Did Thomas Jefferson Father the Children of his Slave?

Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States (1801-1809). He was one of the most influential founders of the United States and wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a document in which the individual colonies in North America declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. This declaration was ratified and adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776. This important date is celebrated today as Independence Day in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd of 10 children, was born to a prosperous family in Virginia, which owned a plantation in Albemarle County called Shadwell. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a planter and surveyor and his mother, Jane Randolph, was the cousin of Peyton Randolph, the first President of the Continental Congress.

Jefferson was a agriculturalist, horticulturist, architect (he was the principal designer of his famed home “Monticello”), etymologist, archaeologist, mathematician, cryptographer, surveyor, paleontologist, author, lawyer (admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767), inventor, and violinist. He served as the governor of Virginia from 1779-1781 and oversaw the transfer of the state capitol from Williamsbur to Richmond in 1780. From 1785-1789, Jefferson served as minister to France and served as the first Secretary of State under George Washington from 1789-1793 and was elected Vice President from 1797-1801. Jefferson was President from 1801 to 1809, the first to start and end in the White House, and the first Democratic-Republican Presidency. He was also the founder of the University of Virginia. Many people considered Jefferson to be one of the most brilliant men who ever occupied the Presidency.

The Sally Hemings controversy

A long-standing historical controversy exists over whether Jefferson was the father of any of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings’ first son, Thomas Woodson, was likely born in 1790, right after Jefferson and Sally Hemings returned from France where he had been minister. Historical records make no mention of this child in the Monticello house but anecdotal evidence suggests that he was sent away from the Monticello house as a young boy to a farm owned by a Woodson and took the Woodson name. Many present day members of the Woodson family believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson.

Sally Hemings’ last son, Eston Hemings, was born in 1808 and was said to have a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. Many of Eston’s descendants believe that Thomas Jefferson was Eston’s father.

There are several pieces of evidence that support a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Many of the children had a physical resemblance to Jefferson and Jefferson was in residence at Monticello (as was Hemings) at the time that each child would have been conceived. One of Hemings other children, Madison, also testified late in life that Sally had identified Jefferson as the father of all her children. Each of Hemings children were given names that were important in the Jefferson family, rather than the Hemings family. Each child appeared to receive preferential treatment compared to other slaves owned by Jefferson. This included lighter duties and learning tasks that would enable them to earn a living as free adults. These children and Sally Hemings were also the only family that were given freedom or allowed to ‘escape’ from the Monticello property.

However, despite the evidence supporting a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, many historians have expressed doubts. Jefferson family tradition has instead implicated either Samuel or Peter Carr as the likely father of Hemings’ children. The Carr brothers were sons of Jefferson’s sister so this can help explain the resemblance to Jefferson.

Is Thomas Jefferson really the father of Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings?

In an attempt to find out whether Sally Hemings’ sons, Thomas Woodson and Eston Hemings were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, or his nephews Samuel or Peter Carr, DNA samples were obtained from the individuals below. Y-DNA STR analysis was conducted on each of these samples. Y-DNA is passed down from father to son along the direct paternal lineage; hence all males who have descended from the same paternal lineage are expected to have exactly the same or very similar Y-DNA STR marker profiles.

  • To determine Thomas Jefferson’s Y-DNA STR marker paternal line profile:
    Five paternal line descendants of two of Thomas Jefferson’s cousins (sons of his paternal uncle Field Jefferson). Thomas Jefferson had no legitimate surviving sons to inherit his Y-DNA, but his paternal uncle would have the same Y-DNA, as would his uncle’s sons and their descendants through the paternal line.


  • To determine Thomas Woodson’s Y-DNA STR marker paternal line profile:
    Five paternal line descendants of two of Thomas Woodson’s sons.


  • To determine Eston Hemings’s Y-DNA STR marker paternal line profile:
    One paternal line descendant of Eston Hemings.


  • To determine Samuel and Peter Carr’s Y-DNA STR marker paternal line profile:
    Three direct paternal line descendants of three of John Carr’s sons. John Carr was the paternal grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr, and hence would have the same Y-DNA profile.

Results of the Y-DNA analysis

  • Thomas Woodson’s Y-DNA profile differs from Thomas Jefferson’ Y-DNA profile, meaning that it is not possible that Thomas Jefferson was the biological father of Woodson.


  • Thomas Woodson’s Y-DNA profile also differs from Samuel and Peter Carr’s Y-DNA profile, meaning it is also not possible that either of these two brothers were the biological father of Woodson.


  • Eston Hemings Y-DNA profile differs from Samuel and Peter Carr’s Y-DNA profile, meaning it is also not possible that either of these two brothers were the biological father Hemings.


  • Eston Hemings Y-DNA profile was a perfect match to Thomas Jefferson’s paternal line Y-DNA profile. This means that Thomas Jefferson cannot be excluded as being the father of Eston Hemings. However, since all males within Thomas Jefferson’s paternal lineage will have exactly the same Y-DNA STR marker profile as Thomas Jefferson, this test does not rule out the possibility that another male individual within Thomas Jefferson’s paternal lineage is the biological father of Eston Hemings.


The results of this DNA study confirmed that Thomas Jefferson is not the biological father of Thomas Woodson. However, since Thomas Jefferson shares the same paternal line Y-DNA STR marker profile as Eston Hemings, he cannot be ruled out as being the biological father of Eston Hemings. Since all males who have descended from the same paternal lineage will have the same Y-DNA STR marker profile, the match between Thomas Jefferson and Eston Hemings indicates that they are from the same paternal lineage, but the exact type of relationship (father/son, uncle/nephew, etc.) cannot be confirmed.

DNA Database Comparisons

The DNA tests conducted in this study have defined the Y-DNA STR marker profile for the paternal lineage of Thomas Jefferson. If you have taken the Y-DNA STR marker (Paternal Ancestry) test, you can compare your Y-DNA STR markers against Thomas Jefferson to see if you may have descended from the same paternal lineage.

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