Y-Chromosome Comparative Analysis
and Thomas Jefferson

The Y chromosome became a popular tool for genealogists partly do to a DNA paternity test case that involved US President Thomas Jefferson. After the publication of an article in the scientific magazine Nature, co-author by Eugene Foster, a retired pathologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, the interest in the Y chromosome among genealogists has grown considerably. The story was first publicized in 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson was accused of having fathered a child. His putative son was Thomas Woodson, child of Sally Hemings, who was born in 1790, just after Jefferson and Sally Hemings returned from France. Members of the African-American Woodson family believed that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Thomas Woodson. The scientific team had the challenging objective of determining if descendants from Thomas Woodson were related to President Thomas Jefferson.

Sally Hemings had at least four more children. Her last son, Eston was born in 1808. Records point out that he had striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson, which gave him access to white society in Madison, Wisconsin as Eston Hemings Jefferson. Eston's descendants believe that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Scholars who have devoted their efforts to studying President Jefferson's life maintain that Samuel or Peter Carr, sons of Jefferson's sister, fathered Sally Heming's latest children, including Eston.

The Foster team analyzed samples from five male-line descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson, one male line-descendent of Eston Hemings Jefferson, and three male-line descendants of three sons of John Carr, grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr. They reported the most probable explanation of their findings was that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of the Carr brothers, was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson. The researchers concluded that Thomas Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson's son.

The published data was scientifically challenged and, interestingly enough, took on a political spin. The challenge came from Herbert Barger of Fort Washington, Maryland, a genealogist and husband of a Jefferson family descendent. Mr. Barger helped locate living members of the Jefferson family and persuaded them to donate blood for the DNA study. However, he was not acknowledged in the article and his theory was not mentioned. Barger argues that the most likely farther of Eston Hemings is not Thomas Jefferson, who was 65 at the time Eston was conceived, but Jefferon's brother Randolph. The latter lived 20 miles away and was 12 years younger than Thomas Jefferson. Barger also theorizes that Randolph's sons are also candidate fathers. One of them, Isham, was reported to having parties in the same living quarters as Hemings. The political accusation was initiated by Reed Irvine, the Director of Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Irvine claimed that the paternity case article was published in times when President Bill Clinton needed such a story on the eve of the US national elections, November 1998. This story demonstrates the importance of understanding inheritance, the power and limitations of paternity and distant family relationship testing, and more importantly, our readiness to deal with the interpretation of such data.

Virginia Family Research