perhaps Bermuda Hundred, Chesterfield County, Virginia
|Died||1807 (aged 71–72)|
|Children||12, including Mary and James, Sally, John|
|Relatives||See Hemings family|
Elizabeth Hemings (c. 1735 – 1807) was an enslaved mixed-race woman in colonial Virginia. With her master, planter John Wayles, she had six children, including Sally Hemings. These children were three-quarters white, and, following the condition of their mother, they were enslaved from birth; they were half-siblings to Wayles's daughter, Martha Jefferson. After Wayles died, the Hemings family and some 120 other enslaved people were inherited, along with 11,000 acres and £4,000 debt, as part of his estate by his daughter Martha and her husband Thomas Jefferson.
More than 75 of Betty's mixed-race children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were enslaved from birth. They were forced to work on Jefferson's plantation of Monticello. Many had higher status positions as chefs, butlers, seamstresses, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and musicians in the household. Jefferson gave some of Betty's enslaved descendants to his sister and daughters as wedding presents, and they lived on other Virginia plantations.
Betty's oldest daughter Mary Hemings became the common-law wife of wealthy merchant Thomas Bell, who purchased her and their two children from Jefferson in 1792 and granted them greater freedoms than other enslaved people were typically permitted. Mary was the first of several Hemingses to gain freedom before the Civil War. Betty's daughter Sally Hemings had six children, all of whom were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, between 1795 and 1808. Jefferson freed all four of her surviving children when they came of age, two of them by his will. His daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally "her time," an informal freedom allowing her to live with her sons during her last decade.
According to the oral history of her descendants, Betty was the daughter of a "captain of an English trading vessel" and "a fullblooded African" woman. Madison Hemings in his memoir said the surname of the captain was Hemings; the family tradition was that he had tried to buy Betty when he discovered his daughter had been born. Annette Gordon-Reed speculated that Elizabeth's mother's name was Parthenia, based on the wills of Francis Eppes IV and John Wayles. The place of her birth is uncertain (Hemings said it was Williamsburg), but by 1746 Betty was recorded as the property of Francis Eppes IV of the Bermuda Hundred plantation.
Betty's grandson Madison Hemings related the family tradition that Betty was born into slavery as the property of "John Wales" (meaning he owned her mother. The family said Captain Hemings plotted to kidnap his daughter, but Wayles took measures against this.) Wayles may have sold Betty to Francis Eppes and later regained ownership of her when he married Eppes' daughter Martha as his first wife, or else Betty's grandson Madison may have confused some of the chronology.
After John Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746, her father Francis Eppes IV gave the couple Betty and her mother as part of his daughter's wedding settlement. He stipulated that Betty would always belong to Martha and her heirs (rather than being part of her husband's property). Betty was trained as a domestic servant at one of Wayles' plantations.
In the 1750s, Betty Hemings gave birth to the first four of her twelve children, whose father was a slave. The children were:
Betty's master John Wayles was widowed three times. In 1761, after the death of his third wife, Wayles and Betty began a relationship that produced six children. If that is true, they were half-siblings to his eldest daughter Martha Wayles, who married Thomas Jefferson. As the historians Philip D. Morgan and Joshua D. Rothman have written, there were numerous such interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families, and Albemarle County and Virginia, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern. Her children by Wayles were:
After Wayles died in 1773, all eleven members of the Hemings family and 124 other slaves were inherited by his daughter Martha Wayles and her husband Thomas Jefferson. The Jeffersons had the Hemings mixed-race children trained as skilled artisans and domestic servants, giving them privileged positions at the plantation. No member of the Hemings family worked in the fields.
While resident at Monticello, Betty Hemings had two more children:
In the last decade of her life, Betty Hemings had her own cabin at Monticello, from 1795 to 1807. She raised produce and sold it to the Jefferson household: items such as cabbages, strawberries, and chickens. Her former cabin site is being investigated as an archeological site. It is expected to yield new information about the daily lives of the enslaved African Americans at Monticello.
Historians have tended to accept the account that Betty Hemings and John Wayles had children together. Her last six children were multiracial, with three-quarters white ancestry. As is the case of many relationships between slaveholders and slaves, documentary evidence is slight. Betty was mentioned in John Wayles' will, which some take as an indication of a relationship. However, the marriage contract between John Wayles and Martha Eppes stipulated that Betty, her mother, and their descendants, should go to Martha Wayles and her heirs forever. According to contemporary accounts, some of Betty's children (including Sally) were nearly white in appearance. Other support is found in private letters from the first decade of the 19th century, which later became public.
The slave community at Monticello was well aware of the relationship. In 1873 Betty's grandson Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, both former slaves at Monticello, published newspaper interviews which said Wayles was the father of Sally Hemings and several other of Betty's children.
Betty Hemings has numerous descendants. Some of note are:
Fountain Hughes was a descendant of Wormley Hughes, one of Betty's grandsons who worked for Jefferson at Monticello. At the age of 101, when living in Baltimore in 1949, Fountain Hughes gave what is the last surviving recorded interview of a former slave. It is available online through the World Digital Library and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.