Early Family Origins and Life
The Jefferson family migrated from England and likely had arrived in America by early in the seventeenth century; Jefferson's great-grandfather was living in Virginia when he died in 1697. Although the Jeffersons were not among the elite landholding families of colonial Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's grandfather and great-grandfather, both also named Thomas, were well respected, held various public offices, and married advantageously.
Jane Randolph was born in Shadwell parish, London, on February 9, 1721, the daughter of Isham Randolph and Jane Rogers Randolph. By October 1725, the Randolph family was in Williamsburg. Jane Randolph married Peter Jefferson on October 3, 1739, in Goochland County, and afterward managed the household, bore ten children, and raised eight of them to adulthood. Though Thomas Jefferson's parents left few traces, recent scholarship has shown that they could read and write, counted clergymen, officeholders, mathematicians, and horticulturists among their acquaintances, and provided all of their children with educations that included music and dancing instruction.
Jefferson's early life at Shadwell, the family's Albemarle County plantation, was anything but rustic. The home contained books, musical instruments, silver, and imported household goods and textiles. Dozens of slaves were on hand to work the land, plant the gardens, and care for Jefferson and his siblings. Shadwell was modest compared with some Virginia plantations of the mid-eighteenth century, but the Jeffersons lived well and comfortably there. At the time of his death, in 1757, Peter Jefferson had become a man of property and standing, leaving a sizable unencumbered estate for the benefit of his large family, personal slaves to each of his children, and his books, desk, and bookcase to Jefferson. In addition to living at Shadwell, Jefferson spent seven years, from 1745 to 1752, at Tuckahoe, a plantation in Manakin managed by Jefferson's father.
Jefferson's parents and the nature of his relationship with them have perplexed historians for decades. He was only fourteen at the time of Peter Jefferson's death, had spent several years away at school, and his father had also been away from home for much of that time. The two may have spent little time together. No correspondence between father and son is found in all of Jefferson's copious papers. Nor do any letters remain extant between the son and his mother. Some historians have argued that this absence of documents indicates that there was a corresponding absence of affection as well. But it is at least as likely that such letters existed and were destroyed in the 1770 fire that burned Shadwell to the ground. Jefferson's letters to his siblings, together with more recent scholarship, provide ample evidence of family feeling, loyalty, support, and love.
On New Year's Day 1772 Jefferson married twenty-four-year-old Martha Wayles Skelton, the daughter of John Wayles and Martha Eppes Wayles and the widow of Bathurst Skelton. The couple met two years earlier and shared an affinity for music and literature and a family heritage that linked them both to the prestige and wealth of Virginia planter society. By all accounts they were well matched and deeply in love. Years later Jefferson described his wife as lively, good-natured, and wise, and encouraged his daughters and granddaughters to look to her example when shaping their own behavior.
His granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge recalled that her grandfather would often speak of her grandmother, "whose memory he cherished with deep and tender affection," and that "he often quoted to us her sayings and opinions, and would preface his own advice with 'your grandmother would have told you' 'your grandmother always said.'" Coolidge also noted that her grandmother "had a vivacity of temper which might sometimes border on tartness," but that "all the family traditions were greatly in her favour" and that "she made my grandfather's home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man's home should be."
Elizabeth Hemings was born early in the 1730s, the daughter of an English ship captain and a "full-blooded African" enslaved woman. She came to John Wayles, together with other slaves, when he married Martha Jefferson's mother, Martha Eppes. For slaves, the Hemingses held comparatively privileged positions in Jefferson's household. The Hemings women served as chambermaids and seamstresses, were clothed in Irish linen and calico rather than the usual slave attire of rough osnaburg, and were always exempted from field work. The men acted as butlers and personal manservants or became highly skilled craftsmen, and they were allowed to hire themselves out and keep their own wages when Jefferson was away for lengthy periods.
Jefferson was inconsolable. Years later his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph recalled that he was led away from his wife's deathbed in a state of insensibility and kept to his room for weeks. In October Jefferson wrote to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Eppes describing his life as miserable and wretched, adding that, were it not for his promise to care for his three surviving daughters, he would "not wish it's continuance a moment."
Of the Jeffersons' six children—five daughters and one son—two died in infancy and only two daughters, Martha and Mary (called Patsy and Polly by the family), survived to adulthood. Their last child, Lucy Elizabeth, died of whooping cough in October 1784. Jefferson's daughters, and their own children, became the focus of his domestic life from this point forward.
By December 1782 Jefferson was working once again, and he and his daughter Martha were living in Philadelphia, where she continued her education under the direction of tutors while he served in the Confederation Congress. In 1784, when Jefferson sailed to France, first to negotiate commercial treaties and then as minister plenipotentiary on behalf of the newly independent United States, twelve-year-old Martha Jefferson accompanied him. So, too, did Jefferson's nineteen-year-old half-brother-in-law James Hemings, albeit as Jefferson's slave, in order to study the art of French cookery and thereafter serve as chef in Jefferson's household. Mary Jefferson remained where she had been since late 1782, with her aunt Elizabeth Eppes, finally, and very reluctantly, coming to Paris in 1787 in the company of Hemings's younger sister Sally.
Sally Hemings may have had little to occupy herself while Martha and Mary studied at the Abbaye. Her primary duties likely included caring for the girls when they were home, maintaining their wardrobes, and attending to the friends who visited them from school. Many historians believe that at about this time Jefferson and Hemings began a relationship, the true nature of which continues to be a source of speculation and debate.
Jefferson, his daughters, and Sally and James Hemings returned to Monticello in December 1789, after five years in Paris. Though barely seventeen, Martha was now an accomplished young woman. Within two months she was married to her cousin Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. In 1797 Mary married another cousin, her childhood friend John Wayles Eppes.
The Presidency and Retirement
From the time of her return from Paris to Monticello, and throughout the years Jefferson served as president, Sally Hemings gave birth to six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. During Jefferson's first run for the presidency in 1800, rumors of his relationship with Hemings began to surface in Virginia newspapers. While sexual relationships—forced, coerced, or otherwise—between masters and their slaves were not unusual, they were generally considered private matters. When the journalist James Callender publicly accused Jefferson in 1802 of keeping Hemings "as his concubine," Jefferson never responded. Callender circulated the stories for several months, but by early 1803 few people were listening. Callender's attempts to ruin Jefferson politically had failed and Jefferson easily won reelection, serving a second presidential term that ended on March 4, 1809.
No known letters or documents mention or provide details of Hemings's life after her return from Paris. The births of her children, their provisioning with food and clothing, and their training and work duties were treated as no more or less worthy of record than those of any of the other slaves living at Monticello. Jefferson's white family members followed his example and remained silent on the question until the 1850s, when the Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall visited Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph at Edgehill, his Albemarle County farm. There, Randolph informed Randall that the father of Hemings's children was Jefferson's nephew Peter Carr. A few years later, Randolph's sister, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, repeated the story, but in her telling the father was Carr's brother Samuel Carr. This discrepancy, combined with the fact that two of Hemings's children were allowed to leave Monticello unhindered in 1822 and two others obtained their freedom after Jefferson's death in 1826, had at one time complicated the historical debate. Many historians now believe that Jefferson fathered at least one, and probably all, of Hemings's children.
With the death of Mary Jefferson Eppes in 1804, having the rest of his family close by became even more important to Jefferson. When he retired from public life in 1809, he urged the Randolph family to make its home with him at Monticello. "I look with infinite joy," he wrote his daughter Martha, "to the moment when I shall be ultimately moored in the midst of my affections."
Martha Jefferson Randolph and her family were likewise devoted to Jefferson. When he reached Monticello in March 1809, nine grandchildren were there to greet him—eight belonging to the Randolphs, and Francis Wayles Eppes, the only surviving child of Mary and John Wayles Eppes. In the years following, three more grandchildren were born at Monticello, and at the time of his death, Jefferson had twelve great-grandchildren.
Monticello proved to be a unique living environment. Gardens, orchards, groves, and lawns surrounded the home, and one visitor recalled watching Jefferson's grandchildren run footraces for the prize of a kiss from "Grand Papa." Jefferson was fond of children. Martha Randolph recalled that he "was always anxious to promote any plan for their amusement, gratifying every wish as far as he could." Inside Monticello, art and sculpture graced the halls and literally thousands of books filled the shelves. Dinner-table conversations covered a wide range of topics, and included the older children of the household, extended family members, and friends, as well as the artists, statesmen, diplomats, scientists, and authors who frequently visited Jefferson.
On occasions, however, the family was left to itself, undisturbed by visitors and the pressing demands of hospitality. Jefferson's granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist recalled evenings spent playing "several childish games" that he had taught them, and then, when the candles were brought in, following his example by taking up a book to read quietly. Often she saw her grandfather "raise his eyes from his own book and look round on the little circle of readers, and smile."
Still, Jefferson was able to enjoy some of the "rest, peace, and good will" he had hoped for amongst his family at Monticello. He witnessed the courtships and marriages of three granddaughters and two grandsons, saw the birth of his first great-grandchildren, and died surrounded by an extended family devoted to him.
February 29, 1708 - Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, is born near present-day Richmond.
February 9, 1721 - Jane Randolph, mother of Thomas Jefferson, is born in Shadwell parish, London.
October 3, 1739 - Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph marry, probably at the Goochland County home of Randolph's father, Isham.
April 13, 1743 - Thomas Jefferson is born at Shadwell, in Albemarle County, to Jane Randolph Jefferson and Peter Jefferson.
January 1, 1772 - Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton marry at the Forest, the Wayles plantation in Charles City County.
September 27, 1772 - Martha Jefferson is born at Monticello to Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson.
ca. 1773 - Sally Hemings is born enslaved at the Forest, in Charles City County, likely the daughter of John Wayles, an English lawyer and planter, and Wayles's slave Elizabeth Hemings.
August 1, 1778 - Mary Jefferson is born at Monticello to Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson.
1784–1789 - Thomas Jefferson serves the United States as minister plenipotentiary, living in Paris, with his two daughters, Martha and Mary, and two of his slaves, James and Sally Hemings.
February 23, 1790 - Martha Jefferson and Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. marry at Monticello.
January 23, 1791 - Anne Cary Randolph is born at Monticello. She is the first child born to Martha Jefferson Randolph and Thomas Mann Randolph Jr.
1795 - Harriet Hemings is born to the enslaved servant Sally Hemings at Monticello. Her reputed father is Thomas Jefferson. She dies in 1797.
October 13, 1797 - John Wayles Eppes and Maria (also called Mary or Polly) Jefferson marry at Monticello.
1798 - Beverly Hemings is born to the enslaved servant Sally Hemings at Monticello. His reputed father is Thomas Jefferson.
1801–1809 - Thomas Jefferson serves as president of the United States.
1801 - Harriet Hemings is born to the enslaved servant Sally Hemings at Monticello. Her reputed father is Thomas Jefferson.
September 20, 1801 - Francis Wayles Eppes is born at Monticello to Maria (also Mary) Jefferson Eppes and John Wayles Eppes.
April 17, 1804 - Maria Jefferson Eppes dies at Monticello from complications resulting from childbirth.
1805 - Madison Hemings is born to the enslaved servant Sally Hemings at Monticello. His reputed father is Thomas Jefferson.
1808 - Eston Hemings is born to the enslaved servant Sally Hemings at Monticello. His reputed father is Thomas Jefferson.
March 4, 1809 - After two terms as president, Thomas Jefferson retires from public life and returns to Monticello.
March 6, 1815 - Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Jane Hollins Nicholas marry at Warren, her family's estate. The couple lives at Monticello for the first two years of their marriage.
March 10, 1818 - George Wythe Randolph is born at Monticello, in Albemarle County, the twelfth surviving child of Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. and Martha Jefferson Randolph.
February 1, 1819 - Charles Lewis Bankhead and Thomas Jefferson Randolph engage in a street brawl in Charlottesville. Randolph is Thomas Jefferson's grandson. Bankhead is married to Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead.
January 1824 - Difficulties between Martha Jefferson Randolph and Thomas Mann Randolph increase, as do conflicts between Thomas Mann Randolph and his eldest son, leading to an estrangement that lasts for more than four years.
February 11, 1826 - Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead dies due to childbirth complications following her twelfth pregnancy. She is buried at Monticello.
July 4, 1826 - Thomas Jefferson dies at Monticello.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Francavilla, L. A. Thomas Jefferson and His Family. (2016, April 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Thomas_and_His_Family.
- MLA Citation:
Francavilla, Lisa A. "Thomas Jefferson and His Family." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Apr. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 28, 2015 | Last modified: April 21, 2016
Contributed by Lisa A. Francavilla, managing editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at the International Center for Jefferson Studies.