated that Thomas Jefferson was present at Monticello nine months before the births of each of Sally Hemings' known children, that is, at each conception. Some of Jefferson's family and previous researchers had tried to deny that fact. Brodie's psychoanalytical approach led some historians to discount some of the stronger elements of her work, but others began to take notice.

In 1997 legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, in which she examined claims and the way historians and biographers had used evidence. She showed how they had allowed their biases and interest in "defending" Jefferson to affect how they used evidence and materials from which they interpreted history. They had overlooked inconsistencies and worked to push facts in their favor, ignoring evidence that together created a different story. She showed there was much material that supported the story of Thomas Jefferson's paternity, particularly the presence of Jefferson at Monticello at the conception of each of Hemings' children, their being named after people in the Randolph-Jefferson family tree with connection to Jefferson and after his close friend James Madison, special treatment of the Hemings children in terms of their training, and especially, the facts that the Hemings nuclear family was the only one whose members all left Monticello as free persons, and Harriet Hemings was the only female slave that Jefferson ever freed (by allowing her to "run away".)

DNA testing

In 1998-99 the genetic testing of male-line descendants of Madison Hemings's brother Eston added scientific evidence to the claims of Madison Hemings and the many other known descendants of his mother. The test proved that Eston Hemings was fathered by a male Jefferson relative; Samuel and Peter Carr were shown not to have have any paternal connection to the Eston Hemings line.

Though the tests could not conclusively prove that Eston and the Hemings descendant were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson, because of the lack of a male descendant, the genetic testing, when added to Madison Hemings' claims and circumstantial evidence, has led many people to accept that Thomas Jefferson's paternity of Eston Hemings was far more likely than unlikely. They also concluded that if Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings (who was conceived when Jefferson was 65 years old), he more likely than not fathered Eston's older siblings.

This view is supported by numerous prominent Jefferson biographers and scholars, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF), which administers Monticello, and some of his legitimate descendants. In September 2001, Helen F.M. Leary published an article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly that detailed why the weight of historical and genealogical evidence supports the DNA test in pointing to Thomas Jefferson as the father of all of Hemings' children. Legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed's second book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), traced the Hemings generations in detail, beginning with the transformative experience of James and Sally Hemings with Thomas Jefferson in Parismarker.

While some continue to contest the evidence, the historical consensus is that Madison Hemings's 1873 claims about his and his siblings' paternity appear to be true.


Madison's daughter Ellen Wayles Hemings married Andrew Jackson Roberts, a graduate of Oberlin Collegemarker, with whom she moved to Los Angeles, Californiamarker in the late 19th century with their first son Frederick, age six. Roberts founded the first black-owned mortuary there and became a leader in the community.

Their son, Frederick Madison Roberts, named for his maternal grandfather, was first elected to the California legislature in 1918. He was re-elected and served for 16 years, becoming known as "dean of the assembly". He is believed to have been the first person of African-American ancestry elected to office west of the Mississippi River. Both he and his brother William Giles Roberts graduated from college. The descendants of Andrew and Ellen Roberts for generations have had a strong tradition of college education and public service.

See also


  1. Helen Leary, "Sally Hemings's Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence", National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001, p. 172 -173
  2. The Memoirs of Madison Hemings
  3. Jefferson's will appears full-text at the bottom of this pageof other full-text Jeffersonian primary documents. All quotes regarding Jefferson's dispositions are taken from his will.
  4. Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1997, p. 209
  5. Legal documents related to Madison Hemings, as well as a transcript of his memoir and that of Israel Jefferson, another former Monticello slave, can be found in the appendices of Fawn M. Brodie's biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, excerpts from which can be accessed onlineat Google Books.
  6. U.S. Census. Year: 1870; Census Place: Huntington, Ross, Ohio; Roll: M593_1263; Page: 699; Image: 10. Line: 13.
  7. Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997, pp. 210-223
  8. Monticello's statement on the Hemings controversy
  9. Rebecca Gates-Coon, "The Children of Sally Hemings: Genealogist Gives Annual Austin Lecture", Information Bulletin, Library of Congress, May 2002, accessed 10 Feb 2009

Additional reading

  • Delilah L. Beasley, Negro Trail Blazers of California, Los Angeles: 1919, pp. 137, 215-16. (An early picture of Roberts appears on p. 40.)
  • Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008
  • Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman, Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family New York: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2000 (with photos of Jefferson descendants on both sides)

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