Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history. Hemings lived at a time when chattel slavery existed in every American colony, but was dramatically expanding and thriving in the Virginia that was her home. She was, by law, an item of property—a nonwhite, female slave, whose life was bounded by eighteenth-century attitudes about how such persons fit into society. Those attitudes, years in the making by the time Hemings was born, fascinate because they are at once utterly familiar and totally alien. Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them. We also know that hierarchies, based on any number of factors, exist in every society, enriching the lives of some and blighting the lives of others.


Yet, slavery is a different matter altogether. There are workers all over the world who live desperate lives with little hope of advancement for themselves or their children. There are women who are held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes or to clean others' homes and care for others' families while their own families go unattended. None of these conditions approach the systematic degradation and violence of American slavery sanctioned by state and church.

To say to an American that Elizabeth Hemings was "born a slave" is to call forth a particular image of who she was, how she lived her life, and even how she spoke and carried herself. That is because slavery lives in the minds of most Americans as a series of iconic images: a slave ship packed tight with human cargo, a whip, the auction block, slaves speaking one universal and timeless dialect, black figures toiling in cotton fields. That last image—the cotton field—has most strongly influenced our view, freezing the institution in its antebellum period when cotton was "king" and when slavery had, in the view of one influential historian, been thoroughly domesticated.  By the time "King Cotton" arrived in the nineteenth century, enslaved Virginians of African origin, and those of English extraction whose ancestors introduced slavery into the Old Dominion, had long since become Americans, and the institution that defined their existence together had adapted itself, it seemed, for the long haul.

What had gone before, the process that brought those two groups into their "Americanness," is largely the province of scholars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There are many reasons for this, but several immediately come to mind. First, American slavery at its beginnings—obscure, distant, and tragic—is probably for most people a less attractive point of focus than the story of the discovery and political founding of the American nation. If you like your history heroic—and many people seem to—the story of slavery in the early American period is simply not the place to go looking for heroes, at least not among the people most commonly written about.


Second, with the exception of periodic bouts of "founders chic," in which the men credited with drawing up the blueprint for the United States are pitted against one another—Hamilton was really better than Jefferson, Madison was better than Adams, and Franklin was better than all of them—the colonial and Revolutionary period in America has so far failed to capture the cultural imagination the way the Civil War era has. There is no Gone with the Wind for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no literature wallowing in the romance of defeat, no passionate attachments to divisive symbols that live on to poison contemporary race relations and threaten the American future. The Civil War is over, but the politics that fueled it and helped design its aftermath are still very much with us, playing out in various racially charged and seemingly intractable disputes about desegregation, affirmative action, even the continued use in the public sphere of a Confederate battle flag that once flew against the United States of America.

It is not as if no heroism or romance were to be found in the colonial period. Schoolchildren are told an uplifting story about English men and women escaping religious persecution to build their own cities upon the hill in what would become New England. Elizabeth Hemings's Virginia, however, presents a real problem. It is hard to associate the earliest Virginians who controlled society with any aspiration loftier than that of making a killing. The colony was, after all, founded by the Virginia Company.  Voracious land grabbing and land speculation, aided and abetted by the manipulation of public offices, made a relative handful of people wealthy.Unless one is willing and able to overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this society, the story of Virginia's origins does not lend itself to romanticizing. This is probably why for most Americans the national narrative begins at Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims.

All this seems worlds away from where we are now, but despite its comparative remoteness, the colonial period in America, as experienced in both the North and the South, in very critical ways helped define who we are today. For one thing, it was during that period that the basic meanings of "whiteness" and "blackness" were in the process of being defined for the American population. However it has been expressed over the years, the association of whiteness with power and privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America ever since. It has survived revolution, civil war, massive immigration, two world wars, the Cold War, and the tremendous social upheaval during the latter part of the twentieth century. Because we are still living with this, it is worthwhile for us to consider the world that greeted the matriarch of the Hemings family in the mid-1700s.


The Africans and the English

By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans ("negars") arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.

The transformation was hardly instantaneous. It took time—spanning the last seven decades of the 1600s—for the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least the hope of it) for the English and their descendants.


Negative views about the color black existed within English culture long before Englishmen actually encountered people with "black" skin. Black was evil. Black was dirty. Although other evidence suggests that people of African origin were not universally reviled in England, the tendency to see black negatively was definitely a part of English culture. Naturally, its view of whiteness carried all the opposite meanings. Color, then, became an expression of a person's essence.

This was a two-way street, with the Africans thinking along the same lines about their white counterparts, but in the process reversing the conclusions. They saw themselves as different from whites and often imbued whiteness with negative characteristics. Whites were physically ugly—one "African ruler thought 'all Europeans looked like ugly sea monsters'"—cannibalistic, and disfavored by God. A seventeenth-century European traveler reported that some "local blacks" he had met said that "'while God created Blacks as well as White Men,' the Lord preferred the blacks." Others referred to a Danish man as being "'as white as the devil.'" Once blacks and whites were together in the new world of Virginia, where Anglo-American colonists controlled society, only the whites' perception of the meaning of differences between the races counted. They could, and did, codify their understanding of what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white, with devastating consequences for people of African origin.

In the end, the Anglo-Virginians introduced a form of chattel slavery unknown in their home country—a system of bondage based upon race. There was no direct precedent from their home country for doing what they did; in fact, it required them to break rather quickly with one important long-held tradition and understanding that they had carried with them across the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful deviation from English tradition—one that would set the course of Elizabeth Hemings's life and the lives of her descendants—was the Virginia colonists' decision to abandon the English tradition that determined a person's status by the status of the father. In England you "were" what your father "was." Inventing the rules of slavery, in 1662, Virginians decided to adopt the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem, which says that you were what your mother was. This important departure from tradition had enormous consequences for the progress of slavery and the mapping of Virginia's racial landscape. Although the preamble to the legislation states the impetus for the law—"doubts have arisen whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or ffree"—there is no language explaining exactly why, in Virginian colonial society, the ways of ancient Rome should emerge as superior to the more readily available and familiar English tradition. There are some reasonable speculations.


Imagine what might have been the course of slavery in Virginia had the colonists followed their English tradition. White men, particularly the ones who made up the House of Burgesses, the legislature in colonial Virginia, were the masters of growing numbers of African women, owning not only their labor but their very bodies. That these women sometimes would be used for sex as well as work must have occurred to the burgesses. Inevitably offspring would arise from some of these unions. Even white males who owned no slaves could contribute to the problem by producing, with enslaved black women, children who would be born free, thus destroying a critical component of the master's property right: the ability to capture the value of the "increase" when female slaves gave birth.

Partus sequitur ventrem, then, was an important first principle in this nascent slave-owning society based upon race. Like all efficient legal rules, it achieved its aim—here, the maximum protection of property rights—with little or no intervention by the state or other third parties. The private conduct of men would have no serious impact on the emerging slave society as a whole. White men could engage in sex with black women without creating a class of freeborn mixed-race people to complicate matters. Men, who can produce many more children than women, and who throughout history have been less subject to social stricture for their sexuality, constituted the greater potential threat for bringing this class into being. Whatever the social tensions and confusion created by the presence of people who were neither black nor white, Virginia's law on inheriting status through the mother effectively ended threats to slave masters' property rights when interracial sex produced children who confounded the supposedly fixed categories of race.

The "Full-blooded African" Woman and the "Englishman"

As the daughter of an enslaved African woman and an Englishman, Elizabeth Hemings physically embodied the strange and devastating encounter between black and white in colonial Virginia. As we will see, Hemings's father indeed cared that his daughter might be in perpetual bondage. There was nothing he could do. His whiteness and free status could not save her from the fate ordained by seventeenth-century legislators. What loomed before her, at Bermuda Hundred, the Forest, Guinea, Elk Hill, and, finally, Monticello grew out of their very particular construction of slavery, status, and race.


Although mixed-race people like Hemings were a recognized category in early Anglo-American statutes, they enjoyed no advantages at law. The statutory listings of "negroes" and "mulattoes" were really a way to emphasize that mixed-race people had the same status as blacks. While being mixed race did not stop people from being slaves, it could affect the course of an individual slave's life. During most of the time of slavery in Virginia, emancipated slaves tended to be of mixed race. That should not surprise. Some fathers wanted to free their children. It also makes perfect sense in a world fueled by white supremacy. There was a marked tendency to cast mixed-race people as superior to their black fellows, for no partly white person could be all bad. In the end, although the overwhelming majority of mixed-race slaves endured lives every bit as harsh as those of slaves who were not mixed, being mixed race mattered, and Hemings and others like her complicated in ways large and small whites' determination to create a slave society based upon race.

Madison Hemings, one of Elizabeth's many grandsons, said one such complication arose early on in young Elizabeth's life. Hemings, speaking about his grandmother's origins, said that the disjuncture between having an enslaved black mother and a free white father was the source of conflict in Elizabeth's early childhood. Her father, "the captain of an English trading vessel," met Elizabeth's mother, described as a "full-blooded African, and possibly a native of that country," at or near Williamsburg. Captain Hemings wanted to buy his daughter, whom he had acknowledged as his "own flesh." Even though he offered "an extraordinarily large price for her," Hemings's owner, identified as "John Wales," refused to sell the child. When this happened, Captain Hemings plotted to "take the child by force or stealth." His plans were thwarted when "leaky fellow servants" of Elizabeth's mother alerted "Mr. Wales," who then brought mother and child into the "great house," where he could keep an eye on them. Hemings explained that his grandfather refused to sell his grandmother because he was interested in how this mixed-race child would turn out. After a while Captain Hemings gave up and left Virginia and his child.

Exactly where in Africa Elizabeth Hemings's mother was supposed to have come from is unknown. That she was African fits extremely well with the demographic profile of Virginia at the time of her daughter's birth. The 1730s marked the high tide for importation of Africans into the colony. More were brought into the Old Dominion during this period than in any other decade in which the slave trade was legal. Newly imported Africans made up 34 to 44 percent of the colony's total slave population. The largest numbers were from Angola, followed by the Bight of Biafra (off the coast of Nigeria) and the region of Senegambia (Senegal and Gambia). The Williamsburg area had particularly high concentrations of people who had been born in Africa, making it a place full of Africans of diverse ethnic origins, native-born blacks, Anglo-American colonists, and English seamen—a multicultural, multilingual province, where an English ship captain would likely encounter a "full-blooded African" woman.


Under law Elizabeth Hemings's father had no right to her, and if he wanted his child, unless her owner in the spirit of generosity wanted to give her away, he would have had to buy her. If the owner refused, there was no recourse. But just who owned Elizabeth when she was born? Although John Wayles did live near Williamsburg, in Charles City County, he apparently did not own Elizabeth Hemings at her birth. Rather, he came into ownership of her when she was about eleven years old upon his marriage to Martha Eppes in 1746. The couple's marriage settlement (essentially a contract that, among other things, allowed the wife to retain control over property brought to the marriage, which in slaveholding areas very often meant slaves) included Elizabeth Hemings and, presumably, her mother because whoever owned the mother owned the child. This confusion over ownership, and the tangle that emerges in sorting it out, reveals with great clarity what happened when human beings were treated as "things."

Elizabeth's owners, the Eppeses, were among the earliest arrivals to Virginia from their native England.  The family took up residence along the James and Appomattox Rivers in Henrico County. Like other arriving families of the day, the Eppeses achieved large landholdings through the headright system, a scheme designed to stimulate immigration to Virginia. In the beginning years of the colony, when the experiment seemed in danger of failure, the owners of the Virginia Company decided to take drastic measures to get bodies into the colony to do productive work. Throughout the seventeenth century and into the beginning of the eighteenth, anyone who paid his way or for passage of other immigrants to Virginia received fifty acres of land for each person, hence the term "headright." For a time, people received headrights for bringing in African slaves.

Francis Eppes obtained seventeen hundred acres of land under this system, giving his family a valuable head start in the emerging colony. As the years passed, members of the clan followed the standard practice of elites the world over, marrying into other families of similar "rank," or sometimes even their own cousins. These unions further concentrated landownership within the small planter elite. With the greater amount of land came the greater need for hands to work the fields of tobacco that quickly emerged as the colony's lifeblood. Until a population bust and improved economic prospects in England dried up immigration, white indentured servants provided the bulk of the work. The expansion of the slave trade provided a new labor source. In this way those who would later be called the first families of Virginia became enthusiastic promoters and beneficiaries of African slavery.


One obvious aspect of Elizabeth Hemings's story often gets lost in dealing with the gravely serious issues of slavery and race, and that is the issue of how she looked. Superficial as it is, appearance matters; and it matters even more for women. The only physical description we have of Elizabeth Hemings is that she was a "bright mulatto" woman. But descriptions of several of her daughters and granddaughter refer to them as having been extremely attractive women. White men said this as well as black men. Elizabeth herself was able to attract males of both colors well into her forties. Saying that whites reacted to Elizabeth Hemings in a particular way because she was mixed race, and thus physically more familiar to them, may not do justice to all that was going on with her. Not all mixed-race women would have been considered attractive. If Hemings, as a child and later as an adult, was seen as pretty, that might also account for the way people reacted to her, and not only in a sexual sense. Being pretty, of course, would not have made her free, nor would it have made those who dominated her life see her as an equal human being. Those truths, however, are not the only criteria for considering the important influences in her life.

While work shaped the daily routines of slaves, and a few like Elizabeth were "favored" in some sense by their masters, being considered property made all slaves' lives inherently unstable. Designating an item (of whatever form) as property gives the owner the right to use, sell, and prevent others from having access to that item. Whim, caprice, careless indifference, cruelty, grim determination, self-centered passionate attachment—every emotion or thought that owners can have about their property ranged over the lives of Elizabeth and other enslaved African Virginians. They, this inappropriate property, responded as best they could within the small spaces their circumstances allowed, but the regime of private property set the tone, pace, and progress of their lives. When a master died, when one of his children got married, when a creditor had to be paid, a slave's life could be transformed in an instant. Husbands were separated from wives when they were given as wedding presents. Slave families, assets in the hands of executors, were often scattered to the four winds to pay off a decedent's debts. All of these things would touch the lives of various members of the Hemings family for more than a century. But one, the marriage of John Wayles to Martha Eppes, would turn out to be the signal event in the young life of the African and English woman who was to become the family's matriarch.

Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed

Read the previous excerpt, "Sally Hemings in Paris."

Read Annette Gordon-Reed's essay about writing this book, "Sally Hemings and Me."


Tomorrow on The Root: In the next excerpt, "The First Monticello," author Annette Gordon-Reed examines the contradictions inherent in the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson families-united by slavery and blood ties. The relationship began at the childhood home of Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles Jefferson, a Williamsburg-area plantation known as the "The Forest."  At that estate, the Hemings matriarch Elizabeth bore several children with her owner, John Wayles. Elizabeth's last child, Sally became half-sister, servant and confidant to Martha Wayles Jefferson, as well as mother of several children by Thomas Jefferson.