National Archives News

Author Discusses Jefferson’s Daughters

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, February 13 — Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had three daughters, but they led very different lives in the newly-colonized America, according to author Catherine Kerrison in her recent book, Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America.  

Kerrison, a scholar of early American and women’s history and a professor at Villanova University, presented the findings of her book research to a packed house at the National Archives McGowan Theater last week. The “book talk” was part of the agency’s lineup of public programs in honor of African American History month.

Jefferson fathered two daughters—Martha and Maria Jefferson—with Martha Wayles Jefferson. He had another daughter, Harriet Hemings—conceived with Monticello slave Sally Hemings after his wife’s death—whom he never publicly acknowledged as his child.  And although the three women shared Jefferson as a father, the similarities ended there, Kerrison said.

The author explained that Martha and Maria received a convent-school education at one of the most prestigious schools in Paris, France, during their father’s diplomatic posting there. Once they returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, however, they found the customs and way of life in early America to be a stark contrast to the colorful and aristocratic lifestyles they led in Europe.

Twelve years after the sisters returned from Paris, their half-sister, Harriet Hemings, was born. Her life followed a decidedly different path. She grew up in slavery—escaping at the age of 21 with Jefferson’s assistance.  Leaving Monticello behind, Harriet boarded a coach bound for Philadelphia with $50 in her pocket—given to her by Jefferson himself—and set off for an uncertain future.

“Their lives provide a very unique vantage point from which to examine the complicated legacy of the American Revolution itself,” Kerrison explained.  

In her lecture, Kerrison said, “I wrote this book to show how their richly interwoven stories and their own individual struggles to shape their own destinies shed new light on the challenges we still face in this nation today for the ongoing movement towards human rights.”

Kerrison shared tales of her investigative approach to learning more fully about the three sisters lives through “many hours spent at the National Archives” scouring primary source documents.  

Through letters from the Jefferson and Hemings families, including documents written by the Jefferson sisters themselves, as well as interviews with descendants of the Hemings family, Kerrison shared Harriet’s story as the unacknowledged daughter of one of America’s most influential forefathers.  

And though she never “found” Harriet, Kerrison explained that her research shed light on what life must have been like for a woman of color “passing” as a free, white woman.  Harriet, who was ⅞ white, was actually the granddaughter of John Wayles—father of Martha Wayles Jefferson, grandfather of Martha and Maria Jefferson and father-in-law of Thomas Jefferson.  

She told of the struggles Harriet must have faced being unable to share her birth heritage or remain near to her mother or brothers. Kerrison also shared that based on familial accounts, “Harriet married a white man and raised a family of children.” 

The author told of how Harriet hid her black identity and saw “her ‘passing' as about survival.” She discussed comparisons of the lives of African Americans then and now and the continuing struggle for equal rights.

“The lesson we can take away from all of this is that Americans are not color blind," Kerrison said. "Quite the contrary, the meaning of color remains so deeply significant.”

Kerrison wrapped up the event, stating ”we are all connected; we need to acknowledge the utter artificiality of these systems that separate us so that we can begin the collective effort to dismantle them and embrace our common humanity.”  

“And as we confront a revived movement to redefine citizenship as white and Christian only as in Charlottesville last year, and as black Americans today still strive to convince white Americans that black lives matter, I think this is as opportune a time as any to think about Harriet Heming’s story,”  she concluded.