Friday, July 3, 2020

Madison Hemings: "Sucn is the story that comes down to me"

As I said last time, in my research I have developed an affection and respect for Madison Hemings. Yes, I know we are supposed to be objective and all, but we are all human and when another human speaks across time, we respond to that. His descendant, Shay Banks-Young explains better these reasons in her interview for Monticello's "Getting Word" project here:

Banks-Young says it. Madison was the man who made sure that his parentage and the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson entered the record, and he was the only one of their four children who survived to adulthood to stay on the African American side of the color line. I use "African American" deliberately here.

So let's start at the beginning for this post. He told what he knew in an interview to the Pike County Republican (Ohio) in 1873. In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Annette Gordon-Reed traced the connection between the reporter who interviewed Madison (I don't mean to be disrespectful here, but a lot of Hemingses are going to enter the story, so using their first names will maintain clarity) and the census taker back in 1870 who noted "this man is the son of Thomas Jefferson."

Pretty cool, eh? 1870, understand, was long after the whole Callender controversy that sprung the Hemings-Jefferson story on the public had passed out of living memory, merely a footnote of a Federalist smear campaign in Jefferson biographies, and after it had been a tool of abolitionist propaganda in the antebellum era.

For your 6 Degrees of Frederick Douglass: The most significant example of the latter being William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, the President's Daughter. William Wells Brown knew Frederick Douglass, and once Rosetta was mistaken for Brown's wayward daughter.

Back to Madison Hemings.  From the way he begins his account, the reporter seems to have asked him about the origin of his last name. The whole first paragraph then goes on to tell the audience "the story that comes down to me." Hemings -- no first name -- captained a ship that sailed between Virginia and England. He fathered Madison's grandmother, Elizabeth, with Madison's great-grandmother, "a full-blooded African, possibly a native of that country."  The Captain was not the African's master, but he wanted to purchase his daughter from their master. The master would not sell. The Captain planned to kidnap her. Other enslaved people told the master, who moved mother and child into the house. The Captain then set off, disappearing from the colony and the known record -- although he may appear as a needle in some haystack of ship's logs or customs records somewhere in England. He is not, I can tell you, in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. The reason that the master would not sell Elizabeth, depsite the Captain offering what Madison described as "an extraordinarily high price"? He wanted to observe the ways a mixed race child would develop. Essentially, she was a science experiment to him.

So much in this one paragraph! Where to begin? First of all, the way people tell their family histories emphasizes the points that they consider important, and sheds the details that they consider less important. Sometimes, the vagaries of memory lose or change details, which itself can indicate emphases. Madison, in 1873, tells of events that his mother Sally remembered from what her mother Elizabeth remembered. Given that Elizabeth was an infant when these incidents happened, then she was told these events herself. The action of this part of the Hemingses' history took place just after 1735, the year Elizabeth was born. So, we have a 138 years gap. That's not to cast doubt on the story. That's to express amazement that the story lasted so long and to help explain the emphases and any details that don't bear out in the record.

For instance, Madison names the master as Wayles, who he says was Welsh, and he places much of the action in Williamsburg.  In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed, who was the first person (perhaps the only person) to deeply investigate the Hemings ancestry, found that Wayles did not claim Elizabeth Hemings until she was eleven and came to his estate as part of his wife Martha Eppes's dowry. Until then, Francis Eppes III owned her and, therefore, her African mother.

Gordon-Reed also surmised that Elizabeth's African mother may have been named -- by Eppes, of course, not her own mother back in Africa -- Parthenia or Sarah. No knowing for sure, she admitted, even less sure than most educated guesses, but still a better idea of what might be in that blank space in our knowing that the African woman occupies.

The Eppeses had a plantation at Bermuda Hundred. Maybe you've never heard of it, or it echoes as something you think you should have heard of somewhere. That was my feeling, anyway, so I looked it up. Bermuda Hundred was a town located far upriver from Jamestown, much closer to Richmond.  Madison kept calling Williamsburg the port. Williamsburg itself had a port at the time, but it lay on the York River. In its earlier history, Bermuda Hundred served as the site of John Rolfe's experimentations in tobacco, his life with Pocahontas, and his death around the time that his uncle-in-law Opechancanough led a war against English settlement. Later, General U.S. Grant could see is location from his headquarters across the river in the war to end slavery. Today, few people know about it and think primarily of Jamestown or Williamsburg when thinking of colonial Virginia.


In the 1730s, however, Bermuda Hundred served as the main port on the Upper James River for the exchange of tobacco and slaves for the plantations in the Piedmont of Virginia. Plantations like Tuckahoe and Shadwell and the Forest and Guinea (later Hors du Monde) and Eppington and Monticello -- all associated with Thomas Jefferson and his extended family. That Transatlantic Slave Trade Database shows voyages directly from Africa beginning in the 1730s and escalating in the 1760s, some with a hundred or more captives on board (and more at the bottom of the ocean).

If Elizabeth's mother came directly from African, which Ira Berlin says a majority of enslaved people did in the Piedmont in the 1730, she could just as likely arrived at Bermuda Hundred as the Williamsburg port. More, perhaps, since the Eppeses' plantations lay next door and further away from Williamsburg. By the time, Madison or his mother would be telling the history, however, Bermuda Hundred would not sound right to them because the port had declined and disappeared.

I'm caught in trivialities, here. Madison's story raises some unanswerable questions. First of all, the African who became Elizabeth Hemings's mother, the importance of her appearance, and the cipher of her seeming dismissal. Second, the "amalgamation" experiment conducted by Wayles in this telling and the way it seems so, well, Jeffersonian. Also, the way that Wayles seems cold and calculating, with Madison expressing little connection to him as a grandfather other than as a matter of ancestry, less than to the Captain. So, I think I'll stop here and cover these in separate posts.

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