While Jefferson was in France, Hemings was hired out to Thomas Bell, a wealthy white merchant in Charlottesville, Virginia. She became his common-law wife and they had two children together. Bell purchased her and the children from Jefferson in 1792 and informally freed them. Mary Hemings Bell was the first Hemings to gain freedom. The couple lived together all their lives. (They were prohibited from marriage by Virginia law at the time.)
In 2007 Mary Hemings Bell was recognized as a Patriot of the Daughters of the American Revolution, because she had been taken as a prisoner of war during the American Revolution. By this honor, all her female descendants are eligible to join the DAR.
Mary was born into slavery to Elizabeth Hemings, a biracial slave also called Betty. Elizabeth was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and John Hemings, an English sea captain. Mary's father was probably a slave.[clarification needed]
Mary Hemings had six children:
During Jefferson's stay in Paris as US minister to France, his overseer hired out Mary Hemings (with her two younger children) to Thomas Bell in Charlottesville. Mary Hemings became partner to Thomas bell, They had two children together:
At Mary's request, after his return Jefferson sold Mary and her two younger children to Bell in 1792. Bell informally freed the three of them that year, acknowledging the children as his. (Jefferson told his superintendent to "dispose of Mary according to her desire, with such of her younger children as she chose." Jefferson kept Mary's slightly older children, Joseph Fossett, age 12, and Betsy, then age nine, at Monticello, splitting up the family. They were likely cared for by aunts and a grandmother.)
Thomas and Mary Bell lived the remainder of their lives together, and Thomas Bell became a good friend of Jefferson. Mary Hemings Bell was the first of Betty's children to gain freedom. When Thomas Bell died in 1800, he left Mary and their Bell children a sizable estate, treating them as free in his will. The property included lots on Charlottesville's Main Street. He depended on his neighbors and friends to carry out his wishes, which they did. Mary Hemings finished her days in Charlottesville. Her grave site remains unknown.