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Backlash: Newspaper disputes Robert's paternity claim

In 1884, two years after Robert Jefferson died, the Indiana State Sentinel published a full broadsheet page of articles and pieces of articles that had been printed elsewhere, slamming the Republican newspapers for criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland for his alleged sex scandals, while appearing (in the opinion if the State Sentinel editor) to turn a blind eye to alleged scandalous affairs that hounded the Republican's own candidate, former senator and U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

James G. Blaine, political scandals, 1884 presidential election, Robert Jefferson, Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis Journal, Indianapolis Saturday Herald, Thomas Jefferson, political sex scandals
James G. Blaine. Photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Saturday Herald article referred to was originally published April 5, 1879, just four days after the Indianapolis Journal profile of Robert Jefferson was published. The Herald piece picked apart the Journal piece with the seeming intention of maligning his claim to be a mulatto son of Thomas Jefferson.

The later State Sentinel article states: “At the time of the Journal’s account of Mr. Jefferson appeared, some five or six years ago, the Saturday Herald of this city published a careful examination of the evidence disclosed in that account and showed that there was no reason to believe in the alleged paternity. The conclusion was almost irresistibly against it.”

Below is a transcription of the Saturday Herald’s April 1879 article. Speaking as a veteran newspaper journalist, I can’t help but read this piece as nothing more than opinion, in that the “careful examination,” as described by the Sentinel, seems to be completely biased and not based on any tangible fact-finding. Basically, both the Sentinel and the Herald seemed to believe that a man such as Thomas Jefferson could never have fathered a child with another woman, let alone an enslaved woman, while he was serving as president of the United States—a job which, they seem to think, would have kept him far too busy for any such diversion.

On top of that, they found it difficult to believe that a 59-year-old man could father a child. Clearly, they would have been shocked if they had met silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin, who fathered his youngest son, Christopher (b. 1962) at the age of 73.

And for the life of them, they cannot imagine why an elderly Black man would still be carrying his freedom papers on his person, even decades after Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, other than simply to use as a prop when telling his story.

Yes, indeed. How silly of him.


Indianapolis Saturday Herald 5 April 1879

“Another Gov. Posey Case”

The Journal has found a son of the Declaration of Independence somewhere in Bucktown*, and magnifies the discovery into a column of “cooked” interview that impairs the plausibility of the story. The name of the subject is Robert Jefferson, and he claims that Thomas, of Revolutionary and other creditable memories—bating only the disastrous allusion in Willard’s panegyric on Voorhees**—was his father; that he was born in 1803, and was the son of a handsome mulatto housemaid of a Mr. Christian. But we will quote: “My mother was a slave girl, a tall and handsome woman, belonging to Mr. Christian of Charlestown [sic], Virginia. Thomas Jefferson and my mother’s master were warm personal friends, and frequently exchanged visits, Mr. Jefferson passing a good deal of his time in Charlestown, and at Mr. Christian’s house. 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.”

He says, too, that his mother was a “dark mulatto.” The Journal says that his hair is “straight and black,” and that “he is a dark mulatto, of low, broad build,” “under the medium height.” His mother was tall, Jefferson was tall and slender and red-headed. Their son, however, by some odd physological [sic] freak is “low and broad,” and a “dark mulatto” too. The blonde statesman’s blood did not bleach him or his hair at all, which may be credible, but one really would think that two tall parents would have done more for his stature. Jefferson was elected president in 1800, and was almost constantly at his post till he left the office. Yet he “passed a good deal of his time with Mr. Christian.”

Jefferson was just sixty years old in 1803, and though not impossible, it strains one’s faith in phsiology a little to believe that he was the father of a son at fifty-nine. And it rather tasks one’s faith to believe that a man who was not noted for incontinence in his youth should turn lecher in age, and under the burthen of the great duties of president of the United States, which no man ever understood or appreciated more fully than Thomas Jefferson. By way of corroboration of a story that certainly stood in some need of it, the Journal says, quoting the victim’s narrative:

“Before leaving Canton, Mississippi, my master’s home, I received these papers.” Here the old man drew from his pocket two letters, yellow with age and well worn as if by frequent usage, one signed by about one hundred and fifty citizens of that city, the other by O.R. Singleton, ex-member of Congress. The latter bears the date of July 29, 1852, and both speak in high terms of “Robert Jefferson, a freedman of unquestioned integrity, and worth of confidence.”

That drawing the letters “from his pocket,” is a touch of “realism” that the writer probably put in for dramatic effect. But it damages the story. Does Mr. Jefferson carry these letters, “yellow with age” about with him always, to be ready for interviewers and doubters? If not, how did he come to have them in “his pocket” on that occasion? If the reporter invented this incident for effect, how much more did he invent? There is room for doubt about this affair. The Journal heads the story “Blood will tell.” But it may not tell the truth. Or the reporter may not. We remember that a correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial in 1871 got up a story—or enlarged a half hint that he heard one day in Gov. Baker’s room—that Gov. Posey, of this state, then a territory, was an illegitimate son of [President George] Washington. It made some fuss at the time, but the almanac would not hold it up, and it fell directly. Even the love of scandal, that seems to be inborn in human nature, could not find anything substantial enough to be reliable in a story that had too many obstructing dates to climb. The Journal’s scandal is not likely to have a better fate. It may be true that the “father of democracy” was also the father of Mr. Jefferson, but if he was, his fame is punished by the dishonor of one of his children for the shame of begetting the other.


Here's my take:

So. I have been looking forward to reading this article for a few years now, thinking that perhaps the writer had made an educated or well-researched study of the situation. Sadly, it’s an article that could have been broadcast by the likes of Tucker Carlson, or any one of the talking heads on Fox News, where the facts aren’t considered to be essential if you want to tell a good story or promote disinformation.

According to writer and historian Paul Mullins, who mentions Bucktown in an Oct. 16, 2018, post on the “Invisible Indianapolis” blog, the term was “often used to refer to the African-American near-Westside community.”

That post actually is about Carter Temple, whose home at 550 Minerva Street was across the street from Robert Jefferson’s, according to a Sanborn map drawn after Robert had died. Apparently, the street numbers of the homes on that street changed over the years for reasons I have not yet researched. And, of course, that whole area, dozens and dozens of blocks of black-owned residential homes and businesses, was bulldozed to make more room for IUPUI’s medical college campus.

The term “buck” on its own, when used to refer to a man of African descent, is on a par with other racial slurs, such as “coon,” “tom,” “savage,” “pickaninny,” “mammy,” “samba” (or “Sambo,” a Black character I remember in literature), “jigaboo,” and “buckwheat,” according to AAREG. As a journalist, I find the idea of referring to the Indianapolis Black community as “Bucktown,” alone, is a prime example of the color prejudice of the writer, editor, publisher and staff of the State Sentinel.

As a genetic genealogist, I cringe at the writer’s assumption that the laws of genetics could not allow for two tall parents to have a child of shorter stature than themselves, as well as the writer’s apparent premise that Robert Jefferson was too “Black” to have had such a fair-complected, red-headed European-American father.

And as a human being who closely follows the news and our nation’s politics, I am not surprised by an article written by someone clearly on that side of the racial divide to dilute actual advancements in a science, such as genetics, to boost their argument and make it seem scientifically plausible. This is the same kind of thinking that the “anti-vaxxer” faction of Americans today use to justify their belief that the vaccines created to combat COVID-19 were fake science and would do more harm than good to those who take them.

It’s not just fake news; it’s plain, old-fashioned jibberish.

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