Jefferson's Secret Life
Did the author of the Declaration of Independence take a slave for his mistress? DNA tests say yes
Now it was time to test. Foster had 19 samples in all. A fellow pathologist at the University of Virginia extracted the DNA from the blood samples. Foster numbered and coded them, then stowed them in a bubble-wrapped envelope. Researchers at Oxford had agreed to test the samples. Foster flew to London, the samples secure in his carry-on. A bus from Heathrow airport deposited him at the ancient university town, and Foster delivered the samples to researcher Chris Tyler-Smith, whom Foster describes as his "main collaborator." First the two men placed the materials in a refrigerator. Then they toddled off to a pub for lunch.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history, albeit of a peculiar sort. According to Hemings's heirs, Jefferson fathered seven children by her, four boys and three girls. Foster's meticulously collected samples were tested by three different Oxford labs using different procedures. The results fail to match the Field Jefferson line with the Woodson line, Hemings, or, interestingly, with the heirs of the Carr brothers. But the tests did establish a definite Y chromosome match on Eston Hemings, who was born in the second term of Jefferson's presidency.
What does that mean? That one can say with certainty that Sally Hemings bore Thomas Jefferson at least one son. But the tests do not preclude the possibility that there were other offspring. Indeed, abundant historical evidence suggests that this is so.
Beverly and Harriet Hemings very likely had Jefferson blood. After being allowed to run away--a privilege granted only to Hemings's children--the two blended into white society in the Washington, D.C., area. Today, they may have hundreds of descendants who have never suspected that their ancestry is either African or presidential.
Madison Hemings cannot be ruled out. Freed by Jefferson's will, he settled among blacks in Ohio, where he told an interviewer that his mother was Jefferson's "concubine" and he and his siblings were the president's children. But Madison's Y chromosome line cannot be tested; one of his three sons vanished into white society and the other two had no children. (But one daughter had a son who became California's first black state legislator.)
Tom, the boy conceived in Paris, still may have been Jefferson's son, even though there was no DNA match in his family line. The negative may have resulted from an unknown male--an illegitimate father--breaking the Y chromosome chain.
The link with Eston Hemings could easily have been missed. Freed with his brother Madison, he moved to Wisconsin, changed his name to Eston Jefferson, and gave everyone the impression he was white. One of his sons, John Jefferson--redheaded like the third president--was wounded at Vicksburg while serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. A century later, descendants working on the family tree kept hitting a dead end, running up against the name "Hemings." Not until they read Fawn Brodie's book did they sense they were kin to a slave and a president.
Tracking the Jefferson Y chromosome Only males carry the Y chromosome. All direct descendants in a line share the same or nearly the same Y chromosome. Here's how the match was made.