Birthday: May 21, 1808
Died At Age: 47
Sun Sign: Gemini
Also Known As: Eston Hemings Jefferson
Born in: Monticello, Virginia, United States
Famous as: Slave
Spouse/Ex-: Julia Ann (m. 1832)
father: Thomas Jefferson
mother: Sally Hemings,
children: Anna Wayles Jefferson, Beverly Jefferson, John Wayles Jefferson
Died on: January 3, 1856
U.S. State: Virginia
Who was Eston Hemings?
Eston Hemings was an African-American slave, born to one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, Sally Hemings, and believed to be fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Based on his brother Madison's memoir, contemporary newspaper accounts, entries in 'Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book', as well as census and property records, historians have maintained for a long time that Sally Hemings children were fathered by none other than Thomas Jefferson. However, partly due to the attempts by Eston Hemings and his descendants to hide their lineage and pass as white people, in order to escape racial discrimination, there have been controversies regarding the identity of his father. It was farther complicated by later members of the Jefferson family, such as Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who claimed that Peter Carr fathered Sally Hemings' children. However, one male descendant of Eston, who had gone through DNA test during the end of the 20th century, matched the rare haplotype of the Thomas Jefferson male line, while having no match with the Carr male line.
Childhood & Early Life
Eston Hemings Jefferson was born to Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave, on May 21, 1808 in Monticello, Virginia. DNA evidence in 1998 supported the widely accepted conclusion that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
His mother was the youngest daughter of widowed planter John Wayles and his mixed race slave, Betty Hemings, and therefore, was three-quarters European in ancestry. She was also the step-sister of Jefferson’s cousin, and later wife, Martha Wayles.
Martha Wayles, who suffered from ill health and died young at the age of 33, made Jefferson promise never to marry again before she died. He later became involved in a relationship with his 16-year-old slave Sally Hemings, whom he had taken to Paris with him, along with her brother James Hemings.
Eston Hemings was the youngest of his mother’s six children, all of whom are considered to be fathered by Jefferson. Four of the siblings survived till adulthood, including his brothers Beverley and Madison, and his sister Harriet.
Even though he was born a slave, he was allowed to stay around the Jefferson household and was required to perform light duties like running errands. At the age of 14, he, like his older brothers Beverley and Madison, started learning woodwork from his uncle John Hemmings, who was the master carpenter at Monticello. Following in the footsteps of his father, who regularly played the violin when he was young, he and his brothers also learned to play the instrument at a young age.
According to some sources, Sally Hemings, who became pregnant with her first child while visiting Paris, agreed to return to the US only after Jefferson promised to free her children when they came of age. Interestingly, he did not pursue Beverley and Harriet when they escaped at the age of 24 and 21 respectively, and left instructions in his will to free Eston and Madison when they came of age.
In 1827, one year after Thomas Jefferson’s death, Eston, Madison and their three uncles were freed according to Jefferson's will, which also allowed them to stay in Virginia after being freed, unlike most freed slaves. While Jefferson did not formally leave any instructions to emancipate Sally, his daughter Martha informally allowed her to live as a free woman by giving her "her time".
In 1830, the two brothers left Monticello with their mother and purchased a lot in Charlottesville, building a two-story brick and wood house there. Due to their predominant European ancestry, they were legally white under the Virginia law of the time, and were recorded as white people in the 1830 census.
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Life After Emancipation
Eston Hemings, and his elder brother, Madison, began working as woodworkers and carpenters in Charlottesville, Virginia after relocating there following their emancipation. Both of them married free women of color and lived in their house in Charlottesville with their mother till her death in 1835.
In 1832, Eston married Julia Ann Isaacs, the daughter of David Isaacs, a successful Jewish merchant from Germany, and Nancy West, the daughter of former slave Priscilla and her white master Thomas West. The couple had three children together, John Wayles Hemings, born in 1835; Anne Wayles Hemings, born in 1836; and Beverly Frederick Hemings, born in 1838.
Following their mother's death, Madison continued to live in their Charlottesville house, but Eston and his family moved to Chillicothe, a town in southwest Ohio, a free state, in 1837. The first two of his three children were born in Charlottesville, while the third was born in Chillicothe.
He used his musical skills to build a successful career as a musician there, playing the violin and fiddle. He also led a dance band which became popular throughout southern Ohio, reportedly due to his "personal appearance and gentlemanly manners".
Despite having a successful career, the Black Laws of the state denied him the right to vote or to hold office, while his children were excluded from public schools. His daughter Anna was introduced as the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson while she attended Manual Labor School, at Albany, a village in Athens County, Ohio.
After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, the towns along the Underground Railroad were overrun by slave catchers who often captured and sold free people into slavery as well. To ensure the safety of his family, Eston Hemings moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1852 and dropped the black surname Hemings in favor of the white Jefferson surname.
While his elder brother Madison lived the rest of his life as an African-American, Eston followed his two other siblings Beverley and Harriet, who recognized themselves as European-American after escaping slavery. He died at the age of 47 on January 3, 1856 in Madison, Wisconsin.
His decision to pass as white helped his children get proper education. His eldest son, who identified himself as John Wayles Jefferson, was the owner of the American House hotel in Madison and later served as an officer in the US army, leading the Wisconsin 8th Infantry.
His daughter, Anne Wayles, Jefferson married Albert T. Pearson, a carpenter and Civil War captain, and gave birth to son Walter Beverly Pearson, who later became a successful industrialist in Chicago. His youngest child, Beverly Frederick Jefferson, took over the responsibility of the hotel after his elder brother joined army, and later followed him into military service by becoming a Civil War veteran of the Union Army.
Despite the fact that Eston Hemings and his siblings were generally considered to be the children of President Thomas Jefferson, his oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, had misled historian Henry Randall by providing false information. Presumably to deflect attention from his grandfather, he had stated that his uncle and Jefferson's nephew Peter Carr was the father of Sally Hemings' children.
After biographer Fawn Brodie published the book 'Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History' in 1974, one of Eston's descendants became curious about her lineage and contacted the author. Subsequently, a male member of the her family, John Weeks Jefferson, matched the Y-chromosome of the Thomas Jefferson male line in a DNA test done in 1998, thus conclusively refuting links to the Carr line.