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 issue.
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 relationship.
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 Hemings ten.
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 cream.
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 Laws.
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 revealed.
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
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© 2002, 2015, Edna Bolling Jacques