Hidden Room Of Thomas Jefferson’s Mansion Solves 200 Year Old Mystery
Thomas Jefferson is often heralded as a wise and moral man who helped lay the foundations for American democracy. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. We have memorials dedicated to him in the nation’s capitol, and his home in Virginia is a popular tourist destination. During some maintenance construction, workers came across a secret room. The room itself was one thing, but its location in the house was…peculiar, and raised some questions. The discovery reopened a controversy that had been swirling around the president’s legacy for over 200 years.
1. The president’s legacy
Thomas Jefferson: You may remember him as the country’s third president. He was highly instrumental in the formation of the American government. While holding his position in office, he doubled the nation’s size with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Before his presidency, his contributions to the Declaration of Independence solidified Thomas Jefferson as one of the Founding Fathers.
We can thank Jefferson for helping prevent the establishment of another monarch in the United States. And to that, we raise a glass. But as with many great leaders, there were other parts of Jefferson’s life that remain unclear to this day.
2. Jefferson’s Virginia house was a plantation
Before moving into the White House in 1801, Thomas Jefferson resided at his Monticello Plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia—a well-regarded historical landmark visited by thousands of tourists every year. He had inherited five thousand acres from his father, which required a lot of manpower to attend to. In 1776, he built the Monticello Plantation (which translates to “Little Mountain” in Italian).
What the heck do you do with five thousand acres? Well, there’s the plantation house for the owners and all the infrastructure needed to support it, including quarters for slaves. Like most large-plantation owners, Jefferson had hundreds of slaves. But there was one who was rumored to have caught his eye. It was these rumors that made the discovery of the secret room all the more scandalous.
3. Overlooked for hundreds of years
The Monticello Plantation has seen a lot of restorations through the years, with projects picking up during the 20th century. When it was converted into a museum, the mystery room was completely hidden from sight, even when a modern bathroom was installed over it in 1941.
The bathroom was renovated again in the 1960s due to the high influx of visitors coming to the museum, but once more, the changes and construction did not reveal the long-lost room. What ultimately gave archaeologists a clue that there was more than meets the eye came from a surprising source…and from beyond the grave.
4. Jefferson’s grandson’s diary was the first clue
Historians wanted to determine the original layout of the Monticello Plantation, and in doing so, they ran across a document written by one of Thomas Jefferson’s grandsons. In his documents, Jefferson’s grandson describes a room that didn’t fit in with the known layout of the Monticello Plantation.
He described a room in the south wing of the former plantation house. At first, archaeologists were skeptical about the information. But then they remembered the restroom addition, and that got the cogs in their heads turning. Though Jefferson’s grandson was known to be unreliable, it seemed odd that Jefferson Jr. Jr. would write about something like this if is wasn’t true.
5. In the most obvious of places
In 2017, archaeologists conducted excavations as part of a restoration effort for the Monticello Plantation. What they discovered seemed to support the rumors that had been swirling around our third president’s legacy for centuries. This time around, they were aware of what Jefferson’s grandson had written about in his diary.
As they worked to uncover the original layout of the Monticello’s south wing, they finally discovered what Jefferson’s grandson had referred to in his diary. It had gone unnoticed for years—which was surprising, given its location. Oddly, it was in the very place that had been renovated over and over—behind the bathroom.
6. Down the pipes
Knocking down the men’s bathroom, which had been uneventfully renovated several times by now, the team discovered a small room they were not aware of before, other than the reference in Jefferson’s grandson’s writings. The room had been sealed off and hidden from plain sight for hundreds of years.
The room was about 15 feet by 13 feet. It had a large brick oven in the middle and no windows. But what raised historians’ eyebrows the most about the room was its location within the large house. It was in very close proximity to Jefferson’s personal room—just down the hall.
7. A controversy 200 years in the making
Let’s rewind the clock 200 years to the time of Jefferson. A political journalist who wrote for a Richmond newspaper, James T. Callender, wrote an inflammatory report on Jefferson with the intent to slander his name. The primary allegation in the report suggested that Jefferson had started a relationship with a woman after his wife died.
In and of itself, not too bad of an accusation. But things heated up as Callender further asserted that Jefferson had started a relationship with a slave girl who had been on the plantation from a very young age. Callender referred to the girl as Jefferson’s “concubine.”
8. More accusations
Callender also stated that Jefferson had children by her, but did not list himself as the father of the children in public record, in an attempt to keep his indiscretions hush-hush. By this point in time, rumors had already been swirling that there were people out there who bore an uncanny resemblance to the president.
Was is possible that Jefferson’s slave bore children in this small, windowless room in the house, hidden from the rest of the world? Historians believe this is a distinct possibility. If so, who was this mystery woman, the mother of the Founding Father’s children? Did this room prove Callender right?
9. President John Adams may have also known about Jefferson’s indiscretions
There were other contemporaries during Jefferson’s time that whispered about his personal affairs. Among these people: the second president of the United States, John Adams. In a letter he wrote to his sons in 1794—eight years prior to the editorial Callender wrote—Adams appears to be referring to Jefferson’s relationship with a slave girl. However, because the references are veiled in Roman myths, historians can’t be sure.
But one line in particular has stood out as a possible reference to the Jefferson scandal. When considering reasons Jefferson might have resigned his position as Secretary of State, Adams speculates that Jefferson might be “…summoned from the familiar society of Egeria.” During the time, “familiar” was an innuendo for being intimate, and Egeria was a Roman mythical nymph whose story involves her meeting a king in a secret grove.
10. The slave at the center of the controversy
The slave believed to be Jefferson’s “concubine” (as Callender described her) was 16-year-old Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Martha Jefferson—Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Much of Hemings’s life was shrouded in mystery for over 200 years. It wasn’t until recently that historians looked a little closer into the life of the woman who lived on the Jefferson plantation in Virginia.
Despite her connection to the First Lady, Hemings was dealt a different hand in life. She was half African American and half white. Unlike Mrs. Jefferson, Sally was born into slavery. She arrived at the Jefferson plantation at a very young age. As such, she was tasked with labor within the Jefferson household.
11. Sally Hemings was known for her beauty
Hemings was described by Jefferson’s enslaved blacksmith, Isaac Granger Jefferson, as “mighty near white,” and “very handsome,” and it was recorded that Sally Hemings had long hair that reached her waist. It was noted around the estate that Hemings received the preferable work and never had to work hard labor outside. She served the Jeffersons until Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826.
Historians, however, uncovered hidden information in the mystery room of the Jefferson household that was only a rumor during the revolutionary period. At fourteen, the young girl—barely a teen—accompanied Thomas Jefferson to France. Two years later, Sally Hemings’s life would drastically change.
12. Their mysterious trip to France
Thomas Jefferson was the United States minister to France. In 1784, Jefferson, a recent widower, took a trip to France and took Sally Hemings along with him. France was considered a free country and it was illegal to own slaves while living under the French flag.
There’s a belief that Hemings had the choice to stay in France where she could have been protected under the law of the French government. But something motivated Sally to return to the U.S. as a slave. Some possibilities included that Hemings didn’t have the means to start a life on her own in France or, as a slave, she didn’t have much of a choice. The last possibility might have been she and Jefferson might have had a real connection.
13. Why did Sally return to a life of slavery when she could have been free in France?
Historians speculate whether widower Thomas Jefferson (Martha Jefferson died due to health problems at the age of 33) and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship. While Jefferson was well into his 40s, Sally was only 16. Whether or not Sally entered the relationship voluntarily remains under heated debate, but one thing is clear: Sally became pregnant.
She returned to the United States with Jefferson and continued to live on Monticello Plantation. Hemings would go on to have four more children that were rumored to be fathered by Jefferson. Historians believe that she gave birth to them in the secret room that was recently discovered.
14. The nature of their relationship
Sally Hemings returning to the United States with Jefferson does not necessarily mean she was complicit in their relationship. After all, starting a life on her own in a foreign country as a teenage girl would not have been easy, especially coming from a slave background with no resources.
Additionally, she was pregnant. The power dynamic of slave-master she had grown up under may have influenced the way she saw her relationship with Jefferson, as she was by all accounts given special treatment compared to other slaves on the plantation. The 25-year difference between them also played a role in the nature of their relationship.
15. The most implicating piece of evidence
The room close to Jefferson’s personal bedroom was one thing. Callender’s salacious article was another. John Adams’s letter seemed suggestive. But the most compelling piece of evidence that supports the theory that Jefferson was intimate with Sally Hemings came from Jefferson himself.
Jefferson owned over 500 slaves on his plantation. And of all those slaves, he only ever granted freedom to a small handful. That small handful was comprised of Sally Hemings and her children (as they came of age). They were not only granted their freedom, but also given a stipend as they left the estate so that they could start their lives on their own.
16. He made good on his promise
Jefferson himself, contrary to his own practices, was opposed to slavery as an institution. Still, this did not prompt him to free all of his own slaves. The fact that he granted Sally Hemings and her children their freedom suggested that he had a more personal connection with them than he did with the other slaves on his property.
Whether or not there was some verbal agreement between Jefferson and Hemings regarding her freedom, Hemings stayed at Monticello Plantation until Jefferson died in 1826. It is unclear if she couldn’t leave or wanted to stay with Jefferson (some of her children had already left by that time).
17. Was Jefferson the father of Hemings’s children?
When the hidden room was discovered at Monticello Plantation, it was revealed that Hemings had five children while at the estate. Assuming that Jefferson and Hemings had some sort of relationship between them, historians began to speculate that Jefferson could very plausibly be the father of all of Hemings’s children.
Given that he was not listed as the father on the birth records, determining paternity wasn’t going to be easy. However, historians did know the names of Sally Hemings’s children from the birth records, so they had a starting point in tracing the genetic lineage and solving the mystery of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy.
18. The forgotten children of Thomas Jefferson
Today, historians strongly believe Thomas Jefferson indeed fathered Sally Hemings’s children. Out of the four surviving children—two boys and two girls—historians were only able to track down two: Eston Hemings and Harriet Hemings. The fifth child died at an early age.
Eston Hemings was freed upon the death of Jefferson, as he had not yet come of age before his death. Being fair in skin tone, he was able to integrate and pass as a white person in society. He married and had three kids of his own as a free man. However, his resemblance to Jefferson didn’t go unnoticed.
19. An uncanny resemblance
Eston’s arrival in Ohio (where he went after he left the plantation) was one of intrigue. KPBS published an article which appeared in the Scioto Gazette, an Ohio newspaper describing Eston Hemings as “light bronze color, little over six feet tall…and dignified; his nearly straight hair showed a tint of auburn, and his face, indistinct suggestion of freckles.”
Rumors spread that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson. One reporter decided to make it his issue, and he wanted to hear what the mysterious new man in town had to say about the prospect of being the son of a former president.
Eston was regarded as a gentleman, and many people within the small town thought he was an all-around good guy. When the journalist managed to meet Eston face to face, he asked if the rumors of his lineage were true. Eston’s response silenced the reporter.
Eston responded: “Well, my mother, whose name I bear, belonged to Mr. Jefferson.” And after a slight pause, he added, “and she never married.” He, his wife, and children moved on and eventually ended up in Wisconsin, where they settled on a property they later owned. Eston didn’t know it at the time, but he would ultimately be the piece of the puzzle that would put the Jefferson-Hemings controversy to rest.
21. The proof is in the pudding
Is it true? Did Thomas Jefferson have children with Sally Hemings? Thankfully, today we have the technology to answer these questions. In 1998, scientists tracked down the descendants of Eston Hemings and obtained a DNA sample to determine if the lineage traced back to Jefferson.
The New York Times reported new evidence suggesting Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children, and it was likely he fathered all of Hemings’s children. Eston Hemings and Harriet Hemings had children, to whom they had passed down the story of their heritage through generations. The DNA results had America at a standstill.
22. The results
After taking blood samples from a descendant of Eston Hemings Jefferson, Dr. Eugene A. Foster, a university professor of pathology, analyzed the blood. He reported, “… the Y chromosome of a descendant of Eston Hemings Jefferson made a perfect match to Jefferson’s…Thomas Jefferson was most definitely the father.”
The team reached out to the descendants of Sally Hemings, who were not the least bit surprised by the results. The power of storytelling had kept the truth intact for generations in their family. The results of the DNA test were only confirming what they already knew about their family’s history. But others still weren’t convinced.
23. Controversial backlash
One such group: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation. They believe there was another possible explanation for the presence of Jefferson DNA in Sally Hemings’s descendants. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation formed a research committee made up of nine members of the foundation’s staff, four of which had PhDs.
After looking over all documentation pertaining to the Jefferson-Hemings ordeal, they came to a completely different conclusion. The foundation asserted that Sally Hemings was only a minor figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life and that it was unlikely that he fathered any of Sally Hemings’s children. Instead, they asserted that Thomas Jefferson’s brother, Randolph Jefferson, was the real father of Sally Hemings’s children.
24. Father of mine, where have you been?
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation continues to believe that Thomas Jefferson was not in Monticello at the times that Sally Hemings would likely have her children. This was part of their case, as they believed that Sally Hemings was elsewhere at the points in the timeline that would have required them to be together.
Still, this evidence feels flimsy when taking all the other factors into consideration. While some of it is circumstantial—the room, the rumors, the letter from John Adams—the DNA test does seem pretty conclusive, and the general consensus is that there was something going on between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
25. The rest of Sally Hemings’s children
Most historians agree that Jefferson likely fathered all five of Sally Hemings’s children. Harriet Hemings was well-known as a beauty, just like her mother. She had considerably darker hair and eyes, but her skin was light enough for her to pass as a white woman and she successfully integrated into white society. She married a white man who had “good standing” and he never suspected her African heritage.
Sally’s other son, Madison Hemings, was also freed by Jefferson and lived with his mother Sally (who moved to Charlottesville, Virginia after Jefferson’s death). He worked as a farmer and a carpenter. He got married, had children, and moved to the free state of Ohio after his mother’s death.
Uncovering Sally Hemings’s room reopened a conversation about the relationship between Jefferson and his alleged lover. Archaeologists can’t help but question the nature of their relationship, seeing how Sally Hemings was within arm’s reach—or, just one door down the hall.
“This room is a real connection to the past,” said Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology at Monticello. “We are uncovering and discovering and we’re finding many, many artifacts.” His insight gives the public a glimpse into the interesting life of Sally Hemings, as well as the personal life of former president Thomas Jefferson. These details had long been swept under the rug.
27. Present doubts
There’s a lot to consider when weighing the social dynamics of the 18th century. The public was uncomfortable with the revelation that the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence was also having an affair with a young (probably underaged) enslaved woman and then denying the children he had with her on public record.
Yet at the same time, knowing the reality of the circumstances helps us step away from the rose-colored lenses we often view the past with—and that’s troublesome for some. One can never know for sure the true nature of the relationship. Our Founding Fathers, and certainly our presidents, were not perfect.
28. The verdict on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy
Perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of this situation is that the man wrote words that we hold in such high regard, “that all men were created equal,” which contradicted the way he lived his own life in such an obvious way.
Contrary to the way he lived in his personal life, Jefferson used his platform to denounce the practice and institution of slavery for most of his lifetime. He actually submitted a bill to Congress to ban slavery in new territories as early as the 1780s—a full 80 years before the Civil War would decisively end it in the United States.
29. No money, mo’ problems
Despite his personal viewpoints, Jefferson held on to his slaves, with the exception of Sally Hemings’s children. Only five of his hundred-odd slaves (at the time of his death) were freed in his will, including Sally Hemings’s remaining two children and three other men who had worked for him for decades and presumably had a personal relationship with him.
Later in his life, Jefferson had incurred quite a bit of debt. Slaves at the time were considered property and therefore assets. Other than the few freed above, the remaining slaves were sold to pay for the debt incurred by the Monticello Plantation.
30. Secrets to the grave
What we do know for sure is that Thomas Jefferson did want to hide his relationship with Sally Hemings from the public, as well as the fact that he fathered children by her. Perhaps what makes this story resonate so much is the literal intersection of an American idealist and the ugly legacy of slavery.
Sally Hemings told her kids they were the children of Jefferson, but otherwise didn’t speak on the matter. But the only people who truly know what went on in that room on Monticello Plantation took the full truth with them to the grave. All we have left are pieces of a puzzle that when put together, paint an unsettling picture of an American icon that is hard to ignore and raises some tough questions.