John Wayles Eppes

John Wayles Eppes
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
March 4, 1817  December 4, 1819
Preceded by Armistead T. Mason
Succeeded by James Pleasants
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 14th district
In office
March 4, 1803  March 3, 1811
Preceded by Anthony New
Succeeded by James Pleasants
In office
March 4, 1813  March 3, 1815
Preceded by James Pleasants
Succeeded by John Randolph
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates
In office
Personal details
Born (1773-04-19)April 19, 1773
Chesterfield County, Virginia
Died September 13, 1823(1823-09-13) (aged 50)
Buckingham County, Virginia
Political party Democratic-Republican
Spouse(s) Mary Jefferson Eppes, Martha Burke Jones
Alma mater Hampden–Sydney College
Profession Lawyer, planter, politician

John Wayles Eppes (April 19, 1773  September 13, 1823) was an attorney, a United States Representative and a US Senator from Virginia. One of the wealthy planter class, he married his first cousin Maria Jefferson, the youngest surviving daughter of Martha Wayles Skelton and Thomas Jefferson. After her early death following the birth of her third child, Eppes was a widower for five years before marrying Martha "Patsy" Burke Jones from North Carolina.[1]

Descendants of his slave Betsy Hemmings, who was with his household from the age of 14, say that Eppes as a widower took her as a concubine when she was about 21. The oral tradition among her descendants is that their relationship continued through his second marriage, and she had several children with him.[2] Hemmings was buried next to Eppes in the planter's family cemetery at Millbrook plantation, and her grave is marked by a fine tombstone.[3] His second wife Martha "Patsy" Jones Eppes chose to be buried at her daughter's plantation.

Personal life

Eppes was born at Eppington in Chesterfield County, Virginia, the only son and youngest of six children of Francis Eppes VI and Elizabeth (née Wayles) on April 19, 1773. His father was a first cousin and his mother was a half-sister to Martha Wayles, who married Thomas Jefferson and lived at Monticello.[4]

After being taught by tutors, Eppes attended the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, and graduated from Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia in 1786. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1794, commencing practice in the state capital, Richmond.

Marriage and family

Eppes married his first cousin Mary Jefferson (known also as "Maria" and "Polly"), the daughter of Martha (Wayles) and Thomas Jefferson, October 13, 1797 at Monticello. The couple resided at Mont Blanco plantation in Chesterfield.

Among the wedding gifts received from Thomas Jefferson was the 14-year-old enslaved girl Betsy Hemmings (1783–1857), the mixed-race daughter of Mary Hemings and granddaughter of Betty Hemings; and 30 other slaves.[5] ([2][6][7])

Eppes and Maria had three children:[4]

After her son Francis was born, in 1802 Maria Jefferson Eppes "borrowed" Critta Hemings, one of Betty Hemings' daughters, from her father's domestic slave household, to care for the infant boy as a nurse. She cared for him for years. In 1827 after Jefferson's death, Francis W. Eppes purchased his former nurse from the estate and gave her freedom. She was then 58 years old and lived in freedom for nearly a quarter century, until 1850.[9]

Mary Jefferson Eppes died two months after the birth of her third child, Martha, on April 17, 1804 at her father's home. The girl died at age two.[8]

Betsy Hemmings

After Mary's death in 1804, Eppes moved his household and slaves from Mont Blanco to another of his plantations called Millbrook in Buckingham County, Virginia. The slaves included Betsy Hemmings, then 21 years old, who was recorded as being the nurse of his son Francis.[2][5]

According to her descendants, Betsy became a concubine to Eppes in a relationship that began when he was a young widower. It continued for the rest of his life, even after his second marriage in 1809. Betsy bore his son, Joseph, likely named for her brother.[10] She named their daughter Frances,[2] a name traditional among men in the Eppes family. As noted above, Eppes named his son Francis after his own father. The names of Betsy Hemmings' other children were lost in 1869 when the records of Millbrook burned in a fire.[5]

As the historians Philip D. Morgan and Joshua D. Rothman have written, there were numerous interracial relationships in the Wayles-Hemings-Jefferson families, as well as in Albemarle County and Virginia, often with multiple generations repeating the pattern.[11][12]

Betsy Hemmings lived as a slave at Milbrook for the rest of her life, and cared for the children of Eppes' second family. The matriarch of the slave community, she was distressed when in 1828 Francis Eppes took some of her grown children with him as slaves when he moved with his young family and relations to Florida.[3]

Betsy, also called Mam Bess, died at the age of 73 in 1857. She was buried at Millbrook plantation next to her master John Wayles Eppes in the white family cemetery, which was extremely unusual for those times.[6] Her gravesite is marked by a substantial tombstone attesting to the Eppes family's affection and respect for her. Her descendants believe its location also marks the importance of her role in the life of John W. Eppes.[2] These are the only two tombstones still visible in the family cemetery.[3]

Political career

Eppes was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1801 to 1803. On March 4, 1803 he was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the Eighth United States Congress and the next three succeeding Congresses, so he was frequently away from his plantation. He chaired the Ways and Means Committee for the Eleventh Congress but failed to be elected to the Twelfth. He spent the next two years at his plantation, Milbrook.

He was elected to the Thirteenth Congress (March 4, 1813 – March 4, 1815) and chaired the Committee on Ways and Means again. After losing the election to the Fourteenth Congress, he was elected to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1817, until December 4, 1819, when he resigned because of ill health. He chaired the Committee on Finance during the second session of the Fifteenth Congress.

Retirement and death

Eppes retired to his estate, Millbrook, in Buckingham County, Virginia, where he died September 13, 1823. He was buried in the private cemetery of the Eppes family at Millbrook, near Curdsville, Virginia.

John's second wife Patsy Eppes died at Millbrook in 1862. She was buried in the family cemetery of her daughter Mary (Eppes) and her husband Philip A. Bolling at their plantation in nearby Chellowe. Local stories were that she did not want to be buried near her husband's concubine.[2]

A portrait of John W. Eppes hangs in the dining room of Weston Manor house in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1787 he had given the plantation as a wedding gift to his cousin Christian Eppes and William Gilliam.


  1. Looney, J. Jefferson. "Eppes, John Wayles (1772–1823)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Edna Bolling Jacques, "The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia", 2002, Official Website, accessed 13 February 2011. Note: The oral tradition of the Betsy Hemmings descendants (as they spelled it) was that Betsy, born in 1783, was fathered by her mother's master, the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson, whose wife died in 1782.
  3. 1 2 3 "Betsy Hemmings: Loved by a Family, but What of Her Own?", Plantation & Slavery/Life after Monticello, Monticello, 14 February 2011
  4. 1 2 3 4 "Maria Jefferson Eppes", Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Monticello website
  5. 1 2 3 "Betsy Hemmings", Hemings Family/People of the Plantation, Monticello, accessed 14 February 2011
  6. 1 2 Laura B. Randolph, "THE THOMAS JEFFERSON/SALLY HEMINGS CONTROVERSY: Did Jefferson Also Father Children By Sally Hemings' Sister?", Ebony, February 1999, accessed 16 February 2011
  7. Lucia Stanton, ’’Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello,’’ Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello Monograph Series, 2000. The historian Lucia Stanton found that Jefferson had taken Mary Hemings and her children with him as part of the household staff when he became governor; she lived with him and his family at Williamsburg and Richmond from 1779-1781.
  8. 1 2 "Thomas Mann Randolph to Peachy Gilmer, February 17, 1806", Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters, Monticello website
  9. "Critta Hemings Bowles", Plantation and Slavery, Monticello, accessed 21 March 2011
  10. Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008, Frontispiece: "The Hemings Family Tree-1," pp. 127-128
  11. Philip D. Morgan (1999). "Interracial Sex In the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World c.1700-1820". In Jan Lewis, Peter S. Onuf. Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: history, memory, and civic culture. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 978-0-8139-1919-5.
  12. Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Interracial Relationships Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, University of North Carolina Press, 2003
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Anthony New
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 16th congressional district

March 4, 1803 – March 4, 1811
Succeeded by
James Pleasants
Preceded by
James Pleasants
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 16th congressional district

March 4, 1813 – March 4, 1815
Succeeded by
John Randolph
United States Senate
Preceded by
Armistead T. Mason
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Virginia
March 4, 1817 – December 4, 1819
Served alongside: James Barbour
Succeeded by
James Pleasants
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