Julia Jefferson Westerinen has always been proud to be related to a great American hero. “My parents told us we were related to Thomas Jefferson’s uncle,” she says, “which made us cousins removed several times.”
But it wasn’t until this year, when a team of historians and geneticists compared a DNA sample taken from her brother John Jefferson, 52, with the genetic material of other Jefferson descendants, that Westerinen learned just how close her link to greatness is. According to the new tests, which were conducted at Oxford University with blood samples collected by retired Tufts University School of Medicine pathologist Eugene Foster, Westerinen’s great-great-grandfather Eston Jefferson was apparently Jefferson’s son, fathered by him with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Westerinen, 64, an office furniture saleswoman, was delighted when the results arrived in her mailbox in Staten Island, N.Y. “I got chills all over,” she says.
Rumors that Jefferson was a bit more of a Founding Father than he cared to admit have appeared in print since 1802, when journalist James Callender charged Jefferson with having an out-of-wedlock affair with a slave who lived at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. According to Callender, Jefferson (whose wife, Martha, had died in 1782) took a slave girl to Paris when he was serving there as American ambassador in 1787. “By this wench Sally, our president has had several children,” Callender wrote in the Richmond Recorder.
Jefferson never deigned to answer Callender’s allegation. But most of his descendants and the great majority of historians have dismissed it ever since. They cite the third American President’s well-known opinion of race mixing—”a degradation to which no one…can innocently consent,” he wrote in 1814—as well as his reputation as a paragon of principle and self-discipline.
Now even such stalwart Jefferson defenders as the members of the Monticello Association, who trace their pedigrees back to Jefferson’s two daughters with Martha, seem to have backed down in the face of the DNA tests, which found that some (but not all) of Hemings descendants shared extremely rare genetic traits with living members of Jefferson’s family. “Who knows?” says the group’s secretary, Gerald Morgan, 75, who had once discounted the president’s affair as a “moral impossibility.” “It was probably [Thomas] Jefferson who was the father.”
As for the mother, only a few tantalizing facts are known about Sally Hemings. Born in 1772 or 1773, she arrived at Monticello in 1776 as part of the estate of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. Years later one of Jefferson’s slaves would describe Sally as “mighty near white…[with] long straight hair down her back.” In fact she was Wayles’s illegitimate child with a slave of his own, and thus was Martha Jefferson’s half sister.
Hemings was a teenager when she sailed to Paris to join Jefferson, where she worked as a maid for his daughter Mary. According to an interview given in 1873 by one of her sons, Madison Hemings, Sally also became Jefferson’s “concubine” in France. There, slavery was illegal, and she was considered a free woman. Yet she returned with Jefferson to Virginia, where she spent the rest of her life. There is no historical record of whether Hemings and Jefferson were in love, though their affair may have lasted for years.
Hemings outlived Jefferson by a decade. By the time of her death, all four of her surviving children had been freed by Jefferson’s will or allowed to escape. Most passed into white society in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere—including Julia Westerinen’s ancestor Eston, a musician who settled in Wisconsin. Armed with Foster’s genetic findings, Westerinen hopes to be buried in the family cemetery, although the Monticello Association, which controls the burial ground, has yet to decide whether to open it to the President’s out-of-wedlock heirs. Whatever they decide, Westerinen can now boast that she is related to two noteworthy Americans. “Since I got the letter,” she says proudly, “I am Scottish, Irish, English, French, Welsh—and African.”
Glenn Garelik and Amanda Crawford in Washington, D.C., and Bob Calandra in Pennsylvania