Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Jefferson and his Hair: Can Jefferson's Hair Unlock Some of History's Mysteries?

Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, yet it's possible that some of his hair survives to the present day. Those who claim to own hair from Thomas Jefferson include the Library of Congress, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. If the hair owned by these organizations is indeed Jefferson's, then we have access to the actual DNA of Thomas Jefferson himself. Could that mean we may unravel some of history's mysteries surrounding our nation's third President, including solving the paternal question of Eston Hemings (Sally Hemings's son) once and for all?

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation claims to have “15 samples of hair purported to be Thomas Jefferson’s, from various family provenances." The Foundation, however, cautions that "it is impossible for us to know if these are what they purport to be.” Likewise, the Jefferson hair at the Academy of Natural Sciences comes from 19th century lawyer and hair collector Peter Arvell Browne. Some question whether it's really Jefferson's hair, but Browne apparently collected samples from the first 12 Presidents (all of which are now held by the Academy. Perhaps the strongest claim lies with the Library of Congress, which has three cuttings. These cuttings were received in the early 19th century from none other than Martha Randolph, who wrote on the envelope: "My dear father Thomas Jefferson."

Even if the Jefferson hair samples are authentic and even if the owners give them over for scientific research, genealogy expert Dick Eastman says we shouldn't get our hopes up. Says Eastman: "If we assume the hair is really that of former president Thomas Jefferson, any Y-chromosome DNA extracted would be identical to the DNA samples already obtained from Jefferson's other close male relatives." In other words, says Eastman, the hair samples give us "absolutely no new information." (See "Could Jefferson Hair Sample Provide New DNA Information?" by Dick Eastman)

Regardless of whether the DNA information can bring us new, groundbreaking information, it's still cool (at least to this history buff) that we have ready and literal access to a piece of our third President, a man who helped fashion and shape the United States of America.

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