The life and accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson are an essential part of American history and provide valuable insight into the early days of the United States. But while most people know Jefferson for his time in the White House, his life at his Virginia residence is what truly defines this legendary figure.
For centuries, the personal history of this famous Founding Father has been shrouded in rumors and conspiracy. Now, thanks to a recent discovery at Jefferson’s permanent home, we finally know the shocking truth…and it’s sure to change American history forever.
The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is easily one of the most recognizable figures in American history. But there are things about him that have long gone unexplained.
At the age of 26, Jefferson began construction on a 5,000-acre plantation that would go on to serve as his permanent residence until his death in 1826. Located just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, the plantation was dubbed Monticello, which is Italian for “Little Mountain”.
While Monticello quickly grew to become a top producer of tobacco and wheat, it also gained notoriety for employing hundreds of slaves. With this in mind, a group of historians decided to delve deeper into the history of Monticello…
The various research and restoration efforts undertaken at Monticello over the years have collectively become known as the Mountaintop Project. It is through this $35-million initiative that historians hope to bring transparency to the plantation’s questionable past.
In 2017, archaeologists began an extensive excavation of Monticello’s main grounds. More specifically, they believed that the foundation of Jefferson’s original home (and the items within) was buried beneath the structure that stands on the grounds today.
Shortly after the excavation began, archaeologists uncovered what was once the original mansion’s kitchen. This unexpected find lead to the further excavation of the area, which resulted in the discovery of what was known as the Jefferson mansion’s South Wing.
As historians explored the South Wing, they came upon a peculiar set of slave quarters. After inspecting the area, they were stunned to learn that these quarters had once belonged to the notorious Sally Hemings.
According to the history books, Hemings wasn’t just an ordinary slave: she was actually the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, conceived from an affair between Martha’s father, John Wayles, and one of his slaves, Betty Hemings.
As part of Martha’s inheritance, Hemings and her family came to Monticello in 1773, when Sally was just an infant. Described as “mighty near white” by a fellow slave, Hemings’ mixed race lineage still wasn’t enough to free her from the bonds of servitude. Or so she thought.
In 1787, a 14-year-old Hemings accompanied young Mary Jefferson to Paris where her father was serving as the United States’ minister to France. It is here that many historians believe that Jefferson and Hemings began a romantic relationship.
As Sally began having children, rumors swirled throughout Virginian society about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave. Not only were Sally’s children considerably more light-skinned than she was, but a few of them even looked suspiciously like her master…
A journalist who had been slighted by Jefferson years earlier published a scathing accusation in the Richmond Recorder in an attempt to discredit Jefferson’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate. Jefferson denied the rumors, of course, and was elected President in 1801.
Although Jefferson never admitted to his affair with Hemings, he did eventually free all four of her children. It has also been confirmed that following Jefferson’s death, Hemings was granted her freedom by Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha, and went on to live as a free woman with her two sons, Madison and Eston.
Eston Hemings went on to play a key role in solidifying the claim that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children during a 1990 DNA study. After comparing DNA taken from descendants of both Jefferson and Sally Hemings, scientists conclusively determined that, at the very least, Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings.
So how does the discovery at Monticello relate to the controversy surrounding Jefferson and Hemings? Well, after historians consulted the blueprints of Jefferson’s original home, they found that Jefferson’s bedroom was actually connected to Hemings’ quarters.
Physical evidence discovered at the site also confirmed that Hemings maintained a lifestyle that was significantly better than that of her fellow slaves. Rather than living in cramped shacks, Hemings had her own quarters and other special treatment.
Since the discovery of Hemings’ quarters, special efforts have been made to restore the entirety of the South Wing as a tourist attraction dedicated to Hemings’ life. For the first time, there will be a space at Monticello to commemorate this previously unknown woman’s place in American history.
The Mountaintop Project has also made a dedicated effort to teach the visitors of Monticello about the lives and struggles of the slaves who resided there during Jefferson’s lifetime. With these new revelations about Hemings coming to light, several tours have also been added that shed light on Sally and her family.
As historians and curators work to restore Monticello to its former glory, the story of Sally Hemings has become an integral part of the shaping of Jefferson’s narrative. It is their hope that by incorporating Hemings’ existence into Jefferson’s story, the two can finally hold a permanent place in history together.
Now that the rumors have been confirmed, does this change your opinion of the Founding Father?
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