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Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

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Title: Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson  
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Subject: Thomas Jefferson, 1748, Monticello, Martha Jefferson Randolph, John Wayles Eppes, Clotel, Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Eston Hemings, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., First Family of the United States
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Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

This article is about the wife of Thomas Jefferson. For the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, see Martha Jefferson Randolph.

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 (1748-10-30)October 30, 1748
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 (1767–1771)
Martha (1772–1836)
Jane (1774–1775)
Unnamed son (1777)
Polly (1778–1804)
Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781)
Lucy Elizabeth (1782–1784)

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. Weakened by childbirth, Martha Jefferson died several months after the birth of her last child.

Early life and education

Martha was born on October 30, 1748, to John Wayles (1715–1773) and his first wife, Martha Eppes (1712–1748). John Wayles was an attorney, slave trader, business agent for Bristol-based merchants Farrell & Jones, and prosperous planter in Charles City County, Virginia. He was born in Lancaster, England and had emigrated alone at the age of 19 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. Martha Eppes Wayles died on November 5, 1748, when her daughter Martha was six days old. Nothing is known of Martha Eppes Wayles' education, or other aspects of her childhood, although the scant evidence that exists about her indicates that she was a fine writer and had a refined appreciation for the literature of the period, such as Tristram Shandy and The Adventures of Telemachus (the original of which, with her signature on the title page, is part of the Library of Congress). She had already been widowed when she married Wayles. As part of her dowry, Martha Eppes brought with her to the marriage her personal slaves, Susanna, an African woman, and Elizabeth Hemings (Betty), Susanna's eleven-year-old mixed-race daughter.

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 10 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. Their only child who survived to adulthood of the four born was a daughter, Elizabeth, Martha's half-sister. As an adult, Elizabeth married Martha Eppes' cousin and became the mother of John Wayles Eppes.[1] He married Martha's daughter and his half-cousin, Mary Wayles Jefferson, who then went by "Maria".

After Mary Cocke died, John Wayles married a third time, to Elizabeth Lomax Skelton (incidentally the widow of Reuben Skelton, brother of Martha Wayles' first husband Bathurst Skelton). They had no children. Elizabeth Lomax Skelton Wayles died a little more than a year after her marriage to John Wayles, on 10 February 1761."[1]

After his third wife died in 1761, Wayles took the mulatto slave Betty Hemings as a concubine for the rest of his life; he had six children with her over a 12-year period.[2] Born into slavery, the children of this union were three-quarters European in ancestry and half-siblings to Martha and Elizabeth Wayles. The youngest child of Hemings and Wayles was Sally Hemings, born about 1773.[3][4]

Marriage and family

Martha Wayles, aged 18, first married Bathurst Skelton (born 1744), a Virginia attorney, on November 20, 1766. Their son, John, was born November 7, 1767. Bathurst Skelton died on September 30, 1768 in Williamsburg, Virginia after a sudden illness. Their only child 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 spent 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 20–30 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, 20-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 26:

After her father, John Wayles, died in 1773, Martha and her husband (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. The youngest, an infant, was Sally Hemings. The six youngest were three-quarters European in ancestry and half-siblings of Martha Wayles Jefferson, as they were fathered by her father. 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, as they were trained and worked as domestic servants, chefs, and highly skilled artisans.[5]

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. 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 was an accomplished needlewoman. Her music book and several examples of her embroidery survive.[3]

During her first year at Monticello, she instituted the production of 170 gallons of beer, a practice that 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.

Martha Jefferson was in delicate 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. The birth of their youngest child was reportedly the most difficult pregnancy for Mrs. Jefferson; she gained a dangerous amount of weight and was often too sick to act as head of the household or even to sit comfortably. Jefferson, in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress that drafted the Declaration of Independence, wished to return to her as soon as possible.[3]

Throughout their almost eleven-year marriage, the Jeffersons appeared to have been devoted to each other. Mrs. Jefferson's health took a turn to the worse, and Martha died on September 6, 1782, a few months after the birth of her last child. Jefferson was so distraught, he did not remarry and remained a widower for the rest of his life. He 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."[3] 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."[3] 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."[3]

No miniature of Martha 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.


  • John Kukla, Mr. Jefferson's Women, (Neew York: Knopf Books, 2007), p. 76–77, 8.

External links

  • Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, Monticello: For accurate, up-to-date information written and moderated by historians at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
  • Martha Jefferson at Find-A-Grave
  • "Martha Jefferson", First Lady Biography

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