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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Jefferson's Black Descendants in Wisconsin?

Rumors that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with a slave, Sally Hemings, started 200 years ago with this Sept. 1802 article in a Richmond newspaper. Recent DNA analysis persuaded many historans that Jefferson was indeed the likely father of Eston Hemings (1808-1856), who moved to Wisconsin in 1852 with his wife and three children.* A cabinet-maker and musician, Eston Hemings (who added Jefferson to his name when he moved to Wisconsin) died soon after coming to Madison and left little evidence about himself in the public record. His eldest child was John W. Jefferson (1835-1892), proprietor in the late 1850s of Madison's American House hotel across the street from the Capitol. He led Wisconsin's 8th Infantry during the Civil War, and sent letters home to the press. After being wounded twice, Col. Jefferson was mustered out in October 1864. Eston Hemings Jefferson's second child was a daughter, Anna W. Jefferson (1836-1866). She married in Madison but died young, and like her father left few traces in local documents. Eston's youngest child, Beverley Jefferson (1839-1908) worked for his brother and served briefly in the war before himself becoming proprietor of the American House and, later in the 1860s, of the Capitol House hotels. As a prominent hotel keeper in Madison and operator of a carriage and trucking service, he was well-known to most of the state's late-19th c. political leaders. His personality is described and his children are named in this obituary, which includes a photograph.

All of these presumed grandchildren of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson had light complexions like their grandmother, and passed as white in census and other public records. The entire Eston Hemmings family is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison.

* It's worth noting that some other historians, including people close to the DNA investigation, do not agree with its conclusions. The controversy continues.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 16, 2005

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