By REBECCA GATES-COON
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, was most likely the father of all of Sally Hemings' children, genealogist Helen F. M. Leary, an expert on early families of the Upper South, reported at the Library's 2002 Judith P. Austin Memorial Lecture on April 16. Leary's talk was based on her research into the available genealogical evidence concerning Hemings' children, the results of which were published in a September 2001 issue of The National Genealogical Society Quarterly.
Stephen E. James, chief of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division (HSS), welcomed an overflow audience to the lecture in the Madison Building's West Dining Room. Barbara Walsh, reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room, introduced Leary, who is a frequent contributor to major genealogical journals. Leary has served as editor and primary author of the handbook "North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History" (first published in 1980, followed by a second edition in 1996) and served four terms as president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. She is a fellow of both the American Society of Genealogists and the National Genealogical Society.
Leary began her lecture by observing that the complex character of Thomas Jefferson as both public leader and private individual has challenged historians and biographers over the years. She said the Jefferson-Hemings relationship most likely began in Paris in the late 1780s; Jefferson traveled to France as American envoy in 1784 with his elder daughter Martha. Three years later, Sally Hemings (1773-1835), a young Monticello slave, accompanied Jefferson's younger daughter Maria to France to join her father.
Hemings gave birth to her first child in early to mid-1790, not long after her return to Monticello from France. Her final, seventh, child was born in 1805. (According to Leary, the seven children born to Hemings did not include Thomas Woodson, believed by many of his descendants to have been a son of Hemings and Jefferson.) All of Hemings' children were born at Monticello. Some of them, according to contemporary reports, bore a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. Leary remarked that, during Jefferson's lifetime, and even at the height of his political career, rumors circulated and occasionally surfaced in print that Jefferson was maintaining a clandestine relationship with his slave.
The relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was most likely a "businesslike" arrangement, based on persuasion and mutual agreement—not a traditional "romance" or, at the other extreme, forced on Hemings by Jefferson, according to Leary.
She also noted that Jefferson's grandchildren, as well as many historians over the years, considered the existence of a Hemings-Jefferson relationship improbable or even impossible and suggested alternative interpretations of the circumstances. Leary acknowledged that differences of opinion remain concerning the evidence. She asserted, however, that the accretion of extensive genealogical and circumstantial evidence, as unearthed by historians and genealogists (and examined more fully in her own 2001 article), has made alternative theories concerning the paternity of the Hemings children increasingly untenable.
Recent DNA evidence has established a genetic link between Hemings' youngest son Eston and a Jefferson male, though the actual identity of the father cannot be fixed by DNA markers. Leary said that the estimated conception dates of each of Hemings' children coincided precisely, and indeed exclusively, with Jefferson's visits to Monticello. She noted that credible family traditions handed down through generations of the Hemings family, as well as Jefferson's own treatment of Hemings' offspring (all of whom were eventually freed), argue in favor of a Hemings-Jefferson connection.
Leary contended that much 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.
The Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Library created and sponsored the Austin Memorial Lecture series as a tribute to Judith Austin, who was the head of the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room for many years. Her 20 years of Library service included her May 1996 appointment as head of the Main Reading Room. She died on Aug. 2, 1997. Attending the April 16 lecture were her husband, Alan, and their daughter, Jennifer Austin Luna.
Rebecca Gates-Coon is a reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy Section, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.