J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Looking for Thomas Woodson and Finding a Blank

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.
I suspect that in the late 1800s, after Thomas Woodson’s long life, his relatives tried to learn more about his origin, and connected hints about his past with statements about Sally Hemings that had been in print for decades. Then that tradition was passed down, feeling more certain with each generation. It’s tough to give up the understandings we grow up with. But Thomas Woodson and his family have plenty of accomplishments of their own (documented in the book) which don’t depend on a presidential past.

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.


Anonymous said...

What's interesting about the Woodsons is that several branches of the family that had no contact with one another in the 20th century preserved a similar tale of descent.

Also, Thomas Jefferson's maternal aunt, Dorothea, was married to a John Woodson, who had a plantation in Virginia on the James River. John Woodson's cousin, Drury Woodson, owned the woman who became Thomas Woodsons' wife. He was also her father...

J. L. Bell said...

I wish A President in the Family had done a better job of documenting the earliest written statements about Thomas Woodson’s paternity, and/or when the family branches divided. As it is, the book isn’t clear on how far back we can trace the understanding.

Simply by surname, I’d look for Thomas Woodson’s roots on a plantation owned by a man named Woodson.

It’s interesting that Sally Hemings’s youngest child, Eston, eventually changed his surname from Hemings to Jefferson. He was obviously making a point.

Anonymous said...

Several years after Madison and Eston moved to Ohio, Ohio passed some laws aimed at discouraging former slaves from moving to the state, monetary fees...

Chillicothe was a bit of an island in hostile waters. Even so, some of the Woodsons were murdered for supporting the underground railroad.

Eston probably changed his surname to acknowledge his father, but also to escape into white society. His 20th century descendants didn't know that the "H" in Eston H. Jefferson stood for "Hemings" until they read Fawn Brodie's book.

In addition to the initial blowup from 1802 - 1805, the Jefferson - Hemings story persisted worldwide in various publications, and was resurrected periodically in service of various political agendas. Eston probably wanted to get away from that for his own sake and of his children.

Madison, however, in his old age, having seen several of children pass away, and not willing to, or perhaps not able to pass as white, probably was more open to telling the story.

J. L. Bell said...

I bet a major factor in Madison Hemings’s public statements (to a U.S. Census taker and then to a newspaper) was timing.

The 1870 census was the only one during the nineteenth century that came when the federal government was pushing toward equal rights for citizens of African descent. Before then, the national government was preserving slavery; afterwards, it was allowing or supporting segregation and other forms of discrimination. Not that there was true equality in 1870, of course, but the U.S. government was moving in that direction rather than blocking progress.

That political atmosphere during Reconstruction might have made Madison Hemings (and Israel Jefferson) comfortable with saying more about their lives enslaved at Monticello than they had been before, or than their families would be again for a long time.

There are indications, such as this 1902 Ohio newspaper story that Eston (Hemings) Jefferson and his family had described or hinted at their descent from Thomas Jefferson in private conversations. This casts grave doubt on the claim by some authors that the family never had an oral tradition of descending from the President.

I appreciate these comments, but I do like people commenting on Boston 1775 to sign their remarks with either a name or (as in the eighteenth century) a consistent pseudonym. Thanks.