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The First Ladies: Martha Jefferson

At this point I have written about all of the First Ladies who were wives of Presidents and who lived in the White House. Martha Jefferson died 18 years before Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800.


Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was born On October 19, 1748 on a plantation known as "the Forest", near Charles City County, Virginia. Her father was John Wayles, a lawyer and a landowner, who was born in England. Her mother was Martha Eppes Wayles, who was born in Virginia and who married John Wayles two years before Martha was born. When Martha Eppes married John Wayles, she brought with her, as part of her dowry, an African slave woman and the woman's half-black, half-white daughter. The woman, enslaved in Africa, sailed to Virginia on a slave ship commanded by an English sea captain with the last name Hemings. Captain Hemings impregnated the slave who gave birth to a daughter she named Betty. The slave and her daughter were sold to Francis and Frances Eppes, and they gave the young enslaved "Betty Hemings" to their daughter Martha Eppes family.

Martha Wayles Jefferson never knew her mother Martha Eppes Wayles, who had died two weeks and three days after giving birth to her.
After the death of his first wife, Martha Eppes (the mother of Mrs. Jefferson), John Wayles married twice more. He married secondly to Mary Cocke by whom he had one daughter who died young, and he later married Elizabeth Lomax, with whom he had three daughters. After the death of Elizabeth Lomax, Wayles would have six children with the half-black half-white slave Betty Hemings, who was mentioned in the will of John Wayles. Sally Hemings was one of the children of John Wayles and Betty Hemings.

No facial image of Martha Jefferson survives; there is one silhouette; some visitors left descriptions of her as being of medium to tall height, with auburn hair. A 1965 oil portrait of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was painted by artist George Geygan, based on contemporary descriptions of her physical attributes.

There are no records of what formal education Martha Jefferson might have received, other than speculation based on contemporary tradition. She likely played a social role at the family plantation and it is believed that she also assisted her father with management of crop business accounting.

At 18 years of age, Martha married her first husband, a 22 year old planter named Bathurst Skelton. They were married on November 20, 1766 at "The Forest" plantation. They lived at his Charles City County plantation for one year and ten months, until Bathurst's death in 1768. Five years later she married 28 year old Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses for Albemarle County. They were married on New Year's Day of 1772 at "The Forest" plantation and they had their honeymoon in the cottage on the property of what would become later famously known as Monticello, though the mansion house was not yet built

Martha had one child by her first marriage, a son named John Skelton, who died in 1771 when he was four years old (before her marriage to Thomas Jefferson). With Thomas Jefferson she had five daughters and one son: Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774–1775), an unnamed son who died in infancy in 1777), Maria “Polly” Jefferson Eppes (1778–1804), and two daughter, both named Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson and both of who died in infancy (the first was born in 1780 and died in 1781, and the second was born in 1782 and died in 1785).

Much as she had for her father during his periods of widowhood, Martha Jefferson ran the plantation life of Monticello. She is described by contemporaries as an active hostess when she was well. Her beauty, grace and especially her musical skills were frequently commented upon. She and Jefferson read literature and poetry to each other, and played musical duets together, he on the violin.

For the first three years of her marriage, while Jefferson was still a member of the House of Burgesses, Martha accompanied him to the colonial capital of Williamsburg when the burgesses was in session, and took part in the social life there. She was separated from her husband during his tenure as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia (1776), at which time he authored the Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia (1779-1781) during the American Revolution, however, Martha Jefferson briefly joined him in Richmond, where he had moved the capital city to from Williamsburg, because the latter was more vulnerable to British attack by sea.

As the Governor of Virginia's wife during the Revolution, Martha Jefferson assumed a more public role. In response to a request from Martha Washington, she agreed to lead the drive among women of Virginia to raise funds and donate necessary supplies for the state militia of the Continental Army, but she later had to delegate this duty to the wife of another political leader, since her own weak health prevented doing so herself.

Martha Jefferson's health began to rapidly deteriorate, attributable to her having given birth to seven children in less than fourteen years. The British invasion of Virginia under Lord Cornwallis in 1781 forced her to flee Monticello for their more isolated Bedford County home "Poplar Forest". The journey weakened her 16-month old daughter Lucy, who died weeks later. Jefferson resigned his position as governor and promised his wife that he would refuse any more political posts. Her final pregnancy proved extremely difficult and she died on September 6, 1782 at Monticello, four months after childbirth. She was 33 years of age.


With the death of her father in 1772, Martha Jefferson inherited substantial property, including approximately 11,000 acres of land (retaining 5,000) and slaves, including her half-siblings. By law, his wife's property became his own upon marriage, and so Jefferson came into ownership of his slave half sisters-in-law Thenia, Critta and Sally and brothers-in-law Robert and James Hemings. Since they were one-quarter African-American and three-quarters white and also related by blood to Martha Jefferson, the five Wayles-Hemings children occupied a unique role within the Jefferson family. None were called "slaves," but always referred to as "servants." In 1790, Robert Hemings bought his freedom and joined his wife and daughter in Richmond, where they worked for a doctor. James Hemings was particularly close to Jefferson, working as his personal aide or "body servant," traveling with him to Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress and later to Europe. While in Paris, James Hemings studied the culinary French arts; upon returning to Virginia, he trained his younger brother Peter to oversee the detailed French cooking that Jefferson now insisted on serving. Jefferson gave James Hemings his freedom. Critta Hemings helped to raise her half-nieces Patsy and Polly. Thenia Hemings was the only one of Martha Jefferson's half-siblings who was sold as a slave - to family friend and future President James Monroe.

As a subsequent DNA test proved, Jefferson and his half sister-in-law Sally Hemings parented at least one illegitimate child after the death of Martha Jefferson. Public knowledge of even the rumors of this became a scandal during his Administration. While the land inheritance from John Wayles doubled the acreage of Jefferson's own patrimony of land, he also inherited Wayles' substantial debts that lingered and would contribute to Jefferson's own financial troubles in retirement from the presidency.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC)
I learned that Jefferson was mad with grief when his wife died.

The Wikipedia article on Martha Jefferson also states this and says that after more than a month of intense mourning Jefferson wrote that he was "emerging from that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss occasioned it."
Mar. 14th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
Whatever criticisms people may have about Jefferson, I sense that he was that rare combination of great intelligence and great passion.
Mar. 14th, 2013 03:04 am (UTC)
Oh fascinating person....infuriating as well, but fascinating.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


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