The Hemings Family

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Making Hard Decisions: Passing

Would you have tried to "pass"? Explore this and other challenging decisions faced by Monticello's enslaved families.
Tableware fragments from Elizabeth Hemings's house site.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Sewing-related artifacts.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations. Elizabeth Hemings  (1735–1807) and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was likely the father of six of the children.

Members of the family eventually occupied the most important positions in Monticello’s labor force. They helped build the Monticello house, ran the household, made furniture, cooked Jefferson’s meals, cared for his children and grandchildren, attended him in his final moments, and dug his grave. Elizabeth’s daughter Sally Hemings was likely the mother of four of his children. The nine people Jefferson freed in his lifetime and will were all members of the Hemings family.

Elizabeth Hemings occupied a single-room log house on the southern slope of Monticello mountain for the last decade of her life, when she was no longer an active member of the enslaved work force. She likely spent her time raising poultry, growing vegetables, and caring for young children. Archaeology indicates that she owned more than 30 pieces of Chinese and English ceramics, probably purchased in Charlottesville.


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