Sunday, January 25, 2015

Martha Washington's Slave Half Sister

Martha Washington

Sexual relations between masters and slave women were common during the eighteenth century and later.  Famed Southern diarist Mary Chestnut would observe in the 19th century, “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.”

One very prominent Virginian well known to George and Martha Washington was engaged in sexual relations with a slave.  Rumors began to circulate that Thomas Jefferson had sired children by a beautiful young slave at his Monticello plantation named Sally Hemings.  Jefferson’s political opponents made much of the rumors at the time, but over the centuries historians largely dismissed the story which was preserved largely through an oral tradition handed down in the Hemings family.  In 1998, however, the British science journal Nature published the results of a DNA study linking a member of the Jefferson family, not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, to the descendents of Sally Hemings. Subsequently, in January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the custodians of Monticello, issued a report concluding that based on all available evidence, Thomas Jefferson was, in all probability, the father of at least one and perhaps all the children of Sally Hemings. 

Author Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book An Imperfect God: George Washington,His Slaves, and the Creation of America, argues that Martha Washington had a slave half sister, Ann Dandridge Costin, sired by her father John Dandridge.  This supposed half sister was about Martha’s age and lived at Mount Vernon according to Wiencek.  Other historians deny the existence of Martha Washington’s half sister and assert that Wiencek has accepted “lore” as fact.

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