Thomas Woodson and 1790

I read through Quick Lesson 13 about evidence analysis, especially the case of Thomas Woodson, who some say was a son of Sally Hemings.  I agree with the conclusion, based on Sally's year of birth and the lack of a son Tom in Jefferson's slave record.  One thing I did not understand, though, was the assumption that if Tom Woodson was to be Sally Hemings' son, he had to be the child born in 1790.  Could he simply have been missing from Madison's list?  I know one would expect Madison to know who his siblings were, but he would also be expected to know if they survived childhood.  Pretending that we don't yet know Sally's year of birth, and Tom's likely birth year from the census records, why wouldn't a birth year of around 1785 been used to estimate Tom's age at the birth of his son Lewis?  That would then be the working theory until being ruled out by Sally being born in 1773.

Submitted byEEon Sun, 11/18/2012 - 15:39

Bierne wrote: "Pretending that we don't yet know Sally's year of birth, and Tom's likely birth year from the census records, why wouldn't a birth year of around 1785 [be] used to estimate Tom's age at the birth of his son Lewis?"

Bierne, if we had absolutely no records to give us evidence for Sally's year of birth and absolutely no record to give us an age bracket for Tom, then "guesstimating" that Tom was 20 when his son Lewis was born would still be risky, in EE's view. Male fertility has commonly lasted another 50 or more years past that point and older men, whose wives died, tended to replace them with younger women who were still of childbearing age. In short: a father could have been of almost any age.

The more reliable approach, EE feels, is the one the author took in this case: Doing thorough research—identifying and using every known record—before reaching a "working theory."


I just read the part of Leary's article that deals with Tom Woodson.  It makes a few points that clarify things:

  1. Some people claim that Tom Woodson was the child born in 1790, a point that Leary refuted.  I didn't realize that that is what some people thought, so the possibility of Tom being the 1790 child seemed irrelevant and a bit of a straw man.  Now I see why it was featured.
  2. Leary's article states early on that Sally was born in 1773, which easily rules out Tom of 1784 being her son.  That point came later in the QuickLesson.

Reviewing the QuickLesson, I see that took the order of evidence analysis as the order of discovery, a mistake on my part.  I evaluated each argument based on what had been revealed at that point in the article.  At the point of the discussion of Lewis' birth when Sally's age had not been revealed, a 1784 birth for Tom by Sally was not ruled out.  Given that Sally's birth year is well known, though, I see why it was not brought up in the context of Lewis' birth.

Regarding the working theory part, I know where you are coming from and have heard that point before.  I'm not sure that a genealogist can or even should remain a blank slate the whole way through the discovery process, but I'll think about that more.


Beirne, thanks for your sharing your perspectives.  Regarding the "working theory," EE agrees that it is useful, but would likely employ it at a different stage. EE's caution focuses upon adopting that "working theory" too soon. Once we adopt an hypothesis, it's easy to let that hypothesis narrow our research and thereby arbitrarily limit our exposure to other records that should be exploited. EE would argue that the better course is to do thorough research before reaching any "working theory." At that point, if an hypothesis is warranted, we would use it to play Devil's Advocate, going back to all the relevant records and making a concerted effort to disprove our working theory. Also, given that any hypothesis will likely involve actions with other people, EE would let that working theory guide us in deciding which associates need to be thoroughly researched as part of that Devils Advocate process.

Submitted bybeirneon Sun, 11/18/2012 - 17:58

Thanks for the reply.  I have more comments and questions, but think it would be best if I go read Leary's article, which I just downloaded, first.