A 'Thomas and Sally' Timeline

By Laura A. Brueckner

Circa 1734  Likely near Williamsburg, Virginia, Captain John Hemings, an English sea captain, becomes sexually involved with an enslaved African woman. The next year, the woman will bear a daughter, Elizabeth (“Betty”) Hemings. Due to the Virginia colonial legislature’s 1662 decision to revive the ancient Roman law of partus sequitur partem (a child inherits free or enslaved status from its mother) rather than the English law of primogeniture (a child inherits status and property from the father), Betty is born into lifelong slavery. Her father will later attempt to buy her freedom, but her owner will refuse.

1746  John Wayles, an English-born lawyer, plantation owner, and slave trader living in Virginia, marries Martha Eppes at the Eppes’ family plantation, Bermuda Hundred. The marriage contract shows that the new Mrs. Martha Eppes Wayles comes into the marriage owning Betty Hemings and at least five other enslaved people, plus “shares” in three others.

1748-1761   Martha Eppes Wayles gives birth to a daughter, Martha Wayles (who will later marry Thomas Jefferson), but dies a week later, leaving baby Martha in the care of 13-year-old Betty Hemings. Wayles remarries; his second wife, Tabitha, dies, leaving three daughters. Wayles’ third wife, Elizabeth, dies within a year, childless. During this time, Betty Hemings bears four children to an unknown man or men, likely enslaved: Mary Hemings (1753), Martin Hemings (1755), Betty Brown (1759), and Nancy Hemings (1761). Like their mother, all of these children are enslaved to John Wayles.

1761  John Wayles and Betty Hemings become sexually involved; Betty bears five children to Wayles between 1762 and 1770: Robert (1672), James (1765), Thenia (1767), Critta (1769), and Peter (1770). All share three-quarters white ancestry; all are half-siblings to his daughter, Martha; and all are born into slavery.

1773  John Wayles dies, leaving substantial property (human and otherwise) but also a staggering pile of complex debt. His daughter Martha and her new husband, Thomas Jefferson, inherit over 100 enslaved people. A pregnant Betty Hemings and her children are among them; her last daughter, named Sarah (“Sally”), is born at Monticello.

1776  While the Revolutionary War rages, Thomas is often away from Monticello—chiefly in Philadelphia. He is appointed to the “Committee of Five” charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence (which he does, mostly on his own, in about 17 days). The new U.S. Congress accepts the Declaration. Martha Jefferson falls ill; Thomas resigns from Congress and returns to Monticello to be with her.

1781  British General Cornwallis dispatches Colonel Banastre Tarleton with troops to take the American legislators gathering in Charlottesville. Warned by a young commoner of the impending raid, Thomas sends his family to a neighboring farm, warns the other lawmakers staying with him at Monticello, and then flees to join his family. Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown to combined American and French forces in October; the Revolutionary War ends.

1782  Following her sixth pregnancy (and after extracting a promise from Thomas to never remarry) Martha Wayles Jefferson dies. Her death leaves Thomas shattered and incoherent with grief; he is 39 years old. Only three of their six children will survive infancy: Martha (“Patsy”), Mary (“Polly”), and Lucy Elizabeth. Depressed and preoccupied with his political work, Thomas sends all three daughters to live with the family of his dead wife’s sister, Elizabeth Eppes—along with Betty Hemings’ youngest daughter, Sally.

1784  Thomas Jefferson is called to take Benjamin Franklin’s place as the American minister to France, to ensure the continued flow of money to the new nation. He takes Patsy with him, as well as Betty Hemings’ son, James, for whom he secures an apprenticeship with a master chef. Three months after their arrival in Paris, Thomas’ youngest daughter, Lucy Elizabeth, dies in Virginia; he panics and demands that the Eppeses send his remaining daughter, Polly, to join him and Patsy in Paris. They resist for two years, but he will eventually prevail.

1786  Thomas meets Maria Cosway, an accomplished painter, ravishing beauty...and married woman. They spend the summer roaming France with friends, seeking out artistic exhibits. When Thomas and Maria part (on her husband’s insistence), he writes his famed letter to her, “A Dialogue between the Head and Heart,” in which his reason struggles against—but ultimately overcomes—his emotions.

1787  In July, after a five-week voyage across the Atlantic, and a brief stay in London with Abigail and John Adams, eight-year-old Polly Jefferson arrives in Paris—with the enslaved 14-year-old Sally Hemings as her attendant. This surprises the Adamses and Thomas, who had ordered that Polly be attended by an older woman who had already had smallpox. Sally is given a household maid’s salary, but very light duties. She will be inoculated for smallpox in November.

Jul. 1789    The French Revolution erupts. Groups of French commoners and sympathetic soldiers storm the Bastille, execute its garrison commander, and parade his head through the streets of Paris on a pike.

Aug. 1789   General Lafayette (with assistance from Thomas Jefferson) writes the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, articulating the values of the French Revolution. It is adopted by the new French National Assembly.

Oct. 1789    Thomas Jefferson is granted a temporary leave of absence from Paris, and returns to Virginia. He is accompanied by still-enslaved Sally Hemings, already pregnant with his child; her brother, James, now a trained French chef, but still enslaved; and his daughters, Patsy and Polly. When their ship docks in Norfolk the following month, Thomas will learns that he has been appointed U.S. Secretary of State. None of them ever returns to Paris.

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