How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

How Sally Hemings arrived in Paris

— SALLY WAS NOT THE SLAVE Jefferson requested


In 1782, Jefferson’s wife Martha died, leaving behind three surviving daughters. His wife’s death devastated Jefferson, who swore on her deathbed that he would never remarry. Around this same time, Jefferson was elected by Congress to travel to serve as a Minister to France, but he declined.

Two years after later, Jefferson was again elected by Congress in 1784 to serve as Minister to France “for the purpose of negotiating treaties of commerce.” This time he obeyed the request and in 1785 moved to Paris, accompanied by his oldest daughter Patsy (Martha), along with James Hemings (Sally’s older brother), who would serve as chef and learn the art of French cooking. Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson did not bring Sally Hemings along with him to Paris, nor did he later request Sally to join them in Paris. Rather, he requested as a last resort an older and more mature slave named Isabel to accompany his youngest daughter Polly (aka Maria/Mary) to Paris.

Not long after arriving in France, Jefferson was informed of the death of his youngest daughter Lucy back in Virginia. This was devastating to Jefferson, since Lucy was the fourth child Jefferson had lost and only three years after the immobilizing loss of his wife. Stricken with grief, he sent a request for his daughter Polly to travel to France to join him and his other daughter Martha, who were then his last two surviving children.

Jefferson wrote to Francis Eppes, his sister-in-law’s husband, requesting that he locate “some good lady” to accompany Polly, or if not a “careful gentleman” along with a slave woman, specifically suggesting an older nurse named “Isabel”.  Nowhere does he mention Sally Hemings in the letter:

With respect to the person to whose care she should be trusted, I must leave it to yourself and Mrs. Eppes altogether. Some good lady passing from America to France, or even England, would be most eligible; but a careful gentleman who would be so kind as to superintend her would do. In this case some woman who has had the small-pox [inoculation] must attend her. A careful negro woman, as Isabel, for instance, if she has had the smallpox, would suffice under the patronage of a gentleman. —Thomas Jefferson[1]

However, Isabel was either recovering from childbirth or ill (presumed from the smallpox inoculation) and was not well enough to make the journey overseas.[3] Instead, Sally Hemings, Polly’s personal maid and likely her childhood friend, was chosen to accompany her, contrary to Jefferson’s written request. At the time, Polly was 8-years-old, and Sally was approximately 14-years old.

Two of the only existing eye-witness accounts of Sally Hemings’ demeanor came during her voyage to France.

One account was from Captain Andrew Ramsay, the ship captain who was entrusted to bring the girls across the Atlantic Ocean to London on their way to Paris. His impression of Sally was relayed by Abigail Adams, wife of future President John Adams (who was then serving as Minister to England). Captain Ramsay had personally delivered the girls to Abigail Adams for their brief stay in London. Upon their arrival, Mrs. Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson saying that Captain Ramsay had observed Sally and Polly during the voyage and felt that Sally was immature and not a capable caregiver to Polly:

The old Nurse [Isabel] whom you expected to have attended her, was sick and unable to come. She has a Girl [Sally]… with her, the Sister of the Servant [James Hemings] you have with you… The Girl who is with her is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of opinion will be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him. But of this, you will be a judge. She seems fond of the child and appears good naturd [sic]. —Abigail Adams[4]

Ten days later, after having had the chance to observe the two children for herself for an extended period, Abigail Adams wrote again to Jefferson about her concern of Sally’s incapacity as a caretaker for Polly:

The Girl she has with her, wants more care than the child, and is wholly incapable of looking properly after her, without some superior to direct her.  —Abigail Adams[5]

These historical, first-hand characterizations of Sally Hemings as a naïve and immature child differ markedly from the portrayal of her as an attractive, developed woman who traveled with Jefferson to Paris and swept him off his feet, as depicted in Hollywood remakes of the scenario. In these fictionalized accounts, Jefferson allegedly fell in love with Sally Hemings while in Paris and conceived a child with her there, later to be born in America supposedly as a slave named Tom Woodson. However, in 1998 that claim was proven false when DNA results for five different Woodson descendants showed no connection at all with Jefferson-male DNA. Thus some other man was the father of that child.

To make the notion of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings more believable, in the CBS miniseries Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, the actress who played the part of Sally Hemings was 25-years old, an entire decade older than Sally’s age at the time. The feature film Jefferson in Paris employed the same tactic, misrepresenting the true age and appearance of Sally Hemings as she was portrayed by an actress that was 23-years old.

In the New York Times, Historian Phyllis Lee Levin, author of the historical biography Abigail Adams, criticized the modern and historically inaccurate versions of Sally Hemings in Paris:

If you compare [the] version of “Dashing Sally” Hemings, “admired from Monticello to Paris as a great beauty” to the on-the-spot descriptions of her forlorn appearance when she first turned up on Abigail Adams’s London doorstep, you have no choice but to congratulate Jefferson’s so-called slave mistress for effecting one of the most remarkable make-overs of all time…. One wonders, given her startling metamorphosis from bedraggled to “dashing,” if Sally Hemings, for the sake of a movie, hasn’t been turned into a Colonial Cinderella. —Phyllis Lee Levin[6]

The eye witness characterizations by both Captain Ramsay and Abigail Adams are also in sharp contrast to the description made over 80 years later by Sally Hemings son Madison Hemings, who, in his old age, claimed that four years after her arrival in Paris the then seventeen-year-old Sally Hemings would negotiate a treaty with Jefferson — one of the smartest minds in history — to have her children freed when they reached 21 years of age, although for some reason did not negotiate her own freedom. Madison himself was not 21 but 22 when he was freed, and his older brother Beverly didn’t leave Monticello until he was 24.[7] Alternatively, the only record of a “treaty” or an agreement was reached not with Sally Hemings but between Jefferson and Sally’s brother James Hemings, who negotiated his own freedom. Other than Madison Hemings’ claim, there is no record of any “treaty” between Jefferson and Sally Hemings.[8] Jefferson did free James Hemings after their return to Virginia, but James found it difficult living on his own as a free black man, and unfortunately he later committed suicide.[9]

The claim of a treaty with Sally Hemings is based on the theory that she had leverage over Jefferson since she was supposedly pregnant with his baby (presumed to be Tom Woodson) at the time. The Woodson family oral history had always claimed that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson. However, in 1998 that claim was proven false when DNA results for five different Woodson descendants showed no connection at all to any Jefferson male DNA. Thus some other man was the father of that child.

There has never been an account by any of the hundreds if not thousands of people who came in contact with Jefferson that noted any behavior or hint of a relationship between him and Sally Hemings. Many historians and novelists have theorized and fictionalized these notions but there are no first-hand accounts of such behavior. There are many descriptions of Jefferson’s disciplined composure and the way he carried himself around people, but there is practically nothing on Sally Hemings. In fact, the only first-hand observations of Sally Hemings demeanor in the entire historical record come from Captain Ramsay and Abigail Adams upon her arrival in London. Beyond these two descriptions, everything else is speculation.


[1] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes [30 August 1785]
[3] The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p 148.  Cynthia H. Burton, Jefferson Vindicated, p.105, letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson.
[4] Abigail Adams letters to Thomas Jefferson, June 26 & 27, 1787
[5] Abigail Adams letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 6, 1787
[6] Letter to the New York Times, April 18, 1995.
[7] The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: The Report of the Scholars Commission, p 116-117
[8] Thomas Jefferson, Agreement with James Hemings, 15 September 1793
[9] Maria Godoy, Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery, NPR, October 17, 2015.

Image: Notre Dame bridge in Paris 1751. Nicolas Raguenet, La joute des mariniers, entre le pont Notre-Dame et le pont au Change, 1751. Oil on canvas, 47 x 83.5 cm. Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Photo: Claudio Gallego.