The first American presidential sex scandal never went on trial, but rumors
have persisted to this day that President and founding father Thomas Jefferson
had an illicit relationship with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, that bore
him children. Jefferson never responded publicly to this attack on his
character nor denied the accusations.
The circumstantial evidence is suggestive. Jefferson, who traveled
extensively for long periods, always happened to be in residence nine months
before the birth of each of Sally Hemings's seven children. Some of Hemings's
children were said to bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson. And in an 1873
interview, Sally's fourth son Madison stated that his mother had been
Jefferson's "concubine," and that he and his siblings were the president's
The Y chromosome keeps its family secrets and now, nearly two centuries later,
DNA evidence has unequivocally linked a male descendant of Sally Hemings to the
house of Thomas Jefferson.
To a geneticist, the obvious solution to resolve questions of paternity going
back generations is to compare Y chromosomes from living descendants of the
father in question. Because the Y chromosome is passed virtually intact from
father to son to grandson and so on down the line, it traces the father's male
side of the family tree.
Jefferson's slave records listing the names of Sally Hemings and her sons.
If Jefferson fathered a child with Hemings, all his male descendants should
carry a nearly identical copy of his Y chromosome. Investigators tracked down
living male descendants of Hemings's sons and compared their Y-chromosome DNA
to that from male descendants of the president's paternal uncle, Field
Jefferson. (Thomas Jefferson's only legitimate son by his wife Martha died in
The story the DNA told was that the descendant of Eston Hemings, Sally's
youngest son, had the same genetic signature as the male descendants of Field
Jefferson. But the descendants of Thomas Woodward, Sally's first son, did not
share a genetic signature in common with Thomas Jefferson. The DNA data clearly
shows that one of Sally's sons, Eston, born during the president's second term
in office, was a Jefferson offspring. What the data cannot resolve definitively
is whether Thomas Jefferson or another male relative on his father's side of
the family was Eston Hemings's father.
It is noteworthy that the same Y chromosome type existed just 20 miles away
with Thomas Jefferson's brother Randolph and his five sons. The historical
records indicate that Randolph and his sons occasionally spent time at
Monticello, the presidential residence, but the trail of evidence disappears
there, leaving Thomas Jefferson as still the most likely father of Eston