A few months back, spurred on by my interest in genetic genealogy, my sister Erin decided to order a DNA test from 23andMe for my brother-in-law John Huffer. John has never known his father, so we didn't really know what his results would show. His mother's family has a strong oral tradition of Native American ancestry, so we expected some mixed ethnicity. What was not expected was his African maternal line DNA haplogroup L3e4 and the five percent African ancestry that was revealed in his Ancestry Painting. (Ancestry Painting is a 23andMe tool that examines the 22 chromosomes one segment at a time and determines for each stretch whether it was most likely inherited from ancestors in Africa, Europe or Asia.)
I had never investigated John's family tree before, but my curiosity was piqued with this result, inspiring me to begin researching it. Fairly quickly it was obvious that his was no run-of-the-mill genealogy. John's mother's line traces straight back to Madison Hemings. That name may be familiar to many as the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence. My genealogy research clearly showed that Thomas and Sally are John's fourth great-grandparents!*
John has always especially admired Thomas Jefferson above all other historical figures and felt a special affinity to Monticello when he first visited there ten years ago, although he had absolutely no idea of his familial connection. When I first relayed my findings to John and my sister, they were, understandably, shocked. Once they started browsing the Internet in search of more information, they came across a very familiar photo on one of the websites about Monticello. An original of this very photo had hung in John's house growing up. Further investigation shows that his mother had, at least, a vague knowledge of her family's relationship to Thomas Jefferson and/or Sally Hemings, but did not share it with her children.
There have been a number of interesting "coincidences" in regard to the Huffers and Monticello that make one ponder on genetic memory. When John and my sister first visited Monticello on an anniversary trip ten years ago, they loved it so much that they decided to go back the very next year with their daughter Courtney. When Courtney entered the dining room of Monticello, she promptly passed out. Although her reaction could be attributed to the hot, humid day, it bears notice that this was the one and only time that Courtney has ever fainted. This was long before the family knew about their personal connection to the place or the families that lived there. Courtney says that although she felt "overwhelmed" at Monticello, she also "felt at home". Last weekend, the family visited Monticello for the first time since discovering their relationship to it and its previous inhabitants. John and Courtney both said that Monticello "seems like a happy place" and they "have a feeling of hominess" there.
Since John had never had any relationship with his father's family and had very little contact with his mother's side after a family dispute, he says it was as if they "had no history". Erin relates, "It's been fun for John to finally have a legacy of some sort, not to mention one as interesting as this," and goes on to say that this discovery has finally given John and his siblings "a sense of who they are and where they came from."
|John Huffer posing with a statue of his 4th great grandfather Thomas Jefferson|
|John and Courtney Huffer, descendants of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello|
This completely unexpected event has sparked my interest in the fascinating subject of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As a result, I have decided to organize an autosomal DNA project on the descendants of Sally Hemings. Although it is now generally accepted that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings' children, it was has been impossible to determine with certainty. The introduction of autosomal DNA testing has changed this. Through autosomal DNA testing I hope to be able to demonstrate that the living descendants of Sally Hemings share blocks of DNA with Jefferson's legitimate descendants. If it is not possible to procure DNA from them, I will seek DNA from descendants of individuals one step further back in Thomas Jefferson's pedigree in an attempt to show that Sally's descendants possess DNA from Jefferson's ancestral lines. [Update - Because Thomas’ descendants through his wife Martha may share DNA with Sally’s descendants through the Wayles connection, I also hope to locate and test Wayles descendants who are not related to Thomas Jefferson in order to determine if any shared DNA can be identified as originating exclusively with the Wayles (or Eppes) Family. (Due to the convoluted nature of the Wayles/Eppes genealogy, it would pose a challenge to determine which one.) Testing the descendants of Jefferson’s uncle and/or brothers to include in the study will be an essential step to isolate Jefferson DNA versus Wayles DNA. It may be of lesser historical significance if this study was able to find DNA evidence confirming that Sally was indeed Martha’s half-sister, but still extremely interesting and well worth exploring. This study is proving to be a long-term and very complex project.] Since autosomal DNA undergoes random recombination with each successive generation, it will be necessary to test the oldest living descendants of these lines. DNA is the perfect tool for this because it does not harbor any prejudice or predetermined notions. Anyone who fits these parameters should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[*Although some Jefferson researchers had disputed the validity of the claims that Sally's children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, most of these doubts were put to rest after a 1998 Y-DNA test on Sally's son Eston's direct male line descendants proved that they carry the Y-Chromosome of Thomas Jefferson's male line. Although Madison has no living direct line male descendants to test, it is now widely accepted that all of Sally's children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, as is supported by oral histories of Sally's descendants and analysis of Sally and Thomas' relationship and time spent together. A detailed look at this evidence is provided by Annette Gordon-Reed in her exhaustive study and Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Hemingses of Monticello". The official Jefferson Monticello website also addresses this issue.]