Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Jefferson-Hemings Controversy Renewed
On July 12, 2012 The Wall Street Journal featured an article by Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia, and editor of The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission published in 2011.
Turner's report documents the results of the commission that met in 2001 to determine whether there is any truth to the rumors of a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. The commission went to great lengths to debunk the rumors, diminishing the importance of evidence to the contrary or ignoring it entirely.
The National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) devoted its entire September 2001 issue of to a discussion of the Jefferson-Hemings matter, including the genealogical evidence and results of DNA testing on Jefferson and Hemings descendants.
Four NGSQ articles by eminent genealogists go into detail and examine all facts bearing on the controversy. They discuss fully the results of the DNA tests and the analysis of all relevant evidence in accordance with today's Genealogical Proof Standard, overlooked by the Scholars Commission.
Dr. Thomas Jones writes, "The arbitrary limit on the Commission's purpose guaranteed a failed effort. In narrowly focusing their inquiry, the panelists ignored the significance of—subsidiary genealogical questions, where research might have helped to solve the problem . . . ." Commission members represented the fields of biochemistry, economics, government, history, law, and political science. Noticeably absent were genealogists and social historians with considerable expertise in determining family relationships.
This controversy has surfaced numerous times since Jefferson's first term as president and been discussed in numerous articles and several books. Sally Hemings was a slave, half sister to Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles, who died in 1782. Sally cared for Jefferson's daughters, moved to Paris with the family while he was American envoy, and lived out her life at Monticello. Jefferson, who never remarried, freed all of Sally's children, either while he was alive or per his will after his death.
She had seven children born between 1789 and 1808. The youngest, Eston Hemings, told the 1870 U.S. census taker in Ross County, Ohio that he was "the son of Thomas Jefferson," and it was duly noted on the census form (NARA microfilm M593, roll 1263, page 699, family 49.) A 1902 Chillicothe, Ohio newspaper article remarked on Eston's striking resemblance to Jefferson.
Most convincing are results of DNA testing in 1998 proving that Eston Hemings' descendants carry the Jefferson Y-chromosome. Since Thomas Jefferson and his wife had only daughters, DNA testing was performed on male descendants of his uncle, Field Jefferson. The Jefferson Y haplotype is said to be rare, born by less than 1% of males worldwide. An analysis of dates and conditions surrounding the births of the Hemings children makes it unlikely they were fathered by any male Jefferson other than the president.
Study the genealogists' analysis and conclusions reached in this case for an interesting and educational example of the use of genealogical evidence in problem solving. The September 2001 issue of the NGSQ, The Jefferson-Hemings Special Edition, volume 89, number 3, is out of print but available online as a PDF file for members of the Society at http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives.
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6 August 2012