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John Hemings Nelson, born 1775
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.










John Hemings Nelson was born at Monticello in 1775 as the son of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and a carpenter from England named John Nelson who was employed by Thomas Jefferson on eve of American Revolution and Declaration of Independence.

At least one of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest slaves, master craftsman John Hemings, could read, write, and cipher. Several of Hemings’ letters survive. In this one, dated August 11, 1825, Hemings informs his master of progress on the building of Poplar Forest and mentions Lynchburg as a source of roofing tin:

Dere Sir I hop you ar well We have got through the 15 boxis of tin and it will take 4 boxis more to finish the house I hope you have got information of before by Mr. F. Eppes I am in hopes we shall git the stuff fore the gutters in 2 weeks It carrs [costs?] much lower by giting the inch stuff from him. It comes at 3 dollars pay a hundred and four dollars a day for the waggin to hall it He says he can hall the hold at one lode. We should go about preparing the chines railing & puting up the ornaments of the hall Marster F. Epps was saying something about tining the flat rouff over the hall you and him can descide it between you how it shol be done Sir plese to send the tin as soon as you can the flat rouft will take 3 boxes. That is 7 in all. Theirs tin in Linchburg at 15 ½ Dollars which is much nearer if it could be got.

Original Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Research indicates John Hemings was freed upon death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826, and that he died in 1833 having lived seven (7) years as a legally free man, ... excepting in Virginia wherein the law required that people of any African heritage not otherwise enslaved were required to obtain special approval of the legislature to stay in the State pursuant annual registration and listing by the Superior Court of district in which resident.

The above quote notes the wife of John Hemings was Priscilla who died before him and likely gave birth to children who were not freed.  In fact, under the peculiar institution any children born by a enslaved mother became property of the mother's owner and thus disposable by same.  It confirms realities that freedom was never free to those who did not fight to make it so. By the time John Hemings died in Virginia, there were offspring generations of Hemings who would join and/or support abolition and civil war movements that freed men and women who would be free.

Our view is that Thomas Jefferson, before his death, likely viewed men like John Hemings who were three-quarters White and his son-in-law who was theoretically full White, ... and concluded that slavery would be forced to end by men, not laws.  It would have been clear to him that son-in-law John Randolph was in no way superior to John Hemings except by the advantages of being born and classified as White.  As he had noted in his written declaration "when in the course of human events, .........." revolution occurs where injustice exists. 

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Last modified: 12/29/16