Sally Hemings bore President Thomas Jefferson six children, yet his legitimate descendants tried their best to discredit her story.

ittle is known about the full story of Sally Hemings. Unfortunately, that is the case for the majority of slaves born in America. The story of Sally Hemings is preserved mostly in primary sources from Monticello — the plantation where she lived — and the memories recorded by her son Madison Hemings. Hemings herself could not leave behind any written records as most slaves could neither read nor write, thus any memories from her son were told to him orally and, therefore, can never be fully corroborated.

Sally Hemings’ Early Life

Hemings was born around 1773 although the exact date of her birth is unknown as are the identities of her real parents. A longstanding rumor holds that Hemings is the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave, and John Wayles, her master. Madison Hemings claimed that his grandmother and her master had six children together which set in motion a cycle that would continue into another generation.

Wayles had a daughter with his wife Martha who would, in turn, go on to wed the founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Madison Hemings recorded: “On the death of John Wayles, my grandmother, his concubine, and her children by him fell to Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, and consequently became the property of Thomas Jefferson.”

Sally Hemings was just a toddler when she first came into the possession of Thomas Jefferson. If the stories of her parentage are true, then Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, adding another bizarre layer to their already convoluted relationship. Little else is known about her early life, other than that she was “described as industrious” and looked after Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria. The few physical descriptions that exist of Sally Hemings almost exclusively describe her as “light colored and decidedly good looking.”

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