Scientist tries again to link Jefferson with slave family

Genetic tests failed to link Jefferson to the family of Thomas Woodson last year

Same scientist at it again

Many believe Jefferson impregnated Sally Hemings, one of his slaves

June 13, 1999|By JOHN KEILMAN | JOHN KEILMAN,COX NEWS SERVICE

DAYTON, Ohio -- For generations, descendents of Thomas Woodson, a presumed slave of Thomas Jefferson, have claimed they are the flesh and blood of the nation's third president.

While genetic tests administered last year failed to link the family with Jefferson, the scientist who did the research is trying again -- this time with the help of a Trotwood, Ohio, man.

Thomas Woodson, a former Jefferson Township police chief and the great-great-great-grandson of the man whose name he shares, gave a blood sample to Eugene Foster. He is the retired Charlottesville, Va., professor who last year used DNA samples to connect Jefferson's family with descendants of Sally Hemings, the president's slave.

The research thus far has linked relatives of one of Heming's known sons with descendants of the president's uncle (Thomas Jefferson no male descendants to test). Though many believe the genetic match exists because Thomas Jefferson impregnated Sally Hemings, others say the evidence suggests only that some Jefferson -- not necessarily Thomas -- was the father.

But if Woodson's DNA is a match -- and it likely will take months to get the results -- Foster says it will be nearly iron clad proof that the author of the Declaration of Independence had at least one child with his slave.

"There is no story of how Thomas Woodson could have been fathered by some other Jefferson," he said.

Thomas Woodson is not mentioned in Monticello records, but family history claims he was born to Sally Hemings in 1790, shortly after she returned from a stay in Paris with Thomas Jefferson.

No other male Jeffersons were in France when Thomas would have been conceived, Foster said.

The family says Thomas was sent to live at the Woodson plantation after Jefferson was publicly charged with being the boy's father. He went on to take the name Woodson, and in the early 19th century, he left Virginia for Ohio. He settled near Chillicothe, and his family rose in prominence. In 1863, it helped put up some of the money the African Methodist Episcopal Church used to purchase Wilberforce University.

The Woodson family has hundreds of members across the country, many in Ohio. Its genealogy is well-documented and its claim to the Jefferson legacy long-standing. However, when Foster did his genetic tests last year, no members of the Woodson family matched the Jefferson chromosome.

But Foster did not exhaust the Woodson family tree. The patriarch had six sons, and the doctor tested descendants of just two, Lewis and James. The lineage of Woodson's son, William, which includes Trotwood's Thomas Woodson, was not examined.

"Because it was so much of a surprise to everyone that [the relatives of] Eston Hemings matched and that the Woodsons, so far, have not, that I thought it would be worthwhile to get a sample from a third line," Foster said.

He added that three outcomes are possible: Thomas Woodson's DNA matches that of other Woodsons already tested; it matches Jefferson's family; or it matches neither.

The story that Thomas Woodson was related to Jefferson has always been entwined in the family fabric, and the contemporary Thomas Woodson, who is 66, heard so much about the president as a child that he grew weary of the tale. It was not until later in life that he took an interest in the family tree.

Still, when Foster asked him to participate in the original study last year, he consulted with his brothers and declined.

"Then I got to thinking and discussing with my wife, and I figured: Why not?" he said.

A crew filming a documentary about Jefferson's genetic legacy came along Monday to interview Woodson. The film, slated for the PBS program "Frontline," is supposed to air next year.

Foster said the failure to match other Woodsons to the Jefferson family suggests this experiment will be a long shot. But if the test is negative, it still won't annul generations of family lore in Woodson's mind.

"How could it disprove anything?" Woodson said. "They'd have to exhume Thomas Jefferson's body to make sure."

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