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Harriet Hemings

Harriet Hemings
Born May, 1801
Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia
Died After 1863
Washington, D.C.
Nationality American
Other names Hattie
Occupation Textile Worker
Known for Being Thomas Jefferson's Daughter
Home town Monticello
Parents Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson
Relatives Beverly Hemings, Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings, James Hemings, Frederick Madison Roberts, Mary Hemings, John Hemings, Betty Hemings, John Wayles Jefferson, Walter Beverly Pearson

Harriet Hemings (May, 1801-1870) was born into slavery at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, in the first year of his Presidency. Most historians believe her father is Jefferson, who is believed by many historians to have had a relationship with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, half-sister to his late wife. Harriet is one of Sally Hemings' four children who survived to adulthood.[1]

While Jefferson did not legally free Harriet, in 1822 when she was 21, he aided her "escape". He saw that she was put in a stage coach and given $50 for her journey. Her brother Madison Hemings later said she had gone to Washington, DC to join their older brother Beverley Hemings, who had similarly left Monticello earlier that year. Both entered into white society and married white partners of good circumstances. Seven-eighths European in ancestry, all the Hemings children were legally white under contemporary Virginia law, although they were enslaved. Jefferson freed the two youngest brothers in his will of 1826, so they were legally free.

Beverly and Harriet stayed in touch with their brother Madison Hemings for some time, and then Harriet stopped writing. According to his 1873 account, both siblings had children.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Life after Monticello 2
  • Question of relationship 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7
  • Bibliography 8

Early life and education

In 1773 Jefferson and his wife Joshua D. Rothman have written, there were numerous interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families, Albemarle County and Virginia, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern.[2][3]

Harriet is believed to be the daughter of Sally Hemings and the widower Thomas Jefferson. It is widely believed that Jefferson and Hemings had a 38-year secret relationship beginning in Paris several years after the early death of his wife. Hemings was said to have a child born in 1790 after she returned from Paris, but it died as an infant. Hemings' first daughter who was recorded, was born in 1795. She was named Harriet but she died in infancy. This name was prominent among women in Jefferson's family.[4] It was customary to name the next child of the same sex after one who had died. Harriet's surviving siblings were her older brother William Beverley, called Beverley; and younger brothers James Madison and Thomas Eston Hemings. Like the other Hemings children, Harriet had light duties as a child, which she spent mostly with her mother. At the age of 14, she was started in training to learn weaving and later worked at the cotton factory on the plantation.

In 1822 at the age of 21, Harriet left Monticello. Jefferson instructed his overseer Edmund Bacon to give her $50 to help on her journey. Although legally she had escaped and was a "fugitive", Jefferson never tried to persuade her to return or posted notice of escape. Harriet Hemings was the only female slave he "freed" in his lifetime.[5]

Although Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote that he had a policy of allowing nearly white slaves to leave and she recalled four who had,[6] this was not accurate. Jefferson had no such policy and freed few slaves. There were many mixed-race slaves at Monticello, both in the larger Hemings family and other slave families. Coolidge appeared to be trying to cover up his freeing the children of Sally Hemings.[7]

Edmund Bacon, chief overseer at Monticello for about twenty years, described Harriet's gaining freedom:

"Mr. Jefferson freed a number of his servants in his will. . . He freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter."[8]

Bacon wrote, "When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson's direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since and don't know what became of her. From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory. She never did any hard work.”[8]

Jefferson indirectly and directly freed all four of the Hemings children when they reached the age of 21: Beverley and Harriet were allowed to escape in 1822; the last two sons, Madison and Eston, were freed in his will of 1826. They were the only slave family from Monticello whose members all achieved freedom.[5] Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally Hemings "her time" after his death; this enabled her to leave Monticello and live freely with her last two sons in Charlottesville for the last decade of her life.

In 1794 Jefferson allowed Robert Hemings, one of Sally's brothers, to buy his freedom; in 1796 he freed James Hemings after requiring him to train his replacement chef for three years. He freed another of Sally's brothers and two of her nephews in his will of 1826; they had each served him for decades.[9]

Life after Monticello

In 1873 Harriet's brother Madison Hemings described his siblings and their life at Monticello and afterward, claiming Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as their parents. He said that Jefferson had promised Hemings when she became his concubine that he would free all her children. His interview was published as a memoir in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican.

He said of his sister Harriet: "She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, [D.C.] to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered."[10] He said that Harriet and Beverly both had children. According to the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, Harriet likely chose to move to Washington in order to join her brother Beverly, who was already there. Their younger brother Madison said in his 1873 memoir that they had both moved there, where they married and had families. Madison said Harriet later lived in Maryland.[11]

While Harriet and Beverly disappeared into history, more is known about the lives of their brothers Madison and Eston Hemings, who married in Charlottesville and began their families there. They both moved to Chillicothe in the free state of Ohio after their mother died in 1835. (See Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings.)

Question of relationship

The Jefferson-Hemings controversy concerns the question of whether, after Jefferson became a widower, he had an intimate relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, resulting in his fathering her six children of record. The controversy dates from the 1790s. In the late twentieth century historians began reanalyzing the body of evidence. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published a book that analyzed the historiography of the controversy, demonstrating how historians since the nineteenth century had accepted early assumptions and failed to note all the facts.[12] A consensus began to emerge after the results of a DNA analysis in 1998, which showed no match between the Carr male line, proposed for more than 150 years as the father(s), and the one Hemings descendant tested. It did show a match between the Jefferson male line and the Hemings descendant.

Since 1998 and the DNA study, many historians have accepted that the widower Jefferson had a long intimate relationship with Hemings, and fathered six children with her, four of whom survived to adulthood. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), which runs Monticello, conducted an independent historic review in 2000, as did the National Genealogical Society in 2001; both reported scholars who concluded Jefferson was likely the father of all Hemings' children.[1][13]

Critics, such as the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS) Scholars Commission (2001), have argued against the TJF report. They have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children. The TJHS report suggested that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph Jefferson could have been the father, and that Hemings may have had multiple partners.[14]

In popular culture

  • Clotel; or, The President's DaughterWilliam Wells Brown, , 1853, Project Gutenberg Etext, University of Vermont
  • Wolf by the Ears (1991) by Ann Rinaldi

See also


  1. ^ a b "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, accessed 22 June 2011, Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF [Thomas Jefferson Foundation] and most historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings."
  2. ^ Philip D. Morgan (1999). "Interracial Sex In the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World c.1700-1820". In Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: history, memory, and civic culture. University of Virginia Press.  
  3. ^ Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Interracial Relationships Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, University of North Carolina Press, 2003
  4. ^ Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, University of Virginia Press, 1997, pp. 210-223
  5. ^ a b Gordon-Reed, An American Controversy, pp. 210-223
  6. ^ In reference to Harriet, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, wrote in 1858: "It was [Jefferson's] principle... to allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed. I remember four instances of this, three young men and one girl, who walked away and staid away--their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves--for they were white enough to pass for white."
  7. ^ Gordon-Reed, An American Controversy, , pp. 210-223
  8. ^ a b Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson From Entirely New MaterialsPierson, Hamilton W., (1862) , Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, pp. 103-111. Includes Mr. Jefferson's Servants, by Captain Edmund Bacon.
  9. ^ Gordon-Reed, An American Controversy
  10. ^ Wetmore, S.F., "Life among the Lowly, No. 1," Pike County Republican, March 13, 1873.
  11. ^ Gordon-Reed, Annette, (1997) Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
  12. ^ Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, University of Virginia Press, 1998 (reprint, with new foreword, first published 1997)
  13. ^ Helen F. M. Leary, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001, pp. 207, 214 - 218 Quote: Leary concluded that "the chain of evidence securely fastens Sally Hemings's children to their father, Thomas Jefferson."
  14. ^ "The Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Issue", 2001, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

External links

  • Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
  • Sally Hemings and Her Children
  • The Memoirs of Madison Hemings
  • The Memoirs of Israel Jefferson
  • Mr. Jefferson's ServantsEdmund Bacon, , memoir, Thomas Jefferson, PBS Frontline


  • Nash, Gary B.; Hodges, Graham R.G. (2008), Friends of Liberty; Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull. A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and A Tragic Betrayal Of Freedom In The New Nation. Published by Basic Books, 387 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016-8810
  • Gordon-Reed, Annette (1997), Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (reprint with new foreword discussing DNA evidence, 1999)
  • Gordon-Reed, Annette, (2008) The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008
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