The son of President Thomas Jefferson may be buried in an unmarked grave in Indianapolis.
Robert Jefferson was born in Charles Town, Virginia, in 1803 to Millie Reddiford, an enslaved woman. Robert was given the surname Jefferson by his master, Edward Christian, who was a close friend of the president. At the time of Robert’s birth, Thomas Jefferson was two years into his first term as president.
In an 1879 interview with the Indianapolis Journal, Robert described growing up and how he got his name.
“My mother was a slave girl, and a tall and handsome woman, belonging to Mr. Christian of Charlestown, Virginia,” Robert said. “Thomas Jefferson and my mother’s master were warm and personal friends and frequently exchanged visits. … My mother was one of the housemaids and had the care of Mr. Jefferson’s apartments during the time he passed at her master’s house. … My mother was unmarried at the time [of his birth] and Mr. Christian himself said my name was Jefferson. … Those are my reasons for believing myself his son. I suppose I am really his offspring.”
Genealogist Phyllis Codling McLaughlin has no doubt the man she’s been researching for years is the son of Thomas Jefferson.
After learning about Robert’s story as a board member for the Historic Eleutherian College Inc. in Madison, Indiana, where Robert sent his daughters Lucy and Georgianna, McLaughlin helped test the DNA of six of Robert’s descendants in 2017. She was able to link all of them back to descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
“Some go back to Thomas and Martha Jefferson, some of them go back to Thomas Jefferson’s parents,” McLaughlin said. “… All the roads lead back to the Jefferson family. I can’t definitively say Robert is Thomas Jefferson’s son, but I can’t find anything that proves otherwise.”
Nick Woods, the great-great-grandson of Lucy Jefferson Roberson, remembers hearing he was a descendent of Thomas Jefferson growing up. While it wasn’t discussed often, he remembers seeing the Indianapolis Journal article and said he has no reason to doubt his lineage but said having proof would be nice.
“I have grandkids, and I want to pass down the family history,” said Woods, who lives in Chicago. “Once generations start to pass, things get more and more muddled, and I just think it’s important to know. It’s not necessarily that I want to be related to Thomas Jefferson, I just want to know what my family history is.”
McLaughlin said Thomas Jefferson’s DNA is available to be tested, but Crown Hill Cemetery would not excavate Robert’s grave to collect DNA after previously telling her they would. A representative of Crown Hill could not be reached for an interview.
“It’s extremely frustrating when there’s a way to know for sure and people don’t want to allow that to happen for whatever reason,” Woods said. “I don’t like that at all. I want to know, and I want my kids to know.”
Robert settled in Madison briefly after buying his freedom for $2,764 with money he earned as a carpenter, along with over $1,000 for the freedom of his family. He later moved to Indianapolis, where he was employed by Dr. W.C. Thompson. McLoughlin isn’t sure what Robert did in Thompson’s office, but said he was a man of means.
Of course, Robert’s money and freedom didn’t come easily.
In her research, McLaughlin found Robert and his mother were sold several times when Robert was a child. Robert had three brothers: Albert, Henry and Richard. However, records for his siblings are few and far between.
Robert was eventually sold to John T. Dearing, who owned several plantations throughout the South. While in Athens, Georgia and Mississippi, Robert was allowed to make money doing carpentry work around the town.
“My master was always very kind to me,” Robert told the Indianapolis Journal. “… His eldest son and myself grew up together, and I was his company as a body servant a great deal of the time. … My master used to say … that I should never serve another after his death and that he would give me my freedom before he died.”
Dearing died unexpectedly, and his son refused Robert’s request for his freedom.
“I had set my heart on becoming a free man, and I was not willing to give up the hope of becoming such,” Robert told the Indianapolis Journal. “I had married then, and the thought of leaving my wife was out of the question.”
Robert worked throughout Athens to make enough money to buy his and his wife, Celia’s, freedom in 1852.
Robert then moved to Canada, where he stayed for a while until moving to Madison, Indiana, a city that contributed greatly to the Underground Railroad. A year later, Robert settled in Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis Journal noted Robert still carried his papers everywhere he went more than 20 years later.
Forgotten by history
Robert Jefferson died in 1882, eight years after Celia. Celia died and was buried in St. Louis while visiting their daughter Lucy, who by then had married a wealthy business owner in the city. Following Robert’s death, Lucy paid to have Celia’s body excavated and transported to Indianapolis to be buried in Crown Hill Cemetery alongside Robert.
With all the money the family seemed to have, McLoughlin and Woods question why they have no headstone.
“It’s a little fishy,” Woods said.
McLaughlin thinks the headstone, and Crown Hill’s refusal to excavate the grave, is an attempt to hide the truth about Thomas Jefferson’s history.
For years, Monticello, the estate-turned-museum of Thomas Jefferson, denied the former president fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave he owned. Hemings was about 16 years old when she gave birth to the first of at least six of Jefferson’s children. It wasn’t until 1998 that DNA tests proved Hemings’ descendants were related to Thomas Jefferson.
“It took a hell of a lot to get Monticello to acknowledge [Sally] Hemings was a concubine,” McLaughlin said. “… No one wants to believe it because Jefferson was a Founding Father, he wrote ‘All men are created equal,’ and yet he owned slaves. … My thing is, if you’re Monticello or any kind of organization devoted to keeping the history of something, this is part of that history. You can’t deny it.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.