DNA tests suggest Jefferson fathered child with slave
November 1, 1998 Web posted at: 2:52 a.m. EST (0752 GMT)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- DNA tests performed on the descendants of former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and of one of his slaves offer new evidence that the author of the Declaration of Independence fathered a child with the slave, according to a study in the science journal Nature.
Genetic analysis indicates that the third president of the United States was the father of the youngest son of his slave Sally Hemings -- Eston Hemings Jefferson, according to the report.
"I have found that we have strong genetic evidence, but not absolute proof, that Eston Hemings, who was Sally Hemings' last child, was probably fathered by Thomas Jefferson," said retired pathology professor Dr. Eugene Foster, who led the study.
The study validated oral histories passed down by Eston Hemings' descendants, and may lead to a vote of the Monticello Association, which maintains a graveyard on Jefferson's Charlottesville Virginia, estate, to allow his descendants to be buried there.
"I feel wonderful. I feel vindicated," said Julia Westerinen, 64, of Staten Island, New York, Eston Hemings' great great granddaughter.
No DNA match to slave's eldest child
Many historians had believed that Thomas Woodson, the first son of Sally Hemings, was fathered by Jefferson.
So Foster enlisted the help of geneticists at Oxford and Leicester Universities in Britain and Leiden University in the Netherlands to look at the genes of known descendants of Hemings and of Jefferson's family.
"We found that Thomas Woodson, who was the ancestor of a large African-American family who believed that Thomas Jefferson was their father, we have found no evidence to support that," Foster said.
They compared the DNA of Woodson's descendants to the DNA of people known to have descended from Jefferson's paternal uncle. "There were some genealogists who knew who they were and where they were," Foster said.
The DNA did not match the DNA of Jefferson's uncle.
John Taylor King, a Woodson descendant and retired president of Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, said his family, which had a reunion at Monticello in 1992, stands by oral histories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
"We contend (Jefferson) was not a philanderer. He was 33 when his wife died, and he fell in love with Martha's (his wife's) half sister (Sally Hemings) and they were together for 36 years. That's part of our family history and we stand by it," he said.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, has not ignored the estate's African- American heritage, offering a separate tour of slave quarters there, publishing a brochure documenting the story of Sally Hemings and hosting reunions of slave descendants.
"We've always welcomed the descendants of Jefferson's slaves," foundation president Dan Jordan said.
'Almost total, complete similarities'
The study is sure to rekindle debate among historians over the seeming hypocrisy of an American patriot who argued that all men were created equal, yet owned slaves.
"The most difficult thing about Jefferson was that he was a slave owner," said Annette Gordon-Reed, a New York author whose book on Jefferson and Hemings inspired Foster's research.
Foster also traced one living descendant of Eston Hemings, whom he declines to identify.
His European colleagues looked at aspects of the Y chromosome, which are passed down virtually unaltered from father to son. The Y chromosome is the male chromosome -- males have an X and a Y chromosome while females have two X chromosomes.
"There are almost total, complete similarities," Foster said.
Foster said the study also disproved the belief of some historians that the Woodson family had been fathered by Jefferson's nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, the sons of his sister. "(The idea was) that accounted for the striking physical resemblance of them to Thomas Jefferson," Foster said.
"We examined the descendants of Samuel and Peter Carr and find no evidence they had anything to do with the paternity of the child of Sally Hemings," Foster said.
Foster, who used to teach pathology at the Tufts University School of Medicine, said he did the study as an "intellectual exercise."
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