Eston John Jefferson

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Eston John Jefferson (Hemings)

Also Known As: "Easton John Hemmings"
Birthplace: Monticello, Charlottesville, Albemarle, Virginia, United States
Death: January 03, 1856 (47)
Wisconsin, United States
Place of Burial: Madison, Dane, Wisconsin, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America and Sarah 'Sally' Hemings
Husband of Julia Ann Hemings
Father of Colonel John Wayles Jefferson; Anne Wayles Pearson and Pvt. William Beverly Frederick Jefferson
Brother of Harriet Hemings, I; Edy Hemings; Beverly William Hemings; Thenia Jefferson Hemings; Harriet Heckman and 1 other
Half brother of Martha (Jefferson) Randolph, 3rd First Lady of the United States; Peter Jefferson, died in infancy; Maria Eppes; Jane Randolph Jefferson; Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson and 1 other

Managed by: Kevin Lawrence Hanit
Last Updated:

About Eston John Jefferson

Eston was born a slave at Monticello in 1808, the youngest of Sally Heming's six children. Eston was freed in 1829 at the age of 21, as provided for in President Jefferson's will. The following year, Eston purchased property in Charlottesville, on which he and his brother Madison built a house. Their mother Sally lived with them until her death in 1835.

Eston married Julia, a mixed-race daughter of wealthy Jewish merchant David Isaacs from Germany, and Ann (Nancy) West, a free woman of color. Eston moved his family to Chillicothe, Ohio for several years. In 1852, after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act increased the danger to the African-American community as slave catchers came to Ohio, the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital. There Eston changed his name to Eston H. Jefferson; his children also adopted the new surname, and the family passed as white.

Eston Hemings (1808-c1853), also a carpenter, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1830s; there he was a well-known professional musician before moving about 1852 to Wisconsin, where he changed his name (to Eston Jefferson) along with his racial identity.


Eston Hemings Jefferson (1808–1856) was born a slave at Monticello, the youngest son of Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave. Most historians believe that his father was Thomas Jefferson, the United States president. Evidence from a 1998 DNA test showed that a descendant of Eston matched the Jefferson male line, and historical evidence supports the team's conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father. Many historians believe that Jefferson had a 38-year relationship with Sally Hemings and fathered her six children, four of whom survived to adulthood.

Jefferson freed Eston and his older brother Madison Hemings in his will, as they had not yet come of age at his death. They each married and lived with their families and mother Sally in Charlottesville, Virginia until her death in 1835. She lived to see a grandchild born in the house her free sons owned. Both brothers and their young families moved to Chillicothe, Ohio to live in a free state, where Eston Hemings earned a living as a musician and entertainer.

In 1852 Eston moved with his wife and three children to Madison, Wisconsin, where they changed their surname to Jefferson and entered the white community. Their sons both served in the Union Army, and the older one, John Wayles Jefferson, achieved the rank of colonel. He became a wealthy cotton broker and never married.

Both Beverly and Anna Jefferson married into the white community, and their descendants have identified as white. Beverley Jefferson's five sons were educated and three entered the professional class as a physician, attorney, and manager at the railroad. One of their male-line descendants was tested in the 1998 DNA study.

His sister, Julie Jefferson Westerinen, together with two Jefferson descendants from the Hemings' and Wayles' sides of the family, founded the "Monticello Community" to recognize descendants of all who lived and worked at Monticello. The three received the 2010 Search for Common Ground award for racial healing within the larger Jefferson family.

Early life

What is known of Eston's life is derived from his brother Madison's 1873 memoir, a few entries in Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book, a handful of contemporary newspaper accounts, various census and land/tax records, and the family history of his descendants.

Eston was born into slavery as the youngest son of the slave Sally Hemings. As she was one of the six mixed-race children of Betty Hemings and John Wayles (Jefferson's father-in-law), she and her siblings were half-siblings to Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles. The historians Philip D. Morgan and Joshua D. Rothman have written about the numerous interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families and the region, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern. The large Hemings family was at the top of the slave hierarchy at Monticello, with its members working as domestic servants, chefs, craftsmen and artisans. Sally Hemings had light duties, and as children, Eston and his siblings "were permitted to stay about the 'great house', and only required to do such light work as going on errands." Like their older brother Beverley, at age 14 Madison and Eston each began training in carpentry, under tutelage of their uncle John Hemmings, the master woodworker at Monticello. All three brothers learned to play the violin (Jefferson also is known to have regularly played.)

Madison and Eston were freed in 1826, in accordance with President Jefferson’s will. (Madison was 21; Eston was "given his time" and freed before he reached 21.) Additionally, Jefferson's will petitioned the legislature to allow the Hemingses to stay in Virginia after being freed, unlike most freed slaves. In his 1873 memoir, Madison said the Hemings children were freed as a result of a promise Jefferson made to Sally Hemings prior to their return to the United States from France in 1789.[8]

After Jefferson's death, Sally Hemings was "given her time" by his daughter (who was also her niece), and lived freely with her two sons in Charlottesville. In the 1830 census, the census taker in Charlottesville classified all three Hemings as white, showing how others perceived them by appearance because of their overwhelming European ancestry. Sally was of three-quarters white ancestry. Her children were seven-eighths white and legally white under the Virginia law of the time. It was not until 1924 that Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which classified anyone as black who had any known African ancestry under the "one drop rule".

Post-slavery life

Upon gaining freedom, Hemings initially pursued a career in woodworking and carpentry in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1830, Eston Hemings purchased property and built a house on Main Street, where his mother lived with him until her death in 1835.

Marriage and family

In 1832, Eston married a free woman of color, Julia Ann Isaacs (1814–1889). She was the daughter of the successful Jewish merchant David Isaacs from Germany, and Ann (Nancy) West, a free woman of mixed race. Nancy West was the daughter of Priscilla, a former slave, and Thomas West, her white master, who left his children Nancy and James West property in his will. Prohibited by law from marrying, Isaacs and West maintained separate households and businesses for years (she was a successful baker.) They had seven children together, and later in their lives shared a household.

Eston and Julia Ann Hemings had three children: John Wayles Jefferson (1835–1892), Anne Wayles Jefferson (1836–1866), and Beverly Frederick Jefferson (1838–1908). The first two were born in Charlottesville. About 1837 Hemings moved with his family to Chillicothe, a town in southwest Ohio with a thriving community, with free blacks and numerous white abolitionists, which had stations linked to the Underground Railroad. There Hemings became a professional musician, playing the violin or fiddle and leading a successful dance band.

In a 1902 article of the Scioto Gazette, a correspondent wrote that while Hemings lived in Ohio in the 1840s, it was widely said that he and his brother Madison were the sons of Thomas Jefferson. Several neighbors of his had traveled together to Washington, DC, where they saw a statue of Jefferson and commented on how much Hemings resembled him. The correspondent also recollected: “Eston Hemings, being a master of the violin, and an accomplished "caller" of dances, always officiated at the "swell" entertainments of Chillicothe.”

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 increased pressure on the black communities in Ohio and other states bordering slave states. In towns along the Underground Railroad, slave catchers invaded the communities, sometimes kidnapping and selling into slavery free people as well as fugitive slaves. In 1852 the Hemingses decided to move their family further north for security, and migrated to Madison, Wisconsin. There they changed their surname to Jefferson, and they identified with the European-American (white) community. Eston Hemings Jefferson died in 1856.

His and Julia's eldest son John Wayles Jefferson served as a white officer in the regular United States Army during the American Civil War; he was promoted to colonel. John W. Jefferson led the Wisconsin 8th Infantry. He was wounded twice in battle. During the war, he published letters home, and after the war, published articles about his experiences. Before the war, John Jefferson ran the American House hotel in Madison, which was taken over by his younger brother Beverley. After the war and the end of slavery in the U.S., he moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He became a successful cotton broker, supported his mother, and left a considerable estate at his death in 1892. He never married or had known children.

Both Anna and Beverley Jefferson married white spouses, and their descendants have identified as white. Anna married Albert T. Pearson, a carpenter who was a captain during the Civil War. Their son Walter Beverly Pearson became a wealthy industrialist in Chicago.

Beverley Jefferson was also a Civil War veteran. Returning to Madison, he moved from the American House to run the Capitol House hotels. He founded the first omnibus line in the Wisconsin capital, and was a popular figure among politicians in the city. He married Anna Smith from Pennsylvania. Their five sons gained educations and three entered the professions: one became a doctor in Chicago, another an attorney, another worked in railroad management.

The Eston Hemings Jefferson family is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison.


In the 1970s, Jean Jefferson, unaware of her connection to the Hemings family, read Fawn Brodie's biography, Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait. She recognized Eston Hemings Jefferson's name in the book from family stories and contacted Brodie. The historian helped Jefferson start putting the pieces of the family history back together. They discovered that in the 1940s, her father and his brothers had decided against continued telling of the Hemings-Jefferson story to their children, out of fear the younger people would be discriminated against. The family's new knowledge of their history enabled DNA researchers in 1998 to locate Jean's cousin John Weeks Jefferson, a male descendant of Eston Hemings Jefferson, for testing. His Y-chromosome matched that rare haplotype of the Thomas Jefferson male line.

Jefferson-Hemings controversy

Main article: Jefferson-Hemings controversy

The Jefferson-Hemings controversy concerns the question of whether, after Jefferson became a widower, he had an intimate relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, resulting in his fathering her six children off record. The controversy dates from the 1790s. In the late 20th century, historians began reanalyzing the body of evidence. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published a book that analyzed the historiography of the controversy, and noted how historians since the 19th century had accepted early assumptions and failed to weigh all the facts. A consensus began to emerge after the results of a DNA analysis in 1998, which showed no match between the Carr male line, proposed for more than 150 years as the father(s), and the one Hemings descendant tested. It did show a match between the Jefferson male line and the Eston Hemings descendant.

Since 1998 and the DNA study, many historians have accepted that the widower Jefferson had a long intimate relationship with Hemings, and fathered six children with her, four of whom survived to adulthood. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), which runs Monticello, conducted an independent historic review in 2000, as did the National Genealogical Society in 2001; their scholars concluded Jefferson was likely the father of all Hemings' children.

Critics, such as the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS) Scholars Commission (2001), have argued against the TJF report. They have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children. The TJHS report suggested that Jefferson's younger brother Randolph Jefferson could have been the father, and that Hemings may have had multiple partners.

In 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation held a major exhibit at the National Museum of American History: Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty; it says that "most historians now believe that... the evidence strongly support[s] the conclusion that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children."

The Monticello Community

In 2010 Eston's descendant Julie Jefferson Westerinen (whose brother's DNA matched the Jefferson line), and her cousin Shay Banks-Young, a descendant of Madison Hemings, were honored together with their half-cousin David Works, a descendant of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. They identify as European American, African American and European American, respectively. Works is a member of the Monticello Association, a lineage society for Jefferson-Wayles descendants.

The three received the international "Search for Common Ground" award for "their work to bridge the divide within their family and heal the legacy of slavery." They have been featured on NPR and in other interviews across the country. In the last several years, since meeting, they have become active in talking about race and related issues in public forums. In addition to organizing reunions between the two sides of the Jefferson family, they have created a new organization, the "Monticello Community", to bring together the descendants of all who lived and worked at Monticello.

Ms. Westerinen said she had gained a lot from the DNA news. "Our family is like a sample family that was deeply divided and then came together," she said. "So think of what an example we can set for America."

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Eston John Jefferson's Timeline

May 21, 1808
Monticello, Charlottesville, Albemarle, Virginia, United States
May 8, 1835
Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia, United States
Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia, United States
February 23, 1839
Pike County, Illinois, United States
January 3, 1856
Age 47
Wisconsin, United States
Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Dane, Wisconsin, United States