Nature’s False Headline

A false headline, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” to an article in the November 5, 1998 issue of Nature magazine generated anew the rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with an enslaved woman Sally Hemings. DNA tests had identified a Y haplotype in the Jefferson male line. Jefferson could not be tested, and had no male descendants, but it was determined that descendents of his uncle had this Y haplotype, and that it would be present in Jefferson. Three of the children of Sally Hemings who grew to adulthood could not tested, but this haplotype was identified in a single descendent of her youngest son Eston. There were at least eight Jeffersons in the area of Monticello at the time of Eston’s conception, but this was ignored in the haste to declare that Thomas Jefferson was Eston’s father.

In the same issue of Nature, there was another article, “Founding Father,” which claimed that the DNA analysis confirmed that Thomas Jefferson “was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.” This erroneous conclusion was based on the assumption that “several” of the Hemings children bore a “striking physical resemblance to Jefferson,” that fifty years after leaving Monticello one of the Hemings sons had claimed Jefferson was his father, and that Jefferson and Hemings were assumed to be together at Monticello when Hemings conceived her four children. The authors assert that the case has been sealed on the father of Eston, and that the “burden of proof” on the paternity of the other three Hemings children had “clearly shifted.”

Nature received immediate opposition to its assumptions and conclusions and, in a later issue of January 7, 1999, printed two representative letters pointing out historical and genealogical gaps in Nature’s analysis. Those who had conducted the DNA tests responded and modified their position to admit that “from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings.” They acknowledged that the “results could not be conclusive.”