Jefferson's Secret Life
Did the author of the Declaration of Independence take a slave for his mistress? DNA tests say yes
He started poking around. A biology professor at the university passed along word of recent advances in mapping techniques for the Y chromosome. That was fine, but where to get samples to test? Foster would have to find male-line Jefferson descendants. But Jefferson's only legitimate son died in infancy. (Jefferson's wife, Martha, gave birth to six children, but only two lived to adulthood.) That left Foster with only two Jefferson male lines to research: that of the president's brother, Randolph, and of their paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. The Randolph line looked promising at first. But it turned out that the line of direct male descendants had expired sometime in either the 1920s or 1930s.
Foster turned to the Field line. First he sought out Herbert Barger, a respected Jefferson family genealogist. Barger agreed to help. By early 1997, Foster had the names and phone numbers of seven living descendants of Field Jefferson. He fired off letters to all of them. Only one wrote back. So Barger intervened on Foster's behalf, and five of Field's descendants agreed to cooperate, allowing Foster to draw blood samples.
That was one part of the equation. But if he were to obtain a definitive Y chromosome match, Foster would need DNA from a male who had good reason to believe he was a descendant of Jefferson and Hemings. There was one obvious place to look: among the 1,400 members of the Thomas Woodson Family Association, an organization of African-Americans scattered across the country. The group is named for Hemings's first son, Tom, the child apparently conceived in Paris. Byron Woodson agreed to cooperate with Foster. But then his father, Col. John Woodson, put a stop to it. He didn't want to be messing around with subjects like illegitimacy, he said.
The Woodsons had maintained for nearly two centuries that they were descendants of Jefferson, but other branches of the family pooh-poohed the claim. Foster pressed. If they were to come up without any evidence linking the Woodson line to Jefferson, he told the colonel, "they'll say you knew that all along. But if we come up with evidence that, in fact, Jefferson was the father . . . ." Foster let the sentence drop. The colonel relented. The Woodsons, he said, would cooperate with Foster's study. Five Woodsons eventually gave blood.
Closing loopholes. But there was more to be done. The philandering Carr boys could not be dismissed out of hand. Jefferson's distinguished defenders would dismiss any paternity evidence that didn't address that question. Foster tracked down three male descendants of the Carrs. They, too, gave blood. There remained one other line of male descendants to track down, and here Foster got lucky. Eston Hemings was Sally Hemings seventh and last child and Foster identified a lone male descendant. The man readily agreed to participate. Next Foster wanted some "control" samples. These were drawn from male descendants of several old-line Virginia families. The idea was to eliminate potential similarities in the Y chromosome tests due to geographic proximity. Foster was amazed by the cooperation. These were people, he said, "who had nothing to gain." And yet they welcomed him into their homes. One even had fresh-baked brownies waiting for him when he turned up to draw blood.