Thursday, May 9, 2013

John Wayles Jefferson, born May 8, 1835

John Wayles Hemings was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on May 8, 1835, the first son of Eston Hemings, a former slave who was seven-eights of European descent, and Julia Ann Isaacs, the mixed-race daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  John is believed to have been the grandson of  Sarah ("Sally") Hemings, a slave, and her master, Thomas Jefferson, the  third President of the United States. 

Thomas Jefferson
John's father, Eston, was born a slave at Monticello in 1808, the youngest of Sally Hemings' six mixed-race children, who are understood to have been the children of Thomas Jefferson.  

Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia
As they were seven-eighths European in ancestry, under Virginia law at the time they were legally white, but they were born into slavery.  Under the slave law principle of partus sequitur ventrem, children of slaves took the status of the mother.

Jefferson informally and formally freed all of Sally's children.  Jefferson's will freed  the brothers Madison and Eston Hemings shortly after the president's death in 1826; Eston was "given his time" so that he did not have to wait until age 21. Madison, already 21, was freed immediately. 
In 1830 Eston purchased property in Charlottesville, on which he and his brother Madison built a house. Their mother Sally lived with them.

In Charlottesville, Eston married Julia Ann Isaacs, who was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant, David Isaacs from Germany, and Ann (Nancy) West, a free woman of color.  Their first son, John Wayles Hemings, was born in Charlottesville. His first and middle name were after his maternal great-grandfather, John Wayles, who, as a widower, had fathered six children by his enslaved concubine Betty Hemings; their youngest child was Sally Hemings.  Betty's children were the half-siblings of Thomas Jefferson's late wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. 

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
John's sister, Anna Wayles Hemings (later Jefferson) (1836–1866), was also born in Charlottesville.

After his mother, Sally, died in 1835, Eston and Julia Ann Hemings moved their family in 1836 to Chillicothe in the free state of Ohio.  They lived there for more than 15 years. Eston and Julia Ann's youngest child, William Beverley Hemings, (1839–1908) was born in Chillicothe.  The town had a thriving free black community and strong abolitionist activists who helped fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.   Eston was well known as a musician and entertainer. The children were educated in the public schools. Eston's brother Madison Hemings and his family also moved there.

Chillicothe, Ohio
After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 increased the danger to members of the African-American community as slave catchers came to Ohio, the family moved  to Madison, Wisconsin in 1852.  After they arrived in Madison, Eston Hemings changed his name to "Eston Hemings Jefferson"; his wife and teenage children also adopted the new surname. John was 17, Anna 16, and Beverly 13 at the time of the move. 

The family lived as part of the white community in Madison and elsewhere and for the rest of their lives. As adults, both Anna and Beverly Jefferson married white spouses; John never married. (Anna died in 1866 at the age of 30.)

John was 26 years old when the Civil War began.

American House, Madison, Wisconsin
Before the Civil War, John Wayles Jefferson operated and later owned the American House hotel and boarding house in Madison, across the street from the state capitol building of Wisconsin,  He brought on his younger brother Beverly to help and learn the business.  Jefferson expanded the hotel to triple its original size in 1858. During these years, it remained a favored establishment of state senators and representatives, but it was often maligned for its somewhat lower-class amenities and home-style food. In fact, it was said that those venturing to eat a meal at the American required “sharp teeth and strong knives.”

Wisconsin 8th Infantry
At the age of 26, Jefferson entered the regular United States Army on August 26, 1861, at Madison.  He took command of the Wisconsin 8th Infantry during the Civil War.   On September 28, 1861 he was promoted to Major; to  Lieutenant Colonel on April 23, 1863; and to Colonel on June 16, 1864.  His service records noted that John Jefferson had red hair and gray eyes.

Vicksburg, Mississippi
He wrote a letter to his brother, Beverly in 1863, during the war:
“HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.
Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I cannot write much, as I have no time or spirits. Since the 2nd of May up to yesterday (excepting two days I was in Jackson, Miss.,) I have been continually on the March and fighting the rebels. I had not until to-day changed my clothes or had a decent meal for nineteen days. We marched around Vicksburg on the Louisiana side 90 miles, crossed the river at Grand Gulf, marched about 170 miles in a roundabout way to Jackson, Miss. Our brigade charged the rebel works at Jackson, and were the first troops in the town. Four days before this we met the rebels at Mississippi Springs, and had a hard skirmish but whipped them (I am speaking about our regiment and our brigade); we have had a number of other battles. At Jackson Major General Sherman made me Provost Marshal of the town, had also charge of all the prisoners and was ordered to destroy five million dollars worth of rebel property. We are now in the rear of Vicksburg, and in sight of the city. We have been fighting for four days, and have them surrounded. Their entrenchments and breastworks are awful to attack. Their works were stormed to-day by part of our army, and to-morrow all the army will attack the works at 9 a. m. We are losing a great many men, and there will be an awful slaughter to-morrow. We have captured 81 cannon, 10,000 stands of small arms at the different battles (not Vicksburg). I was ordered to turn over 5,500 prisoners in my charge to-day, and that is why I am here. Will return to my regiment in one hour which is only five miles distant. We just lived on what we could pick up during the past three weeks, and I have been almost completely exhausted from hunger, loss of sleep and fatigue. Vicksburg will be ours in a day or two, but it has and will cost as many thousand lives.
I write this hoping you may get it in season.
Yours &c.
He was wounded twice in Mississippi; at Vicksburg, a shot went through his left hand, nearly severing his fingers.  He was mustered out of service on October 11, 1864 at Madison, Wisconsin.  

Jefferson wrote as a newspaper correspondent during and after the war, publishing articles about his experiences.

His brother, Beverly Jefferson, also served as a white officer in the Union Army. After the war, Beverly became proprietor of the American House and, later in the 1860s, of the Capitol House hotel. He also ran a carriage and trucking service that brought travelers up from Madison's train stations to the Capitol Square, and was well-known to most of the state's political leaders.

Capitol House, Madison, Wisconsin
John Wayles Jefferson later moved from Madison to Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis, Tennessee
He became a prominent businessman as a cotton broker and the owner of the Continental Cotton Company.

Cotton Sellers on Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee
Jefferson never married. He died in Memphis on June 12, 1892, at the age of 52. 

He was buried in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Jefferson family plot at Forest Hill Cemetery.

Tombstone of John Wayles Jefferson
He left a sizeable estate.

In 1902, a former neighbor from Chillicothe recalled the younger Jefferson's concerns about his mixed ancestry in the social climate of the times:

...and I saw and talked with one of the sons, during the Civil War, who was then wearing the silver leaves of a lieutenant colonel, and in command of a fine regiment of white men from a north-western state. He begged me not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command; and of course I did not.
DNA tests conducted in 1998 confirmed that a male-line descendant of John's brother,  Beverly, had a male ancestor in common with male-line descendants of Thomas Jefferson's uncle, Field Jefferson. This supported the family's tradition of descent from Thomas Jefferson and disproved the Jefferson family tradition that his Carr nephew(s) had fathered Sally Hemings' children.  The Carr DNA did not match. 

For most historians, this data, together with the weight of historical evidence, has confirmed the Hemings family's claim of descent from Thomas Jefferson.

Descendents of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

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