Secret Room in Thomas Jefferson’s Mansion Solves 200 Year Old Mystery!
Thomas Jefferson is almost universally regarded as one of the wisest men in our nation’s history. As the primary hand behind the Declaration of Independence as well as the third President of the United States, Jefferson certainly has a reputation to uphold. His home in Virginia has become one of the most popular presidential tourist destinations in the country. Recently, Jefferson’s mansion was under construction for maintenance-related issues. Workers were absolutely shocked when they uncovered a hidden room within the building. The location of the room, and what it ended up meaning, would pull Jefferson into a pit of controversy. Keep on reading to find out what was behind the hidden doors of Thomas Jefferson’s secret room.
Thomas Jefferson – The Man, Myth, and Legend.
Anybody who knows anything about the United States will understand how important Thomas Jefferson was to the nation’s growth. Jefferson was a force in the early beginnings of the United States. From crafting the Declaration of Independence, and thus becoming a beacon of morality, to masterminding the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson has done it all.
Jefferson’s Home in Virginia
Before Jefferson took his post in the White House upon election in 1801, he lived on the Monticello Plantation in Charlottesville, VA. Now a historical landmark, this beautiful mansion is visited by thousands of tourists every single year. At the time, Jefferson owned more than 5,000 acres of land as a result of his inheritance.
An Overhead View
The Monticello Plantation was erected in 1776. The name is Italian and roughly translates to the phrase, ‘Little Mountain’. During its heyday, Jefferson needed an absurd amount of workers in order to tend the 5,000 acres. While we may think of Jefferson as a beacon of morality, he was also a slave owner.
Countless Slaves Worked the Fields
Slave labor was certainly cheaper than paying a worker. As a result, the beautiful Monticello Plantation became a home for hundreds of slaves who were forced to work the fields day and night. They were housed in separate facilities on the grounds, away from Jefferson and his own personal company.
Researching the History of the Land
While the plantation has a dark past, historians can’t simply look away from it. As a result, in-depth research went into the Monticello Plantation so that it could be properly recreated in modern times. They ended up finding a document, penned by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, that helped their work. Only, this document didn’t just pertain to the grounds. It mentioned a room that nobody knew existed.
A Growing Mystery
Renovations inside of historical locations like the Monticello Plantation are not a rarity. In fact, restorations and maintenance is the largest part of what it takes to keep these buildings ‘alive’. Here, we see a bathroom that had been renovated and re-renovated multiple times. This area of the building was the second clue that there was more than meets the eye.
An Archaeological Wonder
More accurately, the information dredged up from Jefferson’s grandson was a wonder to archaeologists. The discovered document described a room in the southern wing of the building. This room didn’t register in their minds until they remember the multiple renovations that had gone on because of a bathroom. Soon, things started to come together.
Digging for Historical Gold
At first, the historians involved were hesitant to begin digging. After all, they had been led astray by Jefferson’s grandson before. He was known to be unreliable, but this time was different. There had been rumors circling around Jefferson’s conduct for ages, so this was something worth pursuing.
Descendants of the Monticello Slaves
Before we move on to the hidden room in question, we feel the need to step back. Here we see descendants of the original enslaved families that worked at the Monticello Plantation. This photograph was taken in 2016, right above the Kitchen Yard.
The Hidden Room
The historians at the Monticello Plantation were quick to get to work and they were quick to get results. Once they knocked down the men’s bathroom, the workers found a small room that had been otherwise hidden. For years, this room had been completely off of the radar. Now they were staring reality in its face.
The Sally Hemings Home
The secret room measured at 15 x 13 feet. Inside of the room was a brick oven. There were no windows. In fact, there were really no signs of any comfortable accouterments. This room, history goes on to show, belonged to Sally Hemings. Now, why is that so important? Why is this secret bad enough to mire Thomas Jefferson in controversy?
The Outrageous Claim
If we turn back the clock, we’ll find this newspaper article that was penned by James T. Callender. In this article, Callender attacks Jefferson by claiming that he had been having a romantic relationship with a slave girl named Sally. This is obviously horrific as the implication here is downright scary. Could a slave girl turn down the advances of her rich and powerful slave keeper? What would happen to her young son, Tom, if she refused Jefferson?
The Plot Thickens
Callender wasn’t content to just lob rumors at Jefferson. Callender continued to try and incite a reaction from Jefferson by claiming that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally. Callender would go on to claim that Jefferson did not claim the children so as to keep his illicit affair hidden.
A Political Attack Dog
While we doubt that James T. Callender was acting out of moral outrage, he was nonetheless right on the money in some respects. Callender had been attempting to slander Thomas Jefferson but, in doing so, he had made history. Callender’s words ended up being the backbone of legitimacy that this secret room needed.
John Adams References the Affair
Callender alone would not have been enough to keep the story afloat. Here we see a letter penned by John Adams, the second President of the United States. This letter was dated eight years prior to Callender’s work. In this letter, Adams alludes to a relationship between Jefferson and a slave girl.
Time to Meet Sally
We’ve danced around introducing Sally Heming, so let’s go all in. Sally Hemings was 16 years old when she moved to the plantation. She was the half-sister of Sally Heming, Jefferson’s late wife. Despite having a prominent white relative, Hemings was born into slavery due to her being half African American. She would spend her life tending to the house and doing manual labor on the grounds.
Known for her Beauty
Despite her low station in life, Sally Hemings was well-known for her beauty. Despite being an ostensibly positive trait, it is easy to see how being an attractive slave could become a hindrance. Hemings was described as ‘handsome’ and ‘mighty near white’ by Jefferson’s blacksmith, Isaac Granger. Hemings was particularly known for her flowing hair that reached her waist.
A Trip to France
Let’s go back in time even further in order to really flesh out this story. The year was 1784. Jefferson’s wife had recently died and he had been appointed to work as the U.S. minister to France. Jefferson would take Hemings on his trip to France. France did not condone slavery and thus Sally would have been protected by France had she chosen to stay. Some would argue that Sally’s return to the U.S. is proof that she was a willing participant in the relationship.
A Tangled Relationship
It’s truly hard to say how willing Sally was in her relationship with Jefferson. She was 16-years-old when Jefferson began courting her in the wake of Martha’s death. Jefferson was in his 40s at the time. Sally would go on to bear four more children in her life and historians have begun to seriously contemplate whether or not they were the children of Thomas Jefferson.
No Real Escape
While it is a romantic notion to believe that Sally simply chose to be in love with Thomas Jefferson, the truth is much muddier. At 16-years-old and in a foreign country, Sally was at a disadvantage. Add on to the fact that she was already pregnant at 16-years-old and was bereft of resources. What more could she do but stay with her slave master?
The Plot Thickens
Perhaps most compelling of all was the fact that Jefferson was notorious for not freeing his slaves. Of the 500 slaves that Jefferson owned, he only ever freed a handful of them. The slaves that Jefferson chose to free were Sally and her children. Jefferson also gave money to Sally and her children as they left the estate. What could bring Jefferson to do such a thing?
A Verbal Agreement
While Thomas Jefferson was vociferously averse to slavery as an institution, he still dabbled in and profited from slavery. Despite having been freed, Sally chose to stay at the Monticello Plantation with Jefferson until his death in 1826. Her children left when they could.
The Great Controversy
Before we get back to the secret room, we have to dig deeper into the controversy surrounding Sally and Jefferson. Despite not being listed as the father to her children, a fact which would have doomed his political aspirations, there are some interesting traits shared among the children and Jefferson.
Meet Eston Hemings
Eston Hemings was one of the first children freed by Thomas Jefferson. His skin tone was fair and he was able to pass as white among the rest of society. Hemings would get married and have three kids of his own. This picture of Eston bears a striking resemblance to just about any portrait of a young Jefferson.
Rumors Spread Quickly
When Eston Hemings moved to Ohio, rumors arrived soon after. Hemings was immediately attached to Thomas Jefferson and the local papers began to seriously consider his prior relations. One reporter took the mission to find out the truth of Jefferson’s patronage and he would end up confronting Eston directly.
Not A Refusal
When Eston was approached by the local reporter in regards to his lineage, he had every reason and opportunity to lie. Eston did not lie. Instead, he said, “My mother, whose name I bear, belonged to Mr. Jefferson. She never married.” That was it. That was all that Eston was willing to say on the topic. It was enough, however, as he would prove to be the missing link.
DNA Evidence Makes Stunning Revelation
In order to put the mystery to rest, scientists turned to one of the wonders of modern scientific advancement: DNA testing. Scientists tracked down descendants of Eston Hemings in order to test their DNA against Thomas Jefferson’s lineage. They would soon find out that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally’s children and possibly all of them.
You ARE the Father
The results were conclusive and the revelation would go on to shock people throughout the United States. This DNA evidence was proof positive that Thomas Jefferson was far from the paradigm of moral perfection that he had been presented as.
Not Without a Fight
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation obviously didn’t like this news as it cast Jefferson into a fairly negative light. They created their own research group and came to the conclusion that Sally had children with Randolph Jefferson, not Thomas. This evidence has not held up over the years and many researchers see it as a simple defense for the man’s reputation.
Meet Harriet Hemings
While the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has their stance, most modern researchers agree that Thomas Jefferson is the father of Sally’s children. Here we see Harriet Hemings who was also renown for her beauty. She was also able to marry into white culture while hiding her heritage. Madison Hemings would stay at the plantation with his mother.
While we think of history as something we ‘know’, the truth is that history is always changing. Fraser Neiman is the Director of Archaeology at the Monticello Plantation. He is leading the charge toward finding more of the hidden artifacts and relics that dot the property of the plantation.
While we look at the Founding Fathers of the United States of America as idols to be respected, they were as flawed as anyone else. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy has suffered in the wake of the illicit affair. His actions are made even worse when put against his own words that insisted that all men were “created equal”. However, how far is it to judge Jefferson with modern standards? Was he guilty all the same?
The Shameful Room
What shocks most historians is the fact that Sally’s secret room was located adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s. It is very likely that she bore her children within these walls, alone and away from the rest of the world. Just imagine being a 16-year-old girl, enslaved, and forced to give birth to the children of your master. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
Pulling Back the Blinds
For a long time, the Monticello Plantation historical preservation has fought against Jefferson’s shadier history. Now, thanks to the prevalence of research, it seems like the historians at the plantation are finally giving Sally her time in the light. Still, it IS hard to measure what Jefferson did against the modern conception of the man.
A Dark Spot in History
Nowadays, the Sally Hemings room has been updated and dressed up to be more befitting her place in history. Here we get to see a room dedicated to how Sally might have lived when she was inside of the mansion. It’s interesting to see her station in life compared to her living quarters. Sally even allegedly told her children that they were Jefferson’s children. How did they feel about this truth?
Dead at 83
Thomas Jefferson would live a long life before passing away in his home at the age of 83. Jefferson ran into serious debt issues later in life and he would sell off his slaves in order to regain some financial compensation. This, too, ran counter to Jefferson’s public belief in the morality of slavery.
Changing Your View
The revelation that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with an enslaved teenager is hard to wrap our mind around. For so long, Thomas Jefferson has been a paradigm of morality. Does this new insight into his true actions inspire any change in your perception of him? He’s still one of the most important figures in American history, but it appears that his own life was far more textured than we realized.
While the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was hesitant to embrace the news of Jefferson’s misdeeds, history has slowly developed around these new facts. As a result, kids all over the world are learning about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson at the same time. She has become an intrinsic part of her history.
Truth in Pop Culture
With more information being released about Sally Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson, new media has begun to embrace the story. Popular TV show Saturday Night Live has already parodied the story, thus bringing the information to the mainstream.
Yet Mysteries Remain
Despite all that we now know, what we don’t know weighs even heavier. Will we ever truly discover if the Sally – Jefferson relationship was a consensual one? Was Thomas Jefferson secretly some sort of monster? We may never know.