Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and Eugene A. Foster’s genetic study brought a lot more attention to the question of Thomas Jefferson’s African-American descendants in the late 1990s. Among the responses was the publication in 2001 of A President in the Family, by Byron W. Woodson. The author laid out his family’s case to have descended from Jefferson through a man named Thomas Woodson.
Unfortunately, this book doesn’t distinguish between facts shown in contemporary documents and the Woodson family’s understandings. It doesn’t show how early the family story was recorded, and what independent traditions exist in different branches of the family—both useful in establishing the validity of oral traditions. And it doesn’t address the big holes in the theory of a Jefferson-Woodson link:
- There’s no documented link between Thomas Woodson and Monticello or nearby parts of Virginia. (In contrast, Sally Hemings’s youngest sons Madison and Eston are well established in Monticello and Charlottesville records, and there are clear mentions of older siblings as well.)
- Thomas Woodson left no account of his childhood as Jefferson’s son (unlike Madison Hemings).
- There’s no genetic match between the Woodson and Jefferson Y chromosomes (unlike the situation with patrilineal descendants of Eston Jefferson, who had been born Eston Hemings).
- Had Woodson been born in 1790, as his descendants came to believe, then he would have been only seventeen when he entered the historical record. At that time he was already a husband, a father, and a landowner in western Virginia. It would have been exceptional for a minor to do those things, much less a minor born into slavery.
The William & Mary Quarterly review of A President in the Family noted the book’s flaws but praised Woodson for drawing attention to a pertinent detail of Jefferson’s farm book. I suspect Woodson consulted a published transcript of that notebook, but we no longer have to. The Massachusetts Historical Society, which owns the farm book, has posted page images online.
Page 31 lists children born enslaved on two Jefferson estates from 1779 to 1799. In the year 1790, according to rumors published by the political journalist James T. Callender in 1802 and the recollections of Madison Hemings in 1873, Sally Hemings gave birth to a boy conceived with Thomas Jefferson while they were in Paris. There’s no record of such a birth in the farm book—but an entry has been erased in the box for boys born in 1790.
Woodson saw this as possible evidence that Jefferson had covered up the birth of a boy named Thomas when it became politically or socially damaging. After looking at the page, I’m not so sure. There are other full or partial erasures in the notebook. The birth of Sally Hemings’s son Beverly in 1798 is still recorded on the right side of the same page. And the remnants of the mother’s name don’t seem to fit the word “Sally’s.”
COMING UP: More about the Jefferson farm records.