The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia
The Buckingham Hemmings are descended from Betsy Hemmings, who was born
a slave at Monticello in 1783. (Monticello records spell her surname with
one m, but she and her descendants spell it with two m’s.) Her adult life
was spent in Buckingham County, fifty miles south of Monticello, where she
died in 1857, still in bondage. Betsy Hemmings is buried in Buckingham
County in an elaborate grave next to her master, John Wayles Eppes,
son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson and United States Senator from Virginia.
Betsy Hemmings’s mother was Mary Hemings, the oldest child of Elizabeth
(Betty) Hemings, matriarch of the Hemings family, but her father was not
identified. During her early years, she lived in Charlottesville with her
mother and half brother Joseph at the home of Thomas Bell, a wealthy
Charlottesville merchant, to whom her mother had been leased during
Jefferson’s absence in Paris. During this time, Thomas Bell and Mary
Hemings began a common-law relationship, resulting in two children, Robert
Washington Bell and Sally Jefferson Bell.
In 1792, at Mary Hemings’s request, Thomas Jefferson sold her to Thomas
Bell, an unusual action for Jefferson, considering his stated views on
slave women and miscegenation: Thomas Jefferson valued breeding slave women
and considered their children a contribution to profit; his position on
miscegenation has been widely quoted - "The amalgamation of whites
with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no
lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent."
Yet Mary Hemings’s request to be sold to her acknowledged
common-law-husband was granted by Thomas Jefferson. Could it have been
that he and Mary Hemings had a special relationship? By complying with her
request, Jefferson made a public mockery of his own words.
One condition of Mary’s sale had negative consequences for Betsy.
Thomas Jefferson permitted Mary to retain only two of her four children;
she kept the Bell children, whom Thomas Bell freed along with Mary. But
Betsy and Joseph were returned to Monticello in bondage. In 1800, Thomas
Bell died leaving Mary and the Bell children a sizable inheritance,
increasing their prospects for a brighter future. Perhaps their slave
sister, Betsy, also envisioned a brighter future. After all, she had seen
her slave mother, now known as Mary Hemings Bell, become the first Hemings
to be manumitted and an owner of property on Charlottesville’s Main Street.
In 1792, when nine-year-old Betsy was returned to Monticello, she fared
better than many slave children, since her Hemings family awaited her –
among them, Grandmother Betty, Aunt Sally, Uncle John and numerous others.
At Monticello, Betsy’s life appeared uneventful, recorded in Thomas
Jefferson’s Farm Book as a housemaid. But in 1797, Thomas Jefferson gave
her as a wedding present to his youngest daughter Maria and her husband -
also first cousin - John Wayles Eppes. Again leaving Monticello and her
Hemings family, fourteen-year-old Betsy began a new life with the Eppeses
in Chesterfield County. After Maria Jefferson Eppes’s death in 1804, John
Wayles Eppes moved to his new plantation Millbrook, located in Buckingham
County, accompanied by his young son Francis and Betsy Hemmings. Millbrook
became Betsy’s permanent home and eventually her final resting-place.
It is this final resting-place that sparks the public interest in Betsy
Hemmings. Why is Betsy Hemmings’s grave in the Eppes family cemetery, as
opposed to the Millbrook slave cemetery, which was the custom in Buckingham
County? Why is Betsy’s tombstone so elaborate, when at best most slave
graves had fieldstones as markers, or none at all? How did her grave
survive the racist times when blacks were brutalized and their property
destroyed? Why was this seemingly insignificant Hemings slave honored with
such a grave, while her famous Aunt Sally, her wealthy mother Mary, and her
talented Uncle John lie in unmarked graves?
The answers to these questions are found in stories that have been
passed down for generations by descendants of the Hemmings and Eppes
families; former slaves from Millbrook and Chellowe plantations; my
great-aunt Olive Rebecca Bolling (1847-1953); and descendants of people who
lived in the vicinity of Millbrook. Probably additional information on
Betsy’s life at Millbrook existed, but was lost in two Buckingham fires.
In 1866, the plantation house at Millbrook was destroyed by fire,
supposedly by whites angered because blacks occupied the house. Rumors
have persisted that the arsonists were members of a prominent old Virginia
family with blood ties to the Eppeses and Randolphs. In 1869, Buckingham
County Courthouse, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1821, also
burned, resulting in a loss of records.
Central to any discussion of Betsy Hemmings is the issue of paternity,
hers and that of her children. Many of Betsy’s descendants have remained
in Buckingham County since her lifetime, passing down their oral history
from generation to generation. That oral history says that Betsy Hemmings
was a daughter of Thomas Jefferson and mistress of John Wayles Eppes:
Betsy’s lifestyle at Millbrook and the location of her
elaborate grave corroborate her descendants oral history.
(To see a picture of Betsy's grave, click here.)
Until recent times, most historians have ignored or denied the existence
of interracial plantation families. But as circumstantial evidence from
the antebellum period is reevaluated and more credence given to oral
history, the complexity of race relations on the plantation becomes
evident. For instance, there were some slave and master families who
maintained intimate relationships with each other, often spanning
generations. In some of these families, first cousin marriages were common
among the whites, while intimate relationships between the white and black
family members were as close, if not closer. Nothing about life on the
plantations should come as a surprise, since the plantations were
essentially fiefdoms. Although laws governing behavior existed, planters
were able to live as they pleased, unless their activities became a public
Betsy Hemmings was a product of entwined black and white plantation
families. Her grandmother, Betty Hemings, was owned by Francis Eppes IV,
paternal great-grandfather of John Wayles Eppes and maternal grandfather of
Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Then, as part of a dowry, Betty Hemings
became the property of John Wayles, father of Martha Jefferson and John
Wayles Eppes’s mother, Elizabeth. After John Wayles’s third and last wife
died, Betty Hemings became his mistress. Upon her father’s death, Martha
Jefferson inherited the entire Hemings family, which she brought to
Monticello, but prevailing law dictated that they become the property of
her husband Thomas Jefferson. The newly arrived Hemings family rapidly
assumed the key household positions at Monticello, and one explanation for
their ascent is that Martha Jefferson and Betty Hemings had a close
In 1782, Martha Jefferson died surrounded by her family, with Betty
Hemings and her daughters in attendance, several of whom were reported to
be Martha Jefferson’s half sisters. In 1783, Betsy Hemmings was born, a
year when her mother Mary was thirty, Thomas Jefferson forty and Sally
My first recollection of hearing about Betsy Hemmings, my
great-great-grandmother, occurred when I was two years old. This memory of
her is especially clear because it is forever associated with orange ice
It was August 1938, and my parents and I were in Virginia to visit my
great-aunt Olive (Auntie) Rebecca Bolling and attend a homecoming church
service, at the Hemmings and Bolling church. Ninety-one year old Auntie
still spent her summers at the family’s 1200 acre farm, which I was
visiting for the first time. Although I had been told about the farm, city
life did not prepare me for the new experiences that awaited me. During
that visit, I touched pigs, horses, and bird dogs; saw a cow milked; rode on
a horse; picked pears from the tree; tried to play the organ; and ran
merrily through the fields.
One afternoon during that visit, Auntie gave me orange ice cream, which
delighted me. Immediately, I asked my parents why we didn’t have orange
ice cream at home. Auntie explained that perhaps the people there didn’t
have the recipe, since it was very old, coming from Grandmother Bettie’s
grandmother. While the ice cream was discussed, I don’t recall any mention
of Betsy or Monticello. Later I would learn that Grandmother Bettie’s
grandmother’s name was Betsy Hemmings and that she brought the recipe for
orange ice cream from Monticello.
Children have selective memories, and I remembered that Grandmother
Bettie was mentioned when the ice cream was discussed. I probably focused
on her name because she had recently become a lovely vision for me.
Earlier in the week, I had been taken to the Bolling cemetery and shown the
graves of my ancestors, including that of Grandmother Bettie. At her
grave, she was described to me as being very beautiful with long straight
white hair that hung to her waist, which she wore tied back. I was also
told that she rode a white horse and that Daddy’s eyes were the same color
as hers – an unusual gray with a hint of blue. Auntie called them Hemmings
eyes, and on that same trip, I noticed that several of my Hemmings cousins
had eyes similar to Daddy’s.
Grandmother Bettie was a daughter of Betsy Hemmings’s daughter Frances.
As was often the case with entwined black and white plantation families,
their children had the same names. Maria Jefferson and John Wayles Eppes
named their son Francis. Therefore, it was not surprising that Betsy
Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes named their daughter Frances, an Eppes name,
one not traditionally used by the Hemings family.
My family was always quiet about Frances, as well as Betsy. Even among
ourselves cryptic expressions were sometimes used to convey information
about the family, especially when children were present. Local speculation
and gossip about the paternity of Betsy and her children was not something
that my family welcomed. It’s difficult for present day people to
appreciate the shame that many of my ancestors, black and white, felt
because of the way that they were forced to live because of the Slave
Common-law relationships and illegitimate children were not a source of
family pride, regardless of the esteem of the families involved. As a
child, I heard about members of my family, often nameless, being discussed
in hushed tones. Two distinct stories that I remember, starting from
childhood, centered on cemeteries. My mischievous bachelor Uncle Philip
Bolling would say, "those people couldn’t get together in life, but
they sure got together in death." While Auntie, Olive Rebecca Bolling,
would say, "if the cemeteries could talk, what stories they could
tell." To a child these were funny words indeed, especially since the
grownups always seemed amused by them. As an adult, I learned that Uncle
Philip was talking about the Eppes’s family cemetery at Millbrook and
Auntie was talking about our Bolling family cemetery.
There’s another old memory from Virginia. When I was around six, Daddy
took me to visit an old lady, who was described to me as being a friend of
my Grandmother Bettie. I remember the red dirt road that led to her house,
which was on a hill. The old lady hugged me, stroked my hair and told me
how much my grandmother would have loved me. This is the only recollection
that I have of seeing this lady. Years later, I asked Daddy about her, but
all he would say was that she was his mother’s maternal cousin. I know
that he knew her name, but he wouldn’t tell me – secrets were still being
kept. But he did tell me that she was white, something that had not
occurred to me when I saw her, because she resembled relatives.
In 1804, when Betsy Hemmings arrived at Millbrook, she was twenty-one
years old and the Millbrook nurse of Francis Eppes. In 1809,
thirty-six-year old John Wayles Eppes married nineteen-year old Martha
(Patsy) Jones from North Carolina. We will never know what this young
bride suspected about the relationship between Betsy Hemmings and John
Wayles Eppes, but eventually, she did learn the truth.
According to my oral history, the liaison between Betsy Hemmings and
John Wayles Eppes began at Millbrook and lasted until his death. After his
second marriage, Betsy continued officially as a nurse, this time to the
second Eppes family. But her presentation and the respect that she
received in the household and her community were not in keeping with a
slave woman. She was known in her environs as "Mam Betsy" and to
her loved ones at Millbrook as "Mammy Bessie." It was said that
she had a lot of polish, something that was evident in some of her
grandchildren after the Civil War, in spite of their poverty. I have been
told that Betsy Hemmings wore beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry and was
known as a beloved lady.
On September 15,1823, John Wayles Eppes died, almost three years before
Thomas Jefferson. Patsy Eppes, a thirty-three-year old widow, was left
with young children ranging in age from three to thirteen and Millbrook
that was heavily in debt. After Eppes’s death, Betsy’s life at Millbrook
appears to have remained unchanged. But with the deaths and burials of
Betsy Hemmings and Patsy Eppes some of Millbrook’s secrets were finally
On August 20, 1857, Betsy Hemming died, thirty-four years after John
Wayles Eppes. Stories have been passed down about the day that Mammy
Bessie died. I’ve heard that on that day everything at Millbrook stopped
and people wept and wailed in grief. Betsy was a institution at Millbrook,
having been there since its inception, and there is no doubt that she was
loved by the Millbrook family. The location of her grave and the
inscription on her tombstone are testimony to that love. She was buried
next to John Wayles Eppes with a tombstone more elaborate than his.
In 1862, Patsy Eppes died. She is not buried at Millbrook beside her
husband, but at Chellowe, the plantation of her daughter Mary Eppes Bolling
and her husband, Philip A. Bolling. This plantation is also located in
Buckingham, not far from Millbrook. It was said that Patsy Eppes is not
buried at Millbrook because of Betsy Hemmings. If this reason is correct,
which I believe it is, then more questions are raised. It is difficult for
me to comprehend how a widow could live for thirty-four years in close
proximity to her deceased husband’s slave mistress and yet find the
prospect of being buried in the same cemetery with her an anathema.
Nothing makes sense, because after John Wayles Eppes’s death, one would
have thought that Patsy Eppes would have sold Betsy. But perhaps she
couldn’t sell her!
As has often been the case in Virginia, certain slaves were difficult to
sell and an embarrassment to the community when they were put on the
auction block. My Auntie told me that some of the most difficult slaves to
sell were a young "white" mother with her young "white"
children, since they personified the horrors of slavery. Likewise, slaves
suspected of or believed to be the offsprings of prominent fathers were
equally undesirable to many slave traders, because their presence on the
auction block confirmed the hypocrisy and debauchery of slavery, creating
an atmosphere not conducive to business.
Betsy Hemmings would have been a difficult slave to sell. For decades,
rumors abounded in the community that she was a daughter of Thomas
Jefferson, and her lifestyle at Millbrook did nothing to dispel these
rumors. In addition, Thomas Jefferson maintained a close relationship with
John Wayles Eppes and would visit Millbrook.
Since Thomas Jefferson was revered in Virginia, it would have been
unthinkable to put a slave believed by many to be his daughter on the
auction block. Even in those horrific times, there was a peculiar sense of
honor. It’s most likely that agreements concerning Betsy’s future had been
reached, but we shall never know what transpired and speculation is futile.
Betsy lived a "charmed" life at Millbrook, especially when you
consider the feelings of her mistress. But her powerful protectors, though
deceased, still controlled her destiny. Betsy was safe at Millbrook for
her entire life, and in death she was memorialized in a manner unlike any
other Monticello Hemings.
Today, in a remote spot in Buckingham, the graves of Betsy Hemmings and
John Wayles Eppes remain undisturbed. Their graves survived turbulent
times: the Civil War, the destruction of the plantation house at Millbrook,
and the racism and violence that followed Reconstruction. Present day
people may say what they wish about Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes,
but the legacy of their graves stands as a testimony to the bond that must
have existed between them.
Whenever I think about their graves, my thoughts turn to those
courageous 19th century people, who buried Betsy Hemmings next
to John Wayles Eppes. What a defiant statement they made in pre-Civil War
Virginia! How I marvel at their strength and wish that more people of that
era had been committed to preserving the truth as opposed to erasing it.
One hundred and forty-five years ago, it would have been so easy for those
people to have dumped my great-great-grandmother in an unmarked grave, but
they chose to do otherwise and for this I salute them.
Edna Bolling Jacques
Great-great-granddaughter of Betsy Hemmings
Click here for information on Samuel P. Bolling.
© 2002, 2022, Edna Bolling Jacques