John Hemings (also spelled Hemmings) (1776 – 1833) was born into slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello as part of the large mixed-race Hemings family. He trained to become a highly skilled carpenter and woodworker, making furniture and doing the fine woodwork of the interiors at Monticello and Poplar Forest.
Jefferson's sons by Sally Hemings: Beverly, Madison and Eston, were each apprenticed to John Hemmings at the age of 14 for training as fine carpenters. After decades of service, John Hemmings was freed in 1826 by Jefferson's will, together with two older Hemings' males who had long served Jefferson, and the much younger Madison and Eston.
Early life and education
John was born into slavery as the son of the mixed-race slave Betty Hemings and Joseph Neilson, an Irish workman at Monticello. Of three-quarters European ancestry, he was the eleventh of Betty's children, and half-brother to her six children by her late master John Wayles, as well as to the oldest four by another father.
Hemmings started his working life as an "out-carpenter." He chopped trees, hewed logs, built fences and barns, and helped to build the log slave dwellings on Mulberry Row at the plantation. This relatively unskilled work was just the beginning of his artisan career.
Marriage and family
Although slave marriages were not recognized by Virginia law, John married Priscilla, another slave at Monticello, and had a lifelong partnership with her. They reared a family. She served as nurse to Jefferson's grandchildren when they were living there.
John Hemmings must have demonstrated his woodworking ability early, because at the age of seventeen, he was put to work and trained with a succession of skilled woodworkers hired by Jefferson to enlarge the main house. Hemmings learned to make wheels, to use an elaborate set of planes to create decorative interior moldings, and finally to make fine furniture. Hemmings also knew how to read and write.
He was made principal assistant to James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner responsible for most of the fine woodwork of Monticello. Hemmings also crafted much of the interior woodwork of Jefferson's house at Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Virginia. He made all the wooden parts of a large landau carriage Jefferson designed in 1814. He became far more than a carpenter; he was a highly skilled joiner and cabinetmaker.
As the master craftsman of the Monticello Joinery, he trained other young slaves, such as the sons of Thomas Jefferson by his concubine, Sally Hemings. At the age of 14, Beverly, Madison and Eston each became apprentices to Hemmings and learned to be highly skilled carpenters.
John Hemmings was a great favorite with Jefferson's grandchildren, who told of his making toys and furniture for them. After decades in slavery, Hemmings was one of five slaves, all males of the extended Hemings family, whom Jefferson freed in his will. In 1826, he was given his tools from the joinery, as well as the work of his two apprentice assistants, his nephews Madison and Eston Hemings, until they came of age and were freed. Already 21, Madison was freed immediately. Eston was "given his time" and freed before he reached age 21.
Hemmings continued to live and work for wages at Monticello after Jefferson's death in 1826, until about 1831. Martha Randolph and other descendants lived there for some time.