4.7 Harriet Hemings: Slave-Daughter of the President

Harriet Hemings

Harriet Hemings was the daughter of Sally Hemings and her owner, Thomas Jefferson. Legally, she was a slave. But when she “ran away” at age 21, it seems that she did so with Jefferson’s permission. An enormous amount has been written about Sally, but Harriet remains elusive. This is her story as far as it can be pieced together from the scanty bits of evidence that survive.  

Selected Sources and Images

My major source for today is Catherine Kerrison’s excellent book Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. In addition, you can read the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s report on the evidence both for and against the Jefferson-Hemings relationship on their website here. You’ll see that there are still some who argue that Jefferson was not the father, but most have accepted that he was.

All of Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book is also available on the Internet as images, but sadly, those images appear to not be in the public domain, so I cannot include them directly here. But you can see Harriet’s debut in it on the 1810 roll of Negroes in this image. Harriet is in the first column, between Sally 73 and Madison 05 Jan. And in case you’re wondering (as I initially did), no Sally was not 73 years old. It means she was born in 1873. In this image, written years later, you can see in the middle column that Beverly (born in 98) has “run away” and Harriet (born in 01) has “run.”

Unsurprisingly, there are no images of Harriet. So we’ve got just a silhouette of her up top, but here are some images she might have found familiar:

Monticello. Harriet Hemings was a house slave, not a field worker, so the inside of this building would have been very familiar to her.

Source: By YF12s – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This image from the Farm Book is in the public domain. It’s from 1795, so Harriet hasn’t been born yet, but you can see Sally in the first column, eight names down.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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