The Tom-and-Sally Miniseries (Cont.)
Rallying around the Founding Father
When the now famous Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings DNA project began two years ago, genealogist Herbert Barger cheerfully gave it a helping hand. The outcome, he figured, would be the death of the old tale that Jefferson--a first cousin of Barger's wife, Evelyn, six generations removed--had taken a slave for a mistress.
But the DNA tests, rather than settling the issue, have made it even more controversial, with critics disputing the study and the ways the media reported it. Barger himself spends 16 hours a day striving to "correct a great injustice to a great Founding Father"--namely the conclusion that Jefferson apparently sired at least one slave child. The DNA tests, he stresses, only show that a Jefferson--not necessarily Thomas Jefferson--fathered Sally Hemings's son Eston.
Last week, Barger and members of the God and Country Foundation, a group that guards the Founding Fathers' reputations, held a Washington news conference to revel in a brief comment in Nature, the British science journal that two months ago reported a DNA link between Jefferson and Eston Hemings. The journal conceded that the headline on its November report, "Jefferson fathered slave's last child," was "misleading." That headline, Barger had complained, prompted many in the media to state flatly that Jefferson had a slave mistress. But Nature stuck to its main finding--that the DNA evidence, when paired with historical evidence, points to Jefferson.
The DNA study might never have occurred without the aid of Barger, a retired Pentagon supervisor who has spent 25 of his 72 years exploring Jefferson's family tree. He can trace the founder's roots back to Samuel Jeaffreson of 16th-century England, but--important for the DNA project--he also can identify modern-day descendants of the president's cousins.
Eugene Foster, the pathologist who ran the study, wanted to compare Jefferson's Y chromosome--a marker passed from father to son--with those of Hemings's kin. Since Jefferson had no adult sons, Foster turned to male descendants of Jefferson's uncle Field Jefferson to learn what Thomas's marker looked like. Barger located Field's descendants and persuaded reluctant ones to take part.
When Nature announced its findings--the subject of a November 9 U.S. News cover story--Barger was shocked. He had felt the tests might finger Samuel and Peter Carr, sons of Jefferson's sister, who were branded by 19th-century kin as likely fathers of the light-skinned Hemings children. But there was no DNA match between the Hemings and Carr lines. Instead, there was a Hemings-Jefferson link, which, to Barger's dismay, Nature discussed without mention of any Jefferson but Thomas.
The same Y chromosome, Barger notes, existed in Thomas's brother Randolph, who lived 20 miles from Monticello, and in five of Randolph's sons, who were in their teens or 20s when Sally Hemings was having children. Barger cites a Monticello slave's memoir, which states that Randolph "used to come among black people, play the fiddle, and dance half the night." And he quotes a letter in which Thomas invited Randolph to Monticello nine months before Eston's birth.
On the Internet, Barger found an 1884 history of Todd County, Ky., that had Randolph's son Isham moving to Kentucky after being "reared" by the president. Barger suggests that Isham, starting at age 14 1/2, may have sired all six of the Hemings children conceived at Monticello.
The nine-month factor. A Monticello historian, Cinder Stanton, who has examined Jefferson documents for two decades, can categorically place Randolph at Monticello only three times between 1790 and 1815. How about the report that Isham was reared at Monticello? "A couple of Randolph's sons turn up occasionally," Stanton says, "but I have never seen a reference to Isham." On the other hand, she adds, records put Thomas Jefferson at Monticello nine months before each Hemings birth.
Stanton sees other "persuasive" factors pointing to Jefferson: similar oral histories by separate lines of Hemings kin, Eston Hemings's "striking resemblance" to the president, and the fact that the only slave family he ever freed comprised Hemings's children.
In coming months, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which runs Monticello, will redefine its position. Foundation President Daniel Jordan, who had deemed the Tom-and-Sally story unlikely, has fellow historians, including Stanton, re-evaluating evidence, such as Nature's report and the claims of Barger and others. Those claims are mostly new. Before the DNA study, no one seemed to suspect any Jefferson but Thomas.
Monticello's report, Jordan predicts, will be thorough, but it won't settle every question. "It will never add up to 100 percent, but if it adds up to 85 percent, you can say the weight of evidence is this or that."
This story appears in the January 18, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.