Martha Jefferson

Martha Jefferson
First Lady of Virginia
In office
June 1, 1779 – June 3, 1781
Preceded by Dorothea Henry
Succeeded by Anne Fleming
Personal details
Born October 30, 1748(1748-10-30)
Charles City, Colony of Virginia
Died September 6, 1782(1782-09-06) (aged 33)
Charlottesville, Virginia
Spouse(s) Bathurst Skelton (1766-1768)
Thomas Jefferson (1772-1782)
Children John (b. 1767)
Martha (b. 1772 d. 1836)
Jane (b. 1774)
Polly (b. 1778 d. 1806)
Lucy (b. 1780)
Lucy Elizabeth (b. 1782)

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, born Martha Wayles (October 30 [O.S. October 19] 1748 – September 6, 1782) was the wife of Thomas Jefferson, who was the third President of the United States. It was her second marriage, as her first husband had died young. They had six children together, but only two daughters survived to adulthood, and one past the age of 25.


Early life and education

Martha was born to John Wayles (1715–1773) and his first wife Martha Eppes (1712–1748). John was an attorney, slave trader, business agent for the Bristol-based tobacco exporting firm of Tarell & Jones, and wealthy plantation owner in Charles City County, Virginia. [1] Her mother was also of the planter class. Martha Eppes Wayles died when her daughter Martha was three weeks old. The girl Martha was educated at home by tutors, as was customary in the planter class. She was considered accomplished in music, painting and other refined arts.

Her father was born in Lancaster, England and had emigrated alone at the age of nineteen to Virginia in 1734, leaving family in England. He became a lawyer. Her mother Martha Eppes was a daughter of Francis Eppes of Bermuda Hundred. She had already been widowed when Wayles married her. As part of her dowry, Martha Eppes brought with her a personal slave, Susanna, an African woman who had an eleven-year-old mixed-race daughter, Elizabeth Hemings (Betty).

John and Martha's marriage contract provided that Susanna and Betty were to remain the property of Martha Eppes and her heirs forever, or be returned to the Eppes family should there be no heirs. This is how Betty Hemings and her children eventually were inherited by Martha's daughter, Martha Wayles, by then married to Thomas Jefferson.

John Wayles soon married a second time, to Mary Cocke of Malvern Hill. They had a daughter Elizabeth, Martha's half-sister. Later Elizabeth married Martha Eppes' cousin and became the mother of John Wayles Eppes.

After Mary died, John Wayles married a third time. After his third wife died in 1761, he took the mulattod slave Betty Hemings as a concubine and had six children with her. Born into slavery, they were three-quarters European in ancestry and half-siblings to Martha and Elizabeth Wayles. The youngest child of Hemings and Wayles was Sally Hemings.

Marriage and family

Martha Wayles, aged 18, first married Bathurst Skelton (1766–1768) and had one son, John Wayles Skelton (1767–1771) with him. Bathurst died in September of 1768 in Williamsburg, Virginia after a sudden illness. Upon her husband's death, Wayles Skelton moved back to her father's house with her infant son John, who died suddenly of a fever on June 10, 1771.

Wayles Skelton likely met her future husband Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, Virginia about 1768. Following their January 1, 1772 wedding, the Jeffersons honeymooned for about two weeks at The Forest (her father's plantation) before setting out in a two-horse carriage for Monticello (Jefferson's plantation). They made the 100-mile trip in one of the worst snowstorms to hit Virginia. Eight miles from their destination, their carriage bogged down in 2–3 feet of snow; they had to proceed on horseback. Arriving at Monticello late at night after the slaves had banked the fires and retired, the couple settled in the freezing one-room, twenty-foot-square brick building, the "Honeymoon Cottage". Later known as the South Pavilion, it was to be their home until Jefferson had completed the main house at Monticello.

They had six children, but only two daughters reached adulthood, and only the eldest, Martha, survived past the age of 25:

After her father John Wayles died in 1773, Martha and her husband Jefferson (since men controlled the property at the time) inherited his many slaves, as well as the debts of his estate. These took Jefferson and other co-executors of the estate years to pay off.

Among the more than 100 slaves were Betty Hemings, of mixed-race ancestry, and her ten mixed-race children. After being widowed for the third time, John Wayles had taken Hemings as his concubine and had six children with her over a 12-year period until his death.[2] The youngest was Sally Hemings. The six were three-quarters European in ancestry and half-siblings of Martha Wayles Jefferson. Betty also had four children born before those of Wayles. All the Hemings family members came to have privileged positions among the slaves at Monticello, where they were trained and worked as domestic servants, chefs, and highly skilled artisans.[3]

According to her daughter and to eyewitness accounts (the French delegation), Martha Jefferson was musical and highly educated, a constant reader, with a good nature, and a vivacious temper that sometimes bordered on tartness.[citation needed] She had great affection for her husband. She was a little over five feet tall, with a lithe figure, auburn hair, and hazel eyes. She played the keyboard and the guitar, and she was an accomplished needlewoman. Her music book and several examples of her embroidery survive.

During her first year at Monticello, she instituted the production of 170 gallons of beer, a practice which Jefferson continued until his death. She was beloved by her neighbors; she raised funds for the cause of independence before and after her tenure as First Lady of Virginia. Martha Washington had contacted Martha Jefferson to work with the Ladies Association to raise money for the colonial troops. The Association raised $300,000 to buy linen shirts for Washington's army.[citation needed]

Martha Jefferson was in frail health for much of her marriage. She is believed to have suffered from diabetes, a condition aggravated by childbearing, and endangering both mother and child. In the summer of 1776, she had suffered a miscarriage and was very ill. Jefferson wanted to leave Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as soon as possible.

Throughout their almost eleven-year marriage, the Jeffersons appeared to have been devoted to each other. According to slaves who attended the dying woman, Jefferson promised his wife that he would never remarry. Jefferson was inconsolable in his loss and "was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister Mrs. Carr, who, with great difficulty, got him into his library where he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he would never revive."[citation needed] When Martha died following the birth of her sixth child on September 6, 1782, Jefferson was distraught. After the funeral, he withdrew to his room for three weeks. Afterward he spent hours riding horseback alone around Monticello. His daughter Martha wrote, "In those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief."[citation needed] Not until mid-October did Jefferson begin to resume a normal life when he wrote, "emerging from that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss occasioned it."[citation needed]

No miniature of her survives, although there is a silhouette {See White House biography link below}. Extant sketches of her younger daughter Mary Jefferson Eppes are said to show the resemblance between them. Other portraits, formerly reputed to be of Martha Jefferson, are now believed to be of her eldest daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph.[citation needed]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. University of Virginia Press (1997). pp. 128-130. ISBN 0813916984.
  3. ^ Betty Hemings - Monticello Explorer
  • John Kukla, Mr. Jefferson's Women, (New York: Knopf Books, 2007), pp. 76-77, 84.

External links

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