What the Overseer Said

Published:October 26, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In part four of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider the recollections of Edmund Bacon. (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) Bacon was an overseer at Monticello from 1806 until 1822 before retiring to Kentucky. There he was interviewed by the Reverend Hamilton W. Pierson, who published Bacon’s words in 1862 as The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson.

Bacon actually knew Sally Hemings, and in a chapter on Jefferson’s slaves he recalls that he “often heard her tell about” her ocean voyage to France. Regarding the paternity of Hemings’s children, Bacon mentions (although not by name) Harriet Hemings, born in 1795. He says:

[Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ……’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning, when I went up to Monticello early. When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia, and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since, and don’t know what became of her.

So Harriet Hemings is not the daughter of Thomas Jefferson; she’s the daughter of “……” And Mr. Bacon, who did not even become the overseer at Monticello until 11 years after Harriet’s birth, knows this because he has seen another man come out of Sally Hemings’s room? There are problems here, obviously. What historians have found interesting about this particular recollection is how odd it was for Jefferson to be sending one of his slaves off with stage fare and fifty dollars while noting in his always-meticulous records that she had run away.

If he had wanted to free her, why not do it officially? Unless he didn’t want to explain why he was freeing her. And the “why,” some historians have speculated, can be found in Jefferson’s supposed agreement with Sally Hemings—made in Paris, according to the recollections of Madison Hemings—to free their children when they reached the age of twenty-one.

As with so many of the other actors in this drama, Edmund Bacon is someone we cannot wholly trust or wholly distrust. But hey, read him for yourself!

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); undated daguerreotype of Edmund Bacon (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); title page and page 103 of The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862)