Mary Hemings

Mary Hemings
Born 1753
Charles City County, Virginia
Died after 1834
Charlottesville, Virginia
Resting place unknown
Nationality American
Occupation Domestic servant; free homemaker
Parents Elizabeth Hemings, Unknown
Relatives Daniel Farley, Molly, Joseph Fossett, Betsy Hemmings, Robert Washington Bell, Sally Jefferson Bell, Sally Hemings, John Hemings, James Hemings, Martin Hemings, Betty Brown, Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings, John Wayles Jefferson

Mary Hemings, also known as Mary Hemings Bell (1753-after 1834), was born into slavery, most likely in Charles City County, Virginia, as the oldest child of Elizabeth Hemings, a mixed-race slave held by John Wayles. After the death of Wayles in 1773, Elizabeth, Mary and her family were inherited by Thomas Jefferson, the husband of Martha Wayles Skelton, a daughter of Wayles, and all moved to Monticello.

While Jefferson was in France, Hemings was hired out to Thomas Bell, a wealthy white merchant in Charlottesville, Virginia. She became his common-law wife and they had two children together. Bell purchased her and the children from Jefferson in 1792 and informally freed them. Mary Hemings Bell was the first Hemings to gain freedom. The couple lived together all their lives. (They were prohibited from marriage by Virginia law at the time.)

In 2007 Mary Hemings Bell was recognized as a Patriot of the Daughters of the American Revolution, because she had been taken as a prisoner of war during the American Revolution. By this honor, all her female descendants are eligible to join the DAR.


Early life and education

Mary was born to Elizabeth Hemings, also called Betty, a mulatto slave who was the daughter of Susannah, an enslaved African, and John Hemings, an English sea captain.[1]

Marriage and family

Mary Hemings had six children:

  • Daniel Farley (1772-after 1827), Jefferson gave him to his sister[2]),
  • Molly Hemings (1777-after 1790), Jefferson gave her to his daughter Martha as a wedding gift[3]), together with seven other slaves[4];
  • Joseph Fossett (1780-1858), his father was William Fossett, a white workman at Monticello.[5] He was freed by Jefferson in his 1826 will after decades of service; and
  • Betsy Hemmings, b. 1783. Her descendants say their family oral tradition is that Betsy was fathered by the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson, whose wife died in 1782.[6] The historian Lucia Stanton found documentation that Mary Hemings was one of the household slaves whom Jefferson took to Williamsburg and Richmond to care for the family when he was governor, from 1779-1781.[7] Jefferson gave Betsy Hemmings at the age of 14, and 29 other slaves[1], to his daughter Mary Jefferson Eppes and her new husband John Wayles Eppes as a wedding gift. Betsy lived with the Eppes family for the rest of her life. Her descendants say she was his concubine from about age 21, when he was widowed, and through his second marriage.[6]

During Jefferson's stay in Paris as US minister to France, his overseer hired out Mary Hemings (with her two younger children) to Thomas Bell in Charlottesville. The two became common-law partners and had two children together:

  • Robert Washington Bell and
  • Sally Jefferson Bell.

At Mary's request, after his return Jefferson sold Mary and her two younger children to Bell in 1792. Bell informally freed the three of them that year, acknowledging the children as his. (Jefferson told his superintendent to "dispose of Mary according to her desire, with such of her younger children as she chose." He kept Mary's slightly older children, Joseph Fossett, only 12, and Betsy, then age nine. They were likely cared for by aunts and grandmother.[8][9].)

Thomas and Mary Bell lived the remainder of their lives together, and Thomas Bell became a good friend of Jefferson. Mary Hemings Bell was the first of Betty's children to gain freedom.[10] When Thomas Bell died in 1800, he left Mary and their Bell children a sizable estate, treating them as free in his will. The property included lots on Charlottesville’s Main Street. He depended on his neighbors and friends to carry out his wishes, which they did.[11]

Mary Hemings finished her days in Charlottesville. Her grave site remains unknown.


Jefferson kept Mary's older children Betsy Hemmings and Joseph Fossett enslaved at Monticello. He had already given away her children Daniel and Molly to his sister and daughter, respectively. When his daughter Mary Jefferson married John Wayles Eppes in 1797, Jefferson gave Betsy Hemmings at age 14 to them as a wedding gift. She had to leave her family, and lived with the Eppes family for the rest of her life.

The Hemmings descendants' oral tradition is that after Mary Jefferson Eppes died, the then-21-year-old Betsy became the concubine of the young widower John Eppes. They had a daughter Frances together and other children. Their relationship continued after he married a second time five years later, although it was not openly acknowledged.[6] Betsy Hemmings was buried next to Eppes in his family cemetery at the plantation.[12] His second wife was buried at her daughter's plantation.[6]

Decades later, in 1826 Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett by his will, in recognition of his valuable service as an ironworker. To settle debts of the estate, 130 Monticello slaves were sold, including Fossett's wife Edy and children. With the help of his mother Mary Bell and other free family members, Fossett over several years purchased the freedom of his wife and most of his children. The family moved from Virginia to the free state of Ohio about 1840.[13]

In 1833 his son Peter Fossett's master, John Jones, reneged on his previous agreement to sell the boy back to Fossett. According to Peter Fossett's memoir, published in The New York World, 30 January 1898, he had learned to read and write. Peter Fossett gave his sister Isabel, also still enslaved, a "free pass" enabling her to travel; she escaped to Boston and freedom. Peter escaped twice but was captured, and in 1850 was sold. Friends of his father's bought him and freed him; he then joined his father and the rest of the family in Cincinnati.[14]

Other events

In 1780, after Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia, he moved his family and a number of his slaves, including Mary Hemings and Betty Brown, to Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia. The following year he relocated his household to the new capital of Richmond. With the American Revolutionary War underway, when Benedict Arnold’s forces raided Richmond searching (unsuccessfully) for Jefferson, they took Mary Hemings and other Jefferson slaves as prisoners of war. They were freed from the British later that year by General Washington's forces during the siege of Yorktown.[15]


Though free, Mary Hemings remained in close communication with her enslaved family at Monticello and was remembered by them many years after her death.[16] As an elderly man, her grandson Peter Fossett recalled how when he was a child, his free grandmother Mary gave him a suit of blue nankeen cloth and a red leather hat and shoes, grand compared to the attire of children of field slaves.[17]

One of Mary's most notable descendants was William Monroe Trotter, who became a prominent Boston newspaper publisher, human rights activist, and a founder of the Niagara Movement, precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Trotter graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1895; in his junior year he became the first man of color to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key there.[18] Trotter was a contemporary of fellow Harvard alumnus W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1896, Trotter earned a master's degree from Harvard, planning a career in international banking. But despite his outstanding credentials, racism thwarted his efforts to find work in that field.

Legacy and honors


  1. ^ a b Lucia C. Stanton, Chapter: "Elizabeth Hemings and Her Family", Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello, University of North Carolina Press, 2000, accessed 13 August 2011
  2. ^ Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day, p. 132
  3. ^ Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day, p. 132
  4. ^ Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 424
  5. ^ Gordon Reed, Hemingses of Monticello, Hemings Family Tree 1, frontispiece, pp. 126-127
  6. ^ a b c d Edna Bolling Jacques, "The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia", 2002, Official Website, accessed 13 February 2011
  7. ^ Laura B. Randolph, "THE THOMAS JEFFERSON/SALLY HEMINGS CONTROVERSY: Did Jefferson Also Father Children By Sally Hemings' Sister?", Ebony, February 1999, accessed 16 February 2011
  8. ^ Gordon-Reed, Hemingses of Monticello, p. 484
  9. ^ Slavery at Monticello, Lucia Stanton, p. 18
  10. ^ "Mary Hemings", Monticello Explorer, accessed 16 February 2011
  11. ^ Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 410
  12. ^ "Betsy Hemmings: Loved by a Family, but What of Her Own?", Plantation & Slavery/Life after Monticello, Monticello, 14 February 2011
  13. ^ "Joseph Fossett", Monticello Explorer, accessed 16 February 2011
  14. ^ Rev. Peter Fossett, "Once the Slave of Thomas Jefferson", Jefferson's Blood, PBS, Frontline, 2000, accessed 20 March 2011
  15. ^ Memoir of A Monticello Slave, Isaac Jefferson, pp. 19-23
  16. ^ Free Some Day, Lucia Stanton, p. 132
  17. ^ Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day, p. 151
  18. ^ Stephen R. Fox, , The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter, pp. 17-19
  19. ^ American Spirit Magazine, Daughters of the American Revolution, January-February 2009, p. 4


  • Lena Anthony, "Family Ties," ’’American Spirit Magazine, Daughters of the American Revolution, January-February 2009, p. 4
  • ’’Memoirs of A Monticello Slave: As Dictated to Charles Campbell in the 1840’s by Isaac Jefferson, one of Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves,’’ University of Virginia, 1951
  • Stephan R. Fox, ’’The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter,’’ New York: Atheneum, 1970
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, ’’The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,’’ New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008
  • Edna Bolling Jacques, The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia, 2002.
  • Lucia Stanton, Slavery At Monticello, The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc., 1993
  • Lucia Stanton, "Monticello to Main Street: The Hemings Family and Charlottesville," The Magazine of Albemarle County History, Vol 55, 1997
  • Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello Monograph Series, 2000

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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