The Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study
as told by
Herbert Barger, Jefferson Family Historian
February 12, 1999
Revised August 30, 2000
I would like to address the issue of the Thomas Jefferson DNA Study and give my first hand account regarding the misleading headline in the science journal Nature dated November 5, 1998. It has had a very negative impact on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and has raised many concerns regarding the rights of some Jefferson/Hemings’ descendants.
Before I discuss the current events surrounding the DNA study, I would like to provide a little historical background that might be useful in understanding this study.
Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743 and lived on a plantation in Virginia known as Monticello. His wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782. Jefferson served as Ambassador to France from 1784 until 1789, when he returned home. While in France, he sent for his daughter, Polly, to be accompanied by Isabell, an older woman. That slave was unable to accompany Polly and, unbeknownst to Jefferson, Sally Hemings, who was around 14 years of age, was sent instead. Her brother James had been taken to France earlier with Jefferson to learn french cooking. Sally and her brother also returned to the United States with Jefferson and according to her son, Madison Hemings, she was pregnant when she returned and gave birth to a son about 1790. This son’s name was Tom who later took the name Tom Woodson. Sally had more children, Harriet born 1795 (died 1797), Beverly born 1798, a daughter born in 1799 (died in 1800), Harriet born in 1801, Madison born in 1805, and Eston born in 1808 when Sally was 35 and Thomas Jefferson was 65.
James Callender was a reporter for a Richmond newspaper, The Recorder, who became a bitter enemy of Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson refused to appoint him as Postmaster in Richmond. In retaliation, Callender attacked President Jefferson in 1802 with the accusation that he had a child, Tom Woodson, by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. This accusation has been the source of controversy ever since. Callender has been described by some historians as one of the worst scandalmongers and character assassins in American History. Despite the accusations, Jefferson was reelected to a second term as President of the United States.
In 1997, an idea was conceived that might help shed some light on this long running rumor. This idea did not originate with the man that most people are led by the media to believe. Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired pathologist, did help locate donors, did draw blood samples and did personally deliver the samples to England, but the idea began with Mrs. Winifred Bennett, a friend of Dr. Foster’s. She was convinced that by using the Y chromosome, they could prove or disprove the rumors and accusations that Thomas Jefferson fathered the child(ren) of Sally Hemings. It was later realized that the study would be able to disprove the accusations but would not be able to prove the accusations.
The study results and additional research material would be used for a book that she was in the process of writing. She asked Dr. Foster, a good friend, to help her perform the study. She would later come to realize, his actions and desire for fame, would end their relationship and the book she was working on.
The plan was to compare the DNA of descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Eston Hemings, Thomas Woodson descendants and the Carr brothers, Peter and Samuel by using the Y chromosome found in DNA that remains virtually unchanged from father to son. In order to perform this study, they needed to find descendants who came only from the male line and therefore, descendants of Thomas’ daughters would not be suitable. The theory was that if you could find a male line descendant of Thomas Jefferson whose DNA Y chromosome matched the DNA Y chromosome of a male line descendant of Eston Hemings and Thomas Woodson, then that would indicate that Thomas Jefferson’s DNA Y chromosome had been passed down through a relationship with Sally Hemings. However, this theory was invalid because a match would not specify which Jefferson, only some Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson had no male children by his wife that survived into adulthood and therefore no male line descendants. However, they were able to continue with the study by finding descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson, who would carry the same Y chromosome as his father and his father’s father. So the DNA Y chromosome found in male line descendants of Field Jefferson would be the same as male line descendants of Thomas, if he had any.
The reason for locating a descendant of the Carr brothers was because many people, including Jefferson descendants, believe that one or both of them was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings’ children. However, there is no indication as to which child(ren) they were supposed to have fathered. For this purpose, they were able to find descendants of the paternal grandfather of Peter and Samuel Carr.
As mentioned earlier, the theory that Mrs. Bennett and Dr. Foster were working to prove or disprove the accusations was invalid. Thomas Jefferson had a brother named Randolph who lived nearby and had five sons. He also had a cousin named George who would carry the same Y chromosome. In the event a match was to be found, there is absolutely no way to tell from which Jefferson it came since it could have come from any one of the eight Jeffersons. There is no way to prove using DNA, that Thomas Jefferson himself fathered any child(ren) by Sally Hemings. Some people might argue that Jefferson DNA combined with historical information (rumors and oral history) point to Thomas, however, there are arguments to counter this theory.
Mrs. Bennett and Dr. Foster contacted the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) to ask for help in locating descendants of Thomas Jefferson and the Carr brothers. The TJMF referred them to me since I had been studying Jefferson Family history for more than 25 years. Much of my genealogical research has been donated to various libraries, the Monticello Association as well as the TJMF.
I had become interested in family genealogy shortly after I retired from 27 years of military service. After my mother-in-law told me that she was somehow related to Thomas Jefferson, and after much research, I discovered that my wife, Evelyn, is a first cousin, six generations removed, from Thomas Jefferson. She descends from the line of Field Jefferson, Thomas’ uncle, whose descendants donated blood to be used in the study.
I agreed to assist Dr. Foster after he contacted me and provided the names of several people who descended from Field Jefferson. I was also able to provide the name of someone who could give information on Sally Hemings’ descendants and I continued to provide additional research material throughout the course of the study.
Mrs. Bennett spent a lot of time searching through many old books and newspapers to locate the Woodson descendants and searched obituaries to locate some of the Carrs. When Dr. Foster made initial contact with the donors, they were not too eager to participate. I then made several calls to some of them to encourage their participation in this very important study.
With donors now consenting to give blood samples, the two were off visiting descendants, Dr. Foster to draw the samples and Mrs. Bennett to interview descendants for her book. There were nineteen subjects which included five descendants of two sons of Field Jefferson, three descendants of three sons of the Carr brothers’ grandfather, five descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson, alleged first son of Sally, one descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally’s last child and five control subjects. The samples were then handcarried to England in December 1997 by Dr. Foster, to a laboratory for testing and comparison.
Later on, Mrs. Bennett and Dr. Foster discussed how and when to report their findings. Mrs. Bennett didn’t want anything published until her book was published first. She already had an agent who was enthusiastic about her book, but Dr. Foster was extremely eager to publish the results as soon as they were known. On several occasions he tried to convince her that publishing the results in a scientific journal would not hurt her book at all since nobody reads those journals anyway. In November 1998, much to her surprise, Mrs. Bennett read in the newspaper that he had published the results in Nature. He gave her little credit for her contribution to the study. She questioned why he would do such a thing by saying “Gene, what is it that you want? Do you want money?” He said “No, I want fame”. A very hurt Mrs. Bennett said to me, “Well, he was just willing to sacrifice me for his fame”. Needless to say, a friendship was lost.
While waiting for the results from the laboratory, I continued sending Dr. Foster historical information. Some of this information related to Thomas’ brother, Randolph who lived about twenty miles away, his five sons and other male Jeffersons who lived at or near Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. One of Randolph’s sons, Isham, was “reared” by Jefferson according to the History of Todd Co., Kentucky. He responded by saying, “Thanks very much for the information about Isham and Randolph Jefferson. This is exactly the kind of information that will have to be considered if it turns out that there is Jefferson Y-chromosomal DNA in Hemings descendants. The DNA evidence in itself can’t be conclusive for a variety of reasons. I look forward to the details you are sending.” Dr. Foster indicated both interest and appreciation for this information and acknowledged its importance to the study. We both agreed that this information would have to be considered along with the laboratory results on the DNA. I also suggested to him that we should meet, along with other historians, and discuss the DNA findings and related historical information to determine how the results should be presented to the public. Remember that the tests could disprove the allegations. If there were no DNA match in the descendants’ blood samples that would indicate that none of the Jeffersons fathered any of the children of Sally Hemings. However, if there were a DNA match between the descendants of Jefferson and the descendants of Sally Hemings, the test could not conclusively identify any specific person as being the father.
In this case, there were many other male Jeffersons who could have fathered the children of Sally Hemings. I didn’t want the public to come to the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was the father without them knowing other facts about the issue existed. I was worried that most people were unaware of Thomas’ brother Randolph, his five sons and other Jefferson male relatives who would have the same DNA as Thomas. Dr. Foster agreed that a meeting to discuss the presentation of the results would be a good idea. He received the results of the laboratory test in June 1998.
In late October 1998, Dr. Foster informed me that the results of the DNA test would be published in the next few days in the journal Nature, a science magazine published in England. There hadn’t been any meeting between Dr. Foster, others or myself (at least to my knowledge) to discuss the presentation of the results. The next week, Nature contained an article written by Dr. Foster with the title “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child”. The article contained the following findings. There was no match between the DNA of descendants of Jefferson and Woodson. This finding was extremely important. It meant that Thomas Jefferson (or any other Jefferson) did not father Thomas Woodson as stated in Callender’s 1802 article. There was no match between the DNA of Woodson, Hemings and Carr descendants. This meant that neither of the Carr brothers fathered Thomas Woodson or Eston Hemings. However, it is still conceivable that they could have fathered one or more of Sally’s other children. A match was found between the DNA of descendants of Field Jefferson and descendants of Eston Hemings. This only means that any one of the Jefferson men previously mentioned, could have fathered Eston Hemings, but doesn’t indicate which Jefferson.
In the article, Dr. Foster says that the purpose of the study was to prove or disprove the Carr brothers being the father. Since the Carr brothers were eliminated, the simplest explanation is that Thomas fathered Eston Hemings. This may have been the simplest explanation, but to offer it as “the” explanation without explaining the rest of the story gives a grossly incomplete story that results in an inaccurate conclusion. Dr. Foster’s only caveat was that the DNA study was not conclusive. However, without explaining why the study was not conclusive, that there were other Jeffersons with access to Sally, leaves the reader with “the simplest explanation”.
Needless to say I was extremely upset with the article and its misleading title. It implied that Thomas Jefferson was, as a matter of fact, the father of Eston Hemings. I had given Dr. Foster significant amounts of historical information that needed to be considered by everyone before any conclusion was reached. I could not believe that Dr. Foster would have allowed this article to be published with this title.
I later discovered that Dr. Foster and Nature negotiated the headline for the simple DNA findings. Dr. Foster knew the title for the article would be “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child”. These are mighty powerful words to place on the name of President Thomas Jefferson and especially with no conclusive proof to back them up. Dr. Foster had previously informed me that, “Since I (Dr. Foster) am not a professional historian I don’t have the training and skills needed to evaluate one item of historical evidence in the context of other evidence. So, I will continue to leave that to the historian and will read their opinions and conclusions with interest.” Why then, did he allow the conclusion, based on the DNA analysis, that Thomas Jefferson was the biological father of Eston Hemings? He knew for a fact that the DNA analysis alone could not conclusively prove that it was Thomas and knew of the existence of a number of other male Jeffersons that should have been considered.
None of the additional information I had provided him had been included in the article, which would have made it clear that Thomas was only one of eight or more Jeffersons who may have fathered Eston Hemings. I believed, based on my many years of research, that it was possibly Randolph or one of his sons, Isham, who fathered Eston. Additional research leaves me even more convinced that it is Randolph. My concern was that the public would see the headline “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child” and believe it to be historically and scientifically correct. I asked Dr. Foster why he allowed the article to run as it had and why no meetings had been held. He said that Nature had put a rush on it, that they had placed limitations on how long the article would be and that they were the ones who made up the title. Nature stated that Dr. Foster knew very well what the title of the article was going to be.
To make matters worse, Drs. Joseph Ellis and Eric Lander wrote an accompanying article accepting the premise that Thomas Jefferson did indeed have an affair with Sally Hemings. I couldn’t understand why Nature, a scientific journal, would be interested in publishing an article of an historical nature, particularly when they were placing limitations on how long a scientific article would be. Drs. Ellis and Lander state “Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.” How about the choice of such strong words as “confirms” and “indeed”? The public can easily be confused with this new DNA science and will actually believe the scientists and an award-winning historian, who had previously believed Thomas innocent of these charges. Professor Ellis had taken a 180-degree turn from his former beliefs on this issue. He previously stated, “In my judgment, the prospect of the relationship being true is remote.” He is also quoted as saying, “Not because they say he was a gentleman and gentlemen do not do that sort of thing…But based on six years studying Jefferson, I believe his deepest sensual urges were directed at buildings rather than women.” It should be noted that Professor Ellis didn’t mention Randolph and sons in his Jefferson book and told me by phone on November 14, 1998, after the article had been published, that he knew nothing of Thomas’ brother and nephews.
Remember there was NO Jefferson/Woodson (alleged first child) match, thus, no long running “love affair”. Even Professor Ellis, writing in The New Republic, December 31, 1998, said there was no evidence whatsoever that the Jefferson/Hemings liaison was a romance. He further makes reference to an article written by Professor Sean Wilentz (who had recruited Professor Ellis to sign the full page article of historians in the New York Times of October 30, 1998), in which he says that Professor Wilentz’s “Jefferson-Hemings’ romance’ strikes me as fairy-tale stuff of the sappiest sort” and he further states, “Spinning the story that way plays to the popular craving for a miniseries version of history…etc.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy”, didn’t mention Randolph and sons in her book either. Fawn Brodie, author of “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History”, mentioned Randolph as a ten year old and once as an adult and did not name any other children. She even said Randolph was “less than mediocre in talent and native intelligence.”
I have to wonder whether these historians really knew of Randolph and his sons or not. It has been asserted that no one offered Randolph and his sons as an alternative to Thomas until after the DNA study results were published and that they are now being offered as a desperate attempt to defend Thomas. I did in fact provide this information well in advance of the published results to Dr. Foster. The very information that Dr. Foster said would be very important if there were to be a Jefferson/Hemings match.
Randolph seemed to be a private, non-political, fun-loving farmer who must have been well known by Jefferson’s slave, Isaac, because years later he recalls that “Old Master’s brother, Mass Randall was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn’t much more sense than Isaac.” “Jefferson at Monticello” by James A. Bear, Jr., University Press of Va. 1967. It was probably Randolph that taught the Hemings men to play the fiddle, because Thomas was occupied in too many other pursuits for his country and at his two homes. He sometimes complained that he couldn’t get to sleep because of the fiddle playing and noise in the slave quarters. I don’t suppose there would be any reason for Randolph to visit Monticello except when Thomas would come home.
I have provided this information on Randolph and also have additional information on Thomas’s first cousin, once removed, George Jefferson, Jr., educated by Thomas, his agent and manager in Richmond and who must have come to Monticello to discuss business when Thomas came home. Could this possibly explain why Sally became pregnant only when Thomas was at Monticello? Yet, some refuse to acknowledge the importance of all the above information. I feel this information is as plausible as any other oral or documented evidence presented. I’ll admit it does “muddy the water” a bit to know of seven other Jeffersons, any one of which could have fathered Eston Hemings.
I am just asking that it be written in history books for our future generations to learn, that “A” Jefferson fathered Easton Hemings. It cannot be PROVEN CONCLUSIVELY that Thomas was the father. With all the “circumstantial evidence” that supports numerous possibilities of who fathered Sally’s children, I do not know how anyone can feel so adamant that Thomas had to be the father.
The American scientific journal, Science, came forward January 8, 1999, in an excellent article stating that, “But now the authors of the report say the evidence for that is less than conclusive.” They make it abundantly clear that Dr. Foster says that the data establishes only that Thomas Jefferson was one of several candidates for the paternity of Eston Hemings. Science said that the Jefferson data has taken on a political spin and that Mr. Reed Irvine, Accuracy in Media (AIM), claims that the news media purposefully distorted the results of Dr. Foster’s study. Also, in Annette Gordon-Reed’s new updated version of her book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” that includes the DNA Authors Response states on page X, “The DNA test does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson.”
My study indicates to me that Thomas Jefferson was NOT the father of Eston or any other Hemings child. The DNA study along with historical information, indicates that Randolph is possibly the father of Eston and maybe the others. We do not know. Randolph, named for his maternal Randolph family, was a widower and between wives when shortly after his wife’s death, Sally became pregnant with her first child, Harriet I. It had been almost six years since her arriving at Monticello from Paris, thus, we can see that there was no “long term love affair” between Thomas and Sally. She continued having children until 1808 when Eston was born. Randolph Jefferson would marry his second wife the next year, 1809, and would have a child, John, born about 1810. Three of Sally Hemings’ children, Harriet, Beverly and Eston (the latter two not common names), were given names of the Randolph family who had earlier owned Randolph’s plantation, “Snowden”, and who had received it as his inheritance.
Randolph was invited by Thomas to come to Monticello to visit him and Randolph’s twin sister, who had arrived one day earlier. This was in August 1807, exactly nine months prior to Eston’s birth. Randolph was also present at Monticello on May 27, 1808, exactly six days after Eston’s birth on May 21, 1808. He may have come to see his son, Eston and Thomas even drafted Randolph’s will on that date.
These facts must get out before the public in order to counteract all the media coverage that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of fathering Eston Hemings, based upon the original misleading Nature article headline.
Let it also be known, that President Jefferson admitted to his Attorney General and his Secretary of the Navy, that in his youth he visited a neighbor lady, Mrs. Walker, in an inappropriate manner and admitted it’s incorrectness; however, that was the only charge against him founded in truth. This is a blanket statement of innocence of any other charges made against him.
I encourage the media to come forth and gather the facts and present them to a most deserving public. I will be happy to provide more information if desired. Our children’s history must not be tarnished with inaccurate, misleading and incomplete information, especially when other information is available but is being interpreted to fit today’s agendas. Thomas Jefferson must not be branded a hypocrite, child rapist, deadbeat dad and other derogatory names just because all the information available was not considered in a scientific study.
After the articles appeared in Nature, November 5, 1998 issue, the media went into a frenzy. Many newspapers and television news programs were reporting that Thomas Jefferson had conclusively fathered a child by his slave. Within weeks, most of the world, believed this to be fact, based on the headline in Nature. Dr. Foster wrote a follow-up article that appeared in the January 7,1999 issue of Nature that explained how the DNA tests were not conclusive. This article received very little attention. The mainstream press did very little reporting on this report.
I believe that if the results of the DNA study had been properly presented, this issue wouldn’t be nearly as controversial as it is today. There is a great deal of historical evidence to consider before making a decision one way or the other and even then, we cannot know with complete certainty. The TJMF issued a report in January 2000 concluding that Thomas Jefferson probably fathered one if not all of Sally Hemings’ children. The truth is, they don’t know.
It is because of this inaccurate and misleading headline in the Nature article, the subjective conclusions reached by the TJMF and the denial of valuable information to the public that a Scholars Commission was established. This commission, composed of over a dozen prominent professors and numerous specialists in various fields, has begun an exhaustive study of all information surrounding this issue. The public is entitled to a full and detailed report of their findings, which could be issued as early as January 2001.
Jefferson Family Historian
Ft. Washington, Maryland