A President’s Plantation
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, primarily lived at his Monticello plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia before he moved to the White House in 1801.
Despite great scrutiny of the estate over the years, a recent discovery on the property revealed details about a long-held mystery that utterly shocked historians. Thomas Jefferson was 26-years-old when he started building Monticello on land that he inherited from his father. The massive 5,000-acre plantation was primarily used to cultivate tobacco and wheat. But like many plantations of the time, Monticello has a controversial legacy linked to one of the dark parts of American history.
The Controversy Surrounding Monticello
While Jefferson used free workers and servants and enslaved laborers to construct the plantation house, he had hundreds of slaves working and living at Monticello. Although that difficult fact has been acknowledged, an astonishing discovery in 2017 shed light on a previously unresolved matter.
A Complicated Legacy
As one of the nation’s visionary Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is regarded as one of the biggest figures in American history. He was the principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and penned the “immortal declaration” that “All men are created equal.”
Reevaluating His Legacy
Despite those words, Jefferson owned 607 slaves over the course of his life, and the discovery found during a 2017 archaeological excavation contributed further understandings that caused made many to reevaluate certain aspects of his legacy.
An Enigmatic Figure
One of the slaves on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation was a woman named Sally Hemings. She remains an enigmatic figure for the most part, but her life was undoubtedly intertwined with Jefferson’s and raised the curiosity of historians for more than a century. Her life was covered in mystery before the groundbreaking discovery made nearly 200 years after her death provided astounding new insights into who she was and the incredible events that occurred during her time at Monticello.
Who Was Sally Hemings?
According to her son Madison, Sally Hemings was, in fact, the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha (pictured). Sally Hemings was born in 1773 to a planter and slave trader father named John Wayles (who was also Martha Jefferson’s father) and a mother named Betty Hemings, who was of biracial heritage and born into slavery. At this time, children born to enslaved mothers were also considered slaves. As an infant, Sally, her siblings and her mother came to Jefferson’s home as slaves belonging to Martha as part of her inheritance from her father
Before She Was a Subject of National Intrigue
Sally Hemings was the youngest of six siblings and 25 years younger than her half-sister Martha Jefferson. Hemings and her brothers and sister grew up at Jefferson’s plantation at Monticello and were trained and put to work as artisans and domestic servants. The children were considered to have positions at the top of the slave hierarchy and did not labor in the fields. No one knew it at the time of her youth, but years later, she would become a subject of national interest.
A Trail of Clues
Sally Hemings was enslaved until Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826. She lived the last nine years of her life freely, but the details of her time at the Monticello plantation have largely remained a mystery. Yet, a trail of clues uncovered over the years has led to a better understanding of this woman’s significant, historical role.
Painting a Picture
There were no portraits of Sally Hemings but we can get an idea of her based on the few descriptions of her. According to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, she was “light colored and decidedly good looking.” Meanwhile, historians have noted that her duties at Jefferson’s home included serving as a seamstress and chambermaid. Still, mystery has ensued as Jefferson was deliberate in his detailed about finances and births in his records of the property, yet her rarely wrote of her.
The French Connection
It is known that at the age of 14, Sally Hemings accompanied Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Mary, to London and later to Paris, where the future president was serving as the U.S. envoy to France. It was during her two years in France when the young Hemings’ life would totally change. Sally Hemings’ brother, James also accompanied the Jefferson’s to Europe as a chef. Although slavery was illegal in France at the time, something happened that likely motivated Sally to return to the U.S., where she would again be considered a slave.
What Happens in Paris, Doesn’t Stay in Paris
It was there in Paris, that most historians agree that the widower Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship. The future president was then in his mid-40s. And at about the age of 16, Hemings became pregnant.
Juicy Gossip Reveald
Hemings returned the U.S. in 1789. She went on to have six children following her return from Europe and observers at the time believed that they were Jefferson’s due to their appearance. However, the relationship would only be publically written about for the first time about 20 years later.
In 1802, one of Thomas Jefferson’s opponents first published a report about what was later deemed the “Jefferson-Hemings controversy.” Jefferson never listed the father of Hemings’ children in his “Farm Book,” but his family publicly denied the allegations about his fathering the kids. Jefferson’s family and historians continued to deny the paternity allegations for the next 150 years. Years later, however, an incredible discovery would change everything.
After 150 Years of Uncertainty…
Scientific progress led to a new breakthrough in the long-unresolved case of the paternity of Sally Hemings’ children. The shocking results of DNA testing in 1998 revealed a link that made the majority of historians agree that Jefferson fathered at least one, and most likely all, of Hemings’ kids. The genetic testing found a match between Jefferson’s male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings – Sally’s youngest son. Nearly two decades after the groundbreaking DNA study, archaeologists would discover a long-hidden secret that provided further remarkable revelations about her life.
A Monumental Discovery
While archaeologists were conducting excavations as part of a restoration effort at the Monticello plantation in 2017, they were amazed when they discovered another missing piece of the puzzle that had long-evaded social scientists. They had finally found the long-concealed living quarters of Sally Hemings!
The archaeologists made the historic discovery while they were working to uncover the original layout of the South Wing of the Monticello plantation house. Her room had gone unnoticed for several decades, but no one could have guessed where it was!
Hidden in Time
The South Pavilion of Monticello had undergone considerable transformations during Jefferson’s lifetime and even into the 20th century after it had become a museum. Sally Hemings’ room was completely hidden from sight when a modern bathroom was installed over it in 1941. The bathroom was again renovated and enlarged in the 1960s due to the increasing number of visitors at Monticello. But those changes didn’t actually reveal Hemings’ long-lost room. What had tipped archaeologists off to the discovery, in fact, came from a very surprising source.
A Historic Hint
Historians were reanalyzing the history of Monticello when they came across a document written by one of Thomas Jefferson’s grandsons. According to him, Sally Hemings’ room had been located in the South Wing of the former plantation house. So archaeologist started digging, however, they were not at all expecting to unearth the shocking artifacts that they found during the excavation.
The awestruck archaeologists knocked down the men’s bathroom and sifted through the dirt to eventually unearth the Sally Hemings’ 14-foot living quarters. In the room, they also found the original brick floors from the early 1800s.
What Did They Uncover?
As experts uncovered more of the room, they also found a brick hearth and fireplace along with a structure that could house a stove. Another interesting aspect of the find was that the room was located adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom. So what did that mean?
What It Means
Analysts believe that the proximity of Sally Hemings’ room to Thomas Jefferson’s private quarters further points toward the narrative that he fathered her children. This new development together with the DNA results from the ‘90s is thought to provided nearly definitive proof of Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship. “This room is a real connection to the past,” said Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology at Monticello.
How Enslaved People Were Living
“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, the director of restoration for Jefferson’s home. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.” It’s believed that part of Sally Hemings’ decision to return to the U.S. from Paris was because Jefferson promised her children could be free once they came of age. Interestingly, the Hemings were the only family that Jefferson freed among his slaves.
A Window into the Past?
The physical evidence discovered from her room indicated that Sally Hemings had a higher standard of living than other enslaved people at Monticello, but she was still a slave and there were certain details that leave no doubt about at least some of her conditions.
Remembering Mulberry Row
In 2015, Monticello unveiled another project that drew attention to the lives of enslaved people at the manor. The restoration of Mulberry Row displayed reconstructions of two dwellings from the central plantation street that included slave living quarters, supply rooms and kitchens. Between the years 1770 and 1831, the row consisted of more than 20 structures. The event drew more than 100 descendants of enslaved families who took part in a tree-planting memorial in their relative’s honor.
Revealing the Truth
Monticello historians are now working to restore Sally Hemings’ room for public display and plan to open it in 2018. The space will be exhibited with period furniture and artifacts excavated on the property like ceramics and bone toothbrushes.
The discovery of her room answers a lot of questions and clarifies some rumors about the ongoings at Monticello and the human interactions there. Curators are now working to better incorporate her life into the narrative of Jefferson’s story and reverse previously-held notions that she was merely his “concubine.” But there’s even more significance than that.
Remembering Sally’s Name
The new focus on Hemings comes as part of a decades-long shift in the portrayal of Monticello. Now-retired historian, Lucia “Cinder” Stanton,” started working at the site in 1968 and recalls that back then Sally’s name was never mentioned in tours.
A More Comprehensive Account
Like the Mulberry Row addition, curators will incorporate Sally Hemings’ room and her life story into a more comprehensive account of the mountaintop grounds and its people, and not just Thomas Jefferson and his immediate family. While shedding light on the life of Hemings is an important part of history to acknowledge, some of her distant relatives do have mixed feelings about the legacy associated with one of America’s presidents, Thomas Jefferson.
A Descendant’s View
“As an African American descendant, I have mixed feelings – Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder,” said Gayle Jessup White, who is Sally Hemings’ great-great-great-great niece and also works as Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer. Still, she’s appreciative of the work her colleagues are doing.
White explained that Monticello hasn’t always been embraced by a larger part of the local African American community due to Jefferson’s relation to slaves. “I find that some people are receptive to the message and some are resistant,” she said.
Message Said Loud And Clear
“But our message is that we want the underserved communities and communities of color to become partners with us,” he highlighted. “Anecdotally, we have seen an uptick in African Americans visiting Monticello so I know we’re making progress.” However, there is still a lot left to be done.
Despite great historical analysis on Monticello, the history of the former plantation still leaves many questions. Although Jefferson kept a log of all of his hundreds of slave, there were only a few individual photo portraits of people from the families
Life After Monticello
Hemings had four children who survived into adulthood: Madison, Eston, Beverley and Harriet. Eventually, all of them – expect for Madison – chose to live in white society in the North. From Madison’s memoir, further information was gathered about the other siblings.
An Influential Lineage
Both of Sally Hemings’ sons achieved relative success in their adult years and had multiple children who fought on the Union Side in the Civil War. Sally Hemings’ lineage included several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who carried on the family legacy with some making history in other ways.
Legacy Lives On
Generations after Jefferson was president, his and Sally Hemings’ great-grandson, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first elected person of black ancestry to take public office on the West Coast. For 20 years, he served in the California State Assembly. And, the family’s legacy is still be upheld in other incredible ways.
In 1993, Monticello historians conducted interviews with more than 200 people. The endeavor was part of an oral history project to collect the personal accounts of the African American families at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation from their ancestors. Additionally, Monticello held a summit in 2016 along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia. Several luminaries who were descendants of Monticello families attended the summit entitled “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America.”
While the controversial memory surrounding Monticello may not be completely erased, in July 2017, the current site of the property hosted an eye-opening celebration to mark its 55th annual Independence Day.