Thomas Jefferson Off the Hook?

Contrary to headlines that splashed across the country in November, there is no conclusive proof that former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson fathered an illegitimate child by his slave Sally Hemings. At least five of his family members are candidates for paternity of Sally's child, researchers admit in a letter in tomorrow's issue of Nature.

The widely discussed judgment was based on DNA sequences in the Y chromosome of the Jefferson family that matched DNA from the Hemings family. To the researchers--retired pathologist Eugene Foster of Charlottesville, Virginia, and a group of prominent European molecular biologists--this seemed to confirm age-old rumors about Jefferson's sex life. Not so, protested Herbert Barger of Fort Washington, Maryland, a genealogist and husband of a Jefferson descendant. Barger believes that Thomas's younger brother Randolph--who reputedly liked to party in the slave quarters--was Eston Hemings's father. Other candidates, he suggests, are Randolph's sons, all of whom had the same Y chromosome as their father and their famous uncle. The team now concedes that Barger could be right, although they still argue that the "simplest explanation" is that Thomas was the father.

Asked why they didn't mention Randolph or his sons in their previous article, also published in Nature, Foster says it was because they weren't suspects. For years, members of the Jefferson family had claimed that sons of Thomas Jefferson's sister--Peter or Samuel Carr--had most likely fathered Hemings's children. The DNA study aimed to settle that question, Foster says. He agrees that the Nature headlines on the initial report and on an accompanying comment by geneticist Eric Lander of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and historian Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley were "misleading," but both articles were hurried into print, he says, to beat the popular media, which had learned about their results and were poised to publish.