Shelved Dolls: Sally Hemings – Was She Really Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress?

sally hemings

This is not actually Sally Hemings! Do not be fooled! This is a still from Jefferson in Paris, a movie about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Seemingly, she stares at him in a sultry fashion in one scene. This scene.

There are some aspects about which everyone seems to agree regarding Sally Hemings.

The first is that she was a stone fox. Around the Monticello plantation where she grew up she was called “Dashing Sally” by the time she was about age 15.

When she arrived in Paris with President Jefferson, she captivated people. This is also something absolutely everyone agreed upon.

And then there are some other facts we know.

We know that Sally Hemings was born around 1773. She was the child of the slave Betty Hemings and planter John Wayles, who was her master. When Sally was about one year old, John Wayles died and his slaves were inherited by Thomas Jefferson and his new wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha was John’s daughter and so a half-sister to Sally but I don’t think they really acknowledged that relationship.

The slaves were moved to Monticello. Thomas and Martha Jefferson apparently had a happy marriage on the estate. He played the violin and she accompanied him on the piano. They had six children but only two daughters survived to adulthood. Then, about ten years after their marriage, Martha died at age 33. Jefferson was distraught, supposedly heartbroken over the loss of his wife. He shut himself away. He paced. Maybe I’m making that up, maybe not, but pacing feels right. He never remarried. He did go on to have well documented love affairs with a series of other women, including Betsey Walker and Maria Cosway, both of whom were married. (That’s not really relevant to Sally’s story, but if you want to get into the “Jefferson was an immoral man” camp right this moment, I thought it would be a good piece of information for you.)

We also know that Sally became the companion to Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Polly. Sally was considered very sweet natured and was well liked by the family. She moved with the family to Paris in 1787, where Jefferson was the United States Ambassador to France. Her brother, James Hemings, also went to Paris to train as a chef. Sally was quickly absorbed with the culture of the city. Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her biography, The Hemings at Monticello:

While James Hemings was busy plying his trade, his younger sister had little to do but absorb the routine of the household. This meant getting used to the other servants, who spoke another language and had their own cultural manners. Having no apparent role in the operations of the residence for long stretches of time, she was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly at the place.


From her perspective that may not have been at all a bad thing, rather a source of immense joy as her nonessential status left her free to experience her new surroundings in more of her own way…


One of the things Hemings learned fairly early on was how it felt to receive pay for one’s work. In January of 1788 she received her first recorded wages—twenty-four livres, plus an additional twelve as a New Year’s tip.  Hemings did not receive pay again until November; and when she did, the wage was half that of her brother, Jefferson having concluded that this was the appropriate rate.  Despite the cut, Hemings’s salary for the rest of her time in Paris was actually well above that of the average female live-in servant in France.


There are no indications what her job was.

But she did not spend all her time in France (where she resided for two years) just flitting around and absorbing French customs and being paid for a very ambiguous job.

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    • jendziura

      Brava on this piece!

    • LanierLikesYou

      I am ashamed to say that when I read the part about Ashley Wilkes I immediately thought “Nuh-uh! He was going to free the slaves when his father died!”
      I’ll go stand in the corner with my shame, but I also want to say that I enjoy this series very much.

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    • Ellen W.

      hsonian Magazine had a real eye-opening article about Jefferson a few months back. I had felt that he was kind of middle of the road in his personal morality but after that I’ve kind of decided he was sort of a jerk.

    • Katie

      If Sally Hemmings were alive today, she would be Olivia Pope.

      • Ashley Mayfield

        UM except that Sally was a DAMN SLAVE. can we not gloss over that fact??? i usually love this articles, but this was grossly ignorant that it’s embarrassing. Someone who is enslaved and someone who WORKS WILLINGLY for another person (in a racist sexist society, sure but not in a society WHERE PEOPLE OWN AND CAN BEAT AND KILL THEIR “PROPERTY”) is not the same thing. It is incredibly offensive to equate one with the other. I seriously can’t believe that Jen Dziura, who I wholeheartedly agreed with, has cosigned this incredibly obtuse piece of writing. The author illustrated more empathy and basic understanding for human life in every other piece she’s written, especially in the piece about Elizabeth Bathory. I am incredibly disappointed in this piece, Jennifer. Just keep writing about white women if this is the what happens when you branch out.

      • lori

        what does that have to do with anything in the story

    • Following-Truth

      According to the researchers at Monticello, Sally Hemings was born on February 9, 1773; and John Wayles died on May 28, 1773, when Sally was about 3 1/2 months old. (It would probably be more accurate to say that is generally accepted – rather than known with certainty – that Martha and Sally Hemings were born of the same father.) Martha was almost exactly 8 months older than Sally, and may have shared a family resemblance.

      >>John Wayles died and his slaves were inherited by Thomas Jefferson and his new wife, Martha Wayles Skelton.

      Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson grew up with Sally Hemings and all of the other Hemings family, from her childhood; as well as the other enslaved individuals who then came from her former home to Monticello, whether or not they may have been in good health or were older or infirm, Jefferson always referred to them in his notations as his ‘family.’

      >> He never remarried. He did go on to have well documented love affairs with a series of other women, including Betsey Walker and Maria Cosway, both of whom were married.

      This can not be known with certainty. What can be known is that on the evidence of his admission only, and of no other evidence, Jefferson acknowledged only that he had made inappropriate Advances to Mrs. Walker, which is meant to say clearly that nothing further took place. The same can be said for Mrs. Cosway, essentially, that Jefferson was utterly preoccupied with their shared interests during the time he spent in Paris. The Monticello website explains:

      > Though her husband’s extramarital affairs were no secret, Cosway was still a married woman. This fact, combined with dwindling encounters and perhaps an unknown event, contributed to a cooling of Jefferson’s interest. Thomas Jefferson returned to America in 1789, and Maria Cosway eventually moved to Lodi, Italy, and established a convent school for girls. Cosway and Jefferson corresponded intermittently over the years, with letters coming first from Cosway. At her home in Lodi, Cosway possessed a portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull that is now at the White House, presented by the Italian government on the occasion of the 1976 Bicentennial.<

    • Following-Truth

      This is an interesting piece. It’s hard to tell sometimes, what’s real and what is not, but I appreciate your writing it; and will read more … Thanks!

    • Eagle Eye

      Yeah, I’ve briefly studied aspects of slavery in the south and basically, its stomach-turning, (I mean, its slavery of course its stomach-turning). They basically institutionalized rape in addition to heightening everything awful and racist – where women who were lighter would be sold to slave owners as their mistresses, then their daughters (who were lighter still) would be sold and so on and so on,

      One of the means through which the (still racist) north would try and convince other racist northerners to end slavery was to find these basically white children, who maybe had had like one great-great-great grandmother who was the slave who started the cycle above and say things like look, these white children are slaves, we should end slavery.

      Its all super super gross – bleck

    • MR

      Jefferson was hypocrite. At first he abolished slavery in the Declaration of Independence and then striked that when the Southern colonies balked. I’m not sure if it happened exactly that way, but he was a Southerner and therefore could have negotiated very strongly for abolition, in that his own “enslaved property” would be freed. He had a more populist vision of the US government’s structure. It would have looked more the like the House of Commons today, with no upper house (Senate) or president. I have a book up in my library I bought in a used book store that educated me on this last point. It was published in the 1936. Yes, I believe he was the father of all of the children Sally bore.

    • Allie Candie

      I loved it when you put further reading lists on the end of ‘Shelved Dolls’. Any nods to what we should pick up on Sally Hemings? I’m from Ireland so not very familiar with much but the very basic facts about her…

      • Jennifer Wright

        Oh, God, I thought no one read those! Yes! Yes, I have recommendations! Read The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed. It is fascinating, and deals with three generations of the family. Also, if you are interested in mistresses of any kind, I think “A History of Mistresses” (a massive 500 page doorstopped of a book) is pretty definitive regarding a lot of them, and I find myself consulting it every single time I do a piece on someone’s concubine.

      • Allie Candie

        I’ve actually read quite a few books you’ve recommended after these pieces. Thanks for these recs!

    • survon1

      Our forefathers were a bunch of horn dogs. Like many of our present leaders. It is the same all across the globe.

    • Sibyla

      Well, anything she was, she was NOT as dark as Thandie Newton in Jefferson in Paris was. After TJ death she lived as “a free white woman”, and her children were quite white. I was so disapointed by James Ivory, who is usually so carefull about every detail in his films – and he allows such a blunder. Maybe I´m too particular, bur it completly ruined the film for my. BTW, TJ was a very troubled person- he hated slavery and wanted to free his slaves, but wasn´t able to because of his catastrofic money problems – his finances were in terrible mess (Monticello was never finished)