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. [SEE CORRECTION IN COMMENTS BELOW] 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)


3 Comments on “What the Overseer Said”

  1. Margaret Menge

    You have done something very dangerous. You have assumed, instead of finding facts. Edmund Bacon became overseer at Monticello in 1806, yes…but he began work at Monticello in December of 1800. He stated this very clearly in his interview with Rev. Pierson, even giving the exact day and his age at the time (16). Harriet Hemings was born a few months later, in April of 1801. So… Sally Hemings was about five months pregnant with Harriet when Bacon started working at Monticello. Your math is also wrong, as there wouldn’t have been an 11-year gap even if Bacon had not come to Monticello until 1806. Please correct. This is a critical piece of evidence and it deserves careful consideration.

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Thanks for the correction, Ms. Menge. The confusion is that there were two Harriets, one born in 1795, who died two years later, and a second born in 1801, as you point out (although the Monticello website suggests a May birth rather than April; our own entry on Sally Hemings gives her birth simply as 1801). I will point readers to your correction in the body of the post and ask you to not accuse us of making assumptions without facts. Instead, we made a mistake and are grateful for the correction. That is often how the process works and should work.

  2. Margaret Menge

    I’m surprised that the article above has not been corrected. If the passage was about Harriet Hemings, as most historians believe, then it is not about the child of Sally’s named Harriet who was born in 1795, as she died at the age of 2 and so could not possibly have boarded a stagecoach bound for Philadelphia as a young woman. The second Harriet was born in March or April of 1801. She was the only daughter of Sally Hemings to live past childhood. She would have been conceived about four months before Bacon started work at Monticello. Please correct so that researchers will not be unnecessarily confused and thrown off course. Thank you.

Leave a Reply to Margaret Menge Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

XHTML: You can use these tags <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>