Thomas Jefferson’s property located in Virginia is an iconic landmark that scholars have been studying for a very long time. The estate itself and the people who worked and lived there had an important place in the history of this nation.
Recently, archeologists have launched new researches to reveal more details about the activities that took place in Monticello plantation estate. Thanks to those efforts they were able to do a discovery that shocked historians. Keep reading to find more about this groundbreaking discovery.
A President’s Plantation
Thomas Jefferson the owner of Monticello plantation (located in Charlottesville, Virginia) and the 3rd President of the United States, lived at this estate before he moved to the White House in 1801. Jefferson began its construction in 1769.
Its vast grounds have been deeply studied and even an image of the plantation’s estate has been portrayed on the back side of the Five Cents Coin. A recent discovery revealed more details about the house’s lifestyle that shocked historians.
Thomas Jefferson was 26 years old when inherited the land from his father and began the construction of the mansion. The 5,000-acre plantation was used to cultivate wheat and tobacco. But like many plantations of that time, Monticello has a polemic past related to one of the darkest parts of American history.
Although the construction of Monticello was made by free workers, hired servants, and enslaved laborers, Jefferson had hundreds of slaves working at the plantation house.
A Polemic Legacy
Thomas Jefferson is considered as one the visionary Founding Fathers and a very relevant figure in American history. He was the author of the US Declaration of Independence and redacted the immortal declaration which says “All men are created equal.”
But despite creating that statement, Jefferson was the owner of 607 slaves. The discovery made in 2017 revealed some details that oblige to reevaluate many aspects of his legacy.
A Mystery Figure
One of Jefferson’s slaves that lived in Monticello plantation was a woman named Sally Hemings. Though she is considered as a mystery figure, her life was related with Jefferson and caused a big curiosity among historians.
She was already considered a mystery before this incredible discovery provided new details about her life and the important events that occurred during her presence in Monticello estate.
Who Was Sally Hemings?
Sally was, according to her son Madison, the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha (portrayed in the picture). She was born in 1773, her father was John Wayles, a planter and slave trader, and her mother was Betty Hemings, a woman with biracial heritage but born as a slave.
According to the laws of that time, children born from enslaved mothers were also considered slaves. Therefore, Sally, her mother, and siblings came to Jefferson’s plantation mansion as slaves belonging to Martha as part of her father’s heritage.
What Is Known About Hemings
Sally Hemings was the youngest of six siblings and 25 younger than Martha Jefferson (her half-sister). Sally and her brothers and sisters grew up at Monticello and were trained to work as artisans and domestic servants at the plantation.
However, these children were considered to have positions at the top of the slave hierarchy so they did not work in the fields.
Sally Hemings lived as a slave until Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826. But she lived the last 9 years of her life as a free woman but the details of her life at the plantation have remained as a mystery.
However, a trail of clues uncovered through years of research has brought new aspects which permitted a better comprehension of her relevant role in history. One of the few descriptions of how she looked like was written by Isaac Granger Jefferson, an enslaved blacksmith. According to his writings, Sally Hemings was “mighty near white; with a very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”
The French Connection
Sally, at the age of 14, accompanied Mary (Jefferson’s youngest daughters) to London and then to Paris, where the future president was a member of the US envoy to France. it was during those two years in France when Sally’s life changed.
Her brother, James (in the picture) also accompanied the Jefferson family to Europe as a chef. Even though slavery was illegal in France, something happened that motivated Sally to return to the United States.
What Happened in Paris, Marked Everybody’s Lives
Most of the historians agree that during his stay in Paris, a widower Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship. The future president was in his mid-40s and Sally became pregnant at the age of 16.
She returned to the US in 1789 and she will have six children after her return from Europe. Observers at the time assured that they were Jefferson’s sons due to their appearance and resemblance. But this relationship will be publically written for the first time 20 years later.
In 1802, one of Jefferson’s opponents published a report about was sparked later the “Jefferson-Hemings controversy.” The former president never wrote the father’s name of Hemings’ children in the plantation’s “Farm Book,” but his family always publicly denied the claims about his paternity with the kids.
In fact, four of Heming’s children who survived into adulthood, Jefferson freed them and this fed even more the rumors that he was their real father. But Jefferson’s family (and some historians too) continued to deny these allegations for the next 150 years until a major discovery will change everything.
After 150 Years of Mystery
Scientific progress made a major breakthrough in the unresolved case of the paternity of Sally Heming’s children. DNA tests made in 1998 revealed shocking results that proved that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ kids.
The genetic test found a clear match between Jefferson’s male line and Eston Hemmings (in the picture), Sally’s youngest son. But two decades after this groundbreaking DNA study, archeologists will discover a secret that was hidden for so long and will provide revelations about her life.
A Big Discovery
While archeologists were doing excavations as part of the restoration process at the Monticello estate in 2017, they were shocked when discovered a missing piece of the puzzle that evaded scientists for a long time. They had found the living quarters of Sally Hemings.
The historic discovery was made while archeologists were uncovering the original layout of Monticello mansion’s South Wing. Her room had gone unnoticed for so many decades.
Hidden in Time
Monticello mansion’s South Wing had received numerous transformations during Jefferson’s lifetime and during the 20th too since it had become a museum. Sally Hemings’ room was absolutely hidden from sight even when a modern bathroom was installed in 1941.
That bathroom was renovated and enlarged in the 1960s due to the increasing number of visitors to the historic place. Even though, those changes did not reveal Heming’s forgotten room.
A Historic Hint
Historians were revising the history of Monticello when they read a document written by one of Thomas Jefferson’s grandsons. According to him, Sally’s room had been located in the South Wing of the house.
Although scientists were not sure that the information was reliable because, after all, this was the actual location of the modern restrooms. But the archeologists digging there without expecting to do such amazing discovery.
Sally Hemings’ Room
The archeologists knocked down one of the men’s bathroom’s wall and excavated through dust and dirt to finally unearth Sally Hemings’ room. Inside of her living quarters, they found the original brick floors from the 1800s.
As experts were uncovering the room, they also found a fireplace with a structure that could have a stove and a brick hearth. But another interesting aspect that they found was that the room was located adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s dormitory.
Is this just a coincidence?
What Does This Discovery Mean?
Scientists believe that the proximity of Sally’s room to Jefferson’s bedroom give support to the narrative that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the father of her children. This new discovery with the DNA results from the 1990s exposes the definitive proof of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship.
“This room is an authentic connection to the past. We are finding many, many artifacts,” said Fraser Neiman, director of archeology at Monticello mansion.
How Slaves Lived
“This discovery allows us to give a better idea of how enslaved people lived. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room. It’s important because portrays Sally as a mother, daughter, sister, and a human being. Besides, gives us new leads about her relationships in her life,” said Gardiner Hallock, the director of the restoration for Jefferson’s home.
It’s believed that Sally returned to the US from Paris because Jefferson promised her that her children will be free once they came of age. Curiously, the Hemings was the unique family that Jefferson freed among his slaves.
A Window To the Past
The evidence found in her room indicated that Sally Hemings had the higher standard of living than other slaves at Monticello mansion. But she was still a slave and there were some details that give some clues about her lifestyle.
Her room had no windows and quarters would have been dark and somehow confining. Some people have claimed that the building a bathroom over her room was an attempt to cover her up and considered the issue as an insult to Jefferson’s legacy.
Exposing the Truth
Monticello historians are doing their best efforts to resort Sally Hemings’ living quarters for public exhibition and plan to open it sooner. This place is planned to be exhibited with furniture of that age and artifacts excavated from the property.
The Mountain Project at Monticello is making efforts to show with more transparency the estate’s past and tell the stories of both slaves and free people who worked and lived there.
Thomas Jefferson was not the only US President who was a slave owner too. In fact, a total of 12 presidents of the United States were slave owners during their lives. Despite the universal principle of equality is one the main pillars of America’s foundation, the undisputed links of many of the Founding Fathers to slavery indeed show a big paradox in this country’s history.