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Betty Hemings

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Betty Hemings

Domestic servant

Betty Hemings photosgenicomp1368085d4553444839eba0ad9de

perhaps Bermuda Hundred, Henrico County, Virginia

Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings, Harriet Hemings, Beverly Hemings

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Great grandchildren
  John Wayles Jefferson

Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings   (c.1735 – 1807) was an enslaved mixed-race woman in colonial Virginia. She had six children with her master, planter John Wayles, over a 12-year period, including Sally Hemings; they were three-quarters white and, following the condition of their mother, all were enslaved from birth and half-siblings to his daughter Martha Jefferson After Wayles died, the Hemings family and some 120 other slaves were inherited, along with 11,000 acres and £4,000 debt as part of his estate by his daughter Martha and her husband Thomas Jefferson.


More than 75 of Betty's mixed-race children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were enslaved from birth. They worked on Jefferson's plantation of Monticello. Many had higher status positions as chefs, butlers, seamstresses, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and musicians in the household. Jefferson gave some of Betty's enslaved descendants to his sister and daughters as wedding presents, and they lived at other Virginia plantations.

Betty's oldest daughter Mary Hemings became the common-law wife of wealthy merchant Thomas Bell, who purchased her and their two children from Jefferson in 1792 and granted them greater freedoms than other slaves were typically permitted. Mary was the first of several Hemingses to gain freedom before the Civil War. Betty's daughter Sally Hemings is widely believed by historians to have had six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson over a period lasting nearly four decades. Jefferson freed all four of her surviving children when they came of age, two of them by his will. His daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally "her time," an informal freedom allowing her to live with her sons during her last decade.


According to the oral history of her descendants, Betty was the mulatto daughter of Susannah Epps, a full-blood African woman enslaved in Virginia, and Captain John Hemings, an English captain of a trading ship. Madison Hemings in his memoir said the surname of the captain was Hemings; the family tradition was that he had tried to buy Betty when he discovered his daughter had been born. The place of her birth is uncertain (Hemings said it was Williamsburg), but by 1746 Betty was recorded as the property of Francis Eppes IV of the Bermuda Hundred plantation.

Betty's grandson Madison Hemings related the family tradition that Betty was born into slavery as the property of "John Wales" (meaning he owned her mother. The family said Captain Hemings plotted to kidnap his daughter, but Wayles took measures against this.) Wayles may have sold Betty to Francis Eppes and later regained ownership of her when he married Eppes' daughter Martha as his first wife, or else Betty's grandson Madison may have confused some of the chronology.

After John Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746, her father Francis Eppes IV gave the couple Betty and her mother as part of his daughter's wedding settlement. He stipulated that Betty would always belong to Martha and her heirs (rather than being part of her husband's property). Betty was trained as a domestic servant at one of Wayles' plantations.

In the 1750s, Betty Hemings gave birth to the first four of her twelve children, whose father was a slave. The children were:

  • Mary (1753 – after 1834), recognized as a seamstress; she was hired out to Thomas Bell and later purchased by him in 1792; they had a common-law marriage and two children together. He informally freed her and their two children, and willed them his estate in Charlottesville. Jefferson kept her older children at Monticello as slaves (see her page);
  • Martin Hemings, who became the butler at Monticello;
  • Bett or Betsey, called Betty Brown (1759 – after 1831). Already serving as the personal servant of Martha Wayles Skelton, Betty accompanied her to Monticello after Skelton's marriage to Thomas Jefferson. She was among the domestic slaves taken by the Jeffersons to Williamsburg and Richmond when the planter served as governor. During the British invasion of Richmond in 1781, Betty and her sister Mary Hemings were taken as prisoners of war. Betty's two sons were Wormley Hughes (1781–1858) and Burwell Colbert (1783 – c. 1862), who both served Jefferson as adults. Colbert served for decades as the butler and personal valet to Jefferson, who freed him by his will of 1826.)
  • Nance Hemings (1761 – after 1827), in 1785 Jefferson gave her to his sister as a wedding gift. Ten years later he bought her back, as she was a skilled weaver and he had started a cotton factory at Monticello.
  • Betty's master John Wayles was widowed three times. In 1761, after the death of his third wife, rumor has it that Wayles took Betty Hemings as his concubine. She may have had six children with Wayles. If that is true, they were half-siblings to his eldest daughter Martha Wayles, who married Thomas Jefferson. As the historians Philip D. Morgan and Joshua D. Rothman have written, there were numerous such interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families, and Albemarle County and Virginia, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern. Her children by Wayles were:

  • Robert Hemings (1762–1819), who purchased his freedom from Thomas Jefferson in 1794;
  • James Hemings (1765–1801), freed by Jefferson in 1796 after training his brother Peter for three years to replace him as a chef;
  • Thenia Hemings (1767–1795);
  • Critta Hemings Bowles (1769–1850), who married Zachariah Bowles, a free man of color. In 1827, following Jefferson's death, most of his slaves were sold. Critta was purchased and freed by Francis W. Eppes, whom she had cared for as a nurse when he was young, starting in 1802. (His mother was Mary Jefferson Eppes, Jefferson's second daughter, who had died young).
  • Peter Hemings (1770 – after 1834), served as chef to Jefferson after being trained by his brother James; and
  • Sally Hemings (c. 1773 – 1835), who according to rumor was concubine to Jefferson from about 1789. She had six children, four of whom survived and whom Jefferson freed. Sally was with him to his death in 1826, after which she was "given her time" (informal freedom) by his surviving daughter Martha Randolph.
  • After Wayles died in 1773, all eleven members of the Hemings family and 124 other slaves were inherited by his daughter Martha Wayles and her husband Thomas Jefferson. The Jeffersons had the Hemings mixed-race children trained as skilled artisans and domestic servants, giving them privileged positions at the plantation. No member of the Hemings family worked in the fields.

    While resident at Monticello, Betty Hemings had two more children:

  • John Hemings (1776–1833), whose father was Irish workman Joseph Neilson; John was freed in Jefferson's will after decades of service as a skilled ironworker; and
  • Lucy Hemings (1777–1786), whose father was believed to be a slave.
  • In the last decade of her life, Betty Hemings had her own cabin at Monticello, from 1795 to 1807. She raised produce and sold it to the Jefferson household: items such as cabbages, strawberries, and chickens. Her former cabin site is being investigated as an archeological site. It is expected to yield new information about the daily lives of the enslaved African Americans at Monticello.

    John Wayles

    Historians have tended to accept the account that Betty Hemings and John Wayles had children together. Her last six children were multiracial, with three-quarters white ancestry. As is the case of many relationships between slaveholders and slaves, documentary evidence is slight. Betty was mentioned in John Wayles' will, which some take as an indication of a relationship. However, the marriage contract between John Wayles and Martha Eppes stipulated that Betty, her mother, and their descendants, should go to Martha Wayles and her heirs forever. According to contemporary accounts, some of Betty's children (including Sally) were nearly white in appearance. Other support is found in private letters from the first decade of the 19th century, which later became public.

    The slave community at Monticello was well aware of the relationship. In 1873 Betty's grandson Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, both former slaves at Monticello, published newspaper interviews which said Wayles was the father of Sally Hemings and several other of Betty's children.


    Betty Hemings has numerous descendants. Some of note are:

    From the family line of daughter Sally Hemings
    Madison Hemings - 2xgreat-grandson Frederick Madison Roberts, first African-American state politician in California;Eston Hemings Jefferson - great-grandson John Wayles Jefferson, accepted as white and served as colonel in the regular Army in the Civil War and wealthy cotton broker; 2xgreat-grandson Walter Beverly Pearson, white industrialist; John Weeks Jefferson, white descendant whose DNA matched that of the Jefferson male line in 1998 test.
    From the family line of daughter Mary Hemings
    James Monroe TrotterWilliam Monroe Trotter, activist for civil rights and abolition in Boston

    Fountain Hughes was a descendant of Wormley Hughes, one of Betty's grandsons who worked for Jefferson at Monticello. At the age of 101, when living in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949, Fountain Hughes gave what is the last surviving recorded interview of a former slave. It is available online through the World Digital Library and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.


    Betty Hemings Wikipedia

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