The family tree

Since I got Sally Hemings’s relationships with the Jefferson family off by a generation, I thought I might as well look her up and get it straight in my head. From the Monticello site:

Sally Hemings,[1] whose given name was probably Sarah, was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. According to her son, Madison Hemings, her father was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles. There are no known portraits of her. Sally Hemings became Thomas Jefferson’s property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother to Monticello by 1776. As a child she was probably a nursemaid to Jefferson’s daughter Mary (slave girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations).

Her father was John Wayles, the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha – so she was Martha Wayles Jefferson’s half-sister. She was Jefferson’s half-sister-in-law. She was the aunt of their daughters. She was a close relative…but of course as a slave, she wasn’t treated as a relative. She was treated as a slave.

That’s how plantation life was. Lots of slaves were close relatives of their owners and their owners’ families, but they weren’t treated as relatives.

It’s such a bizarre way to live. Fanny Kemble wrote about it in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation.


  1. Silentbob says

    Another detail I found discombobulating when looking this story up on Wikipedia is that apparently Sally “passed”. It says, “Sally was three-quarters white and strikingly similar in looks and voice to Jefferson’s late wife”. And after being freed, following Jefferson’s death, “[Sally and her sons] were counted as free whites in the 1830 census”.

  2. says

    Ellen Craft was so good at passing that she used it to escape slavery. She had light skin, but pulled off a convincing enough act that she managed to pose as a young white man traveling with his slave valet (her husband William) and got all the way from Georgia to Boston with him. The pose was so good that on a train in Virginia she made the acquaintance of an older man and his young daughter who were very keen to have this fine young man call on them when next he came through the state. She was, of course, a blood relation to one of her owners.

    The Crafts’ narrative is online online. It has the usual horrors, albeit many of them not quite so grotesque as one might find elsewhere. They were emphatic that they stole themselves because they didn’t want to raise children in slavery and face the risk of their family’s dismemberment rather than from any particular acts of cruelty by their owners. The inclusion of lengthy passages from law books, news articles, and letters from third parties was fairly normal for the time but makes for a very digressive read at some points. The idea, of course, was to emphasize that they did not make these things up.

    Looking at preying on slave women, who had their value set by their “increase” as much or more than any work they could do, from the other side of the color line you end up with things like Nathan Bedford Forrest (the Tennessee Klansman who made his fortune trading slaves) advertising that he had Frederick Douglass’ daughter (He didn’t.) and Douglass would not buy her, so he was offering her to the general public. He stressed that she was young and pretty for exactly the reason you’re thinking. Despicable guy.

    Mary Boykin Chesnut’s comments on the issue, while more refined, are telling. She described it as living “surrounded by prostitutes” and

    like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives & their concubines, & their Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children – & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends to think

  3. Pen says

    It’s also interesting if you consider her known descendants, who identified as both white and black. But the son and daughter who were ‘allowed to escape’, that option was probably chosen to allow them to integrate with white society (which couldn’t have happened if they’d been formally emancipated). It’s likely their descendants, even their spouses, never learned of their ancestry.

  4. says

    I read the Craft’s account of their escape. The description of the many biblical justifications given for slavery. The casual cruelty and inhumanity. Horrifying.

  5. says

    The various accounts of half-whatever and ex-slaves who could “pass” is a fig-leaf over the nasty fact that there was a huge amount of rape taking place as part of slavery. Apparently a lot of racist slave-owners thought slaves weren’t good enough to treat like human beings, but they sure were good enough to rape. It’s hard to argue that being owned by someone, you can meaningfully consent to anything. Look how casually we blow by:
    According to her son, Madison Hemings, her father was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles
    So she was the child of rape by Jefferson’s father in law, and Jefferson raped her in turn. Such nice people.

  6. Pen says

    @5 – Marcus Ragnum – a reading of all the available slave narratives and other documentation would call for a more nuanced view. As you say, the situation of being owned by someone makes it hard to consent meaningfully, and for similar reasons, marital rape, as we envision it today, was absolutely rife. Nevertheless, there was rape, and then there were people living as long-term partners in all kinds of complex situations (including where the enslaved partner was actually owned by a third party). The abolition movement tended to emphasize the awfulness of slavery in terms of its ability to break up those families and leave widows and orphans extremely vulnerable, and regarded it as a different thing from the plain sexual exploitation of slaves (which they also had a lot to say about). Then again, as already noted, virtually all historical partnerships were coerced – it’s something we have to choose how to tackle when we look at history.

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