Whether the children of Sally Hemings were fathered by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was debated for more than 200 years until YDNA testing provided new evidence. Read more about this presidential paternity case and the results of a YDNA test.
In January 2000–more than 20 years ago–a research committee from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation reported a body of DNA and historical evidence supporting the longtime rumors that U.S. President Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved.
It’s a great case study for understanding how DNA and historical evidence must be considered together to answer genealogical questions. This story also reveals the powerful reach of YDNA into a many-generations-deep mystery to provide both positive and negative genetic evidence.
Sally Heming and Thomas Jefferson
Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was rumored to have fathered six children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved. The rumors came to light during his first term in office, but neither Jefferson, nor his family, nor Hemings ever made public or private comment. Two of Jefferson’s grandchildren claimed that Peter and Samuel Carr, Jefferson’s nephews, had fathered two enslaved people at Monticello. But two of Hemings’ children, Madison and Eston, claimed Thomas was their father, and this belief was passed along their descendants.
YDNA test results
In 1998, DNA testing–specifically YDNA testing–shed more light on the claims. Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists conducted YDNA testing on male-line descendants of Eston Hemings as well as male-line descendants of both Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, who would share his YDNA signature) and John Carr (the grandfather of Jefferson Carr’s nephews, who would share their YDNA signature).
Why this approach? YDNA passes almost entirely intact from fathers to sons; it mutates only very slowly over time. Even though many generations have passed, a YDNA connection between Hemings’ descendants and those of either the Jeffersons or Carrs would still be strong now.
Results showed that Eston’s descendants shared no Y-chromosome relationship with the Carrs. But researchers discovered that Eston did indeed carry the Jefferson Y chromosome. Quoting from its assessment of the DNA study:
“The results clearly show that the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings have identical Y-chromosome haplotypes (the particular combination of variants at defined loci on the chromosome). Scientists note that there is less than a 1 percent probability that this is due to chance. Thus the haplotype match is over one hundred times more likely when Jefferson and Eston Hemings are genetically related through the male line. This study by itself does not establish that Hemings’s father was Thomas Jefferson, only that Hemings’s father was a Jefferson.” (source)
That last sentence is key: carrying the Jefferson Y chromosome did not specifically prove descent from Thomas. YDNA can’t uniquely distinguish between brothers or other close male relatives who have the same Y signature.
About 25 Jefferson males who would have that same Y signature were living in the Virginia area at the time. So how did the finger get so confidently pointed at Thomas? Quoting again from the committee’s report:
“While there is a scientific possibility that Randolph Jefferson (Jefferson’s brother), one of his sons, or one of Field Jefferson’s grandsons, was the father of Eston Hemings, the preponderance of known historical evidence indicates that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Randolph Jefferson and his sons are not known to have been at Monticello at the time of Eston Hemings’s conception, nor has anyone, until 1998, ever before publicly suggested them as possible fathers. Field Jefferson’s grandsons are unlikely candidates because of their distance from Monticello….
“The committee analyzed the timing of Jefferson’s well-documented visits to Monticello and the births of Sally Hemings’s children. According to this analysis, the observed correlation between Jefferson’s presence at Monticello and the conception windows for Hemings’s known children is far more likely if Jefferson or someone with an identical pattern of presence at and absence from Monticello was the father. There is no documentary evidence suggesting that Sally Hemings was away from Monticello when Jefferson was there during her conception windows.”
You can find additional reasons supported by historical evidence in the full report.
In historical paternity questions, often historical research alone can’t answer the question. And often DNA alone can’t provide an answer, either. But together, in the Hemings/Jefferson paternity case, they make a strong enough argument for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to come to this conclusion:
“The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.”
When used properly, DNA can give us answers that records typically used for genealogy can’t. YDNA in particular can help you discover information far back on paternal lines.
Want to learn more about YDNA testing and how it might help YOU with your ancestral paternity mysteries? Mysteries such as a completely unknown father on your family tree. Or questionable paternity. Or which of two men who had the same name (but weren’t related to each other) was the father.
Enroll in our free YDNA Mini Course so that you can learn several questions that YDNA can tackle, who to test for a given question, and how to use YDNA to solve family history mysteries!
What to read next? YDNA “Paternity Test:” An Ancestral Case Study