Martha Jefferson

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

Martha Jefferson silhouette (Circa: January 2, 1754) from

(1748 - 1782)

Died before her husband's presidency

Jefferson, Martha Wayles Skelton, wife of President Jefferson, was born in "The Forest" in Charles City county, Va., October 19, 1748; daughter of John Wayles. She was married in 1765 to Bathurst Skelton, a widower with several children, who died in 1768, and she inherited the property of both her husband and father.   

Among Jefferson's associates at the Williamsburg bar was John Wayles, a lawyer of large practice who had a fine estate on the edge of the town called "The Forest," a dozen plantations, large tracts of wild land in various parts of the colony, and over four hundred slaves. His widowed daughter, Martha Skelton, a famous beauty fond of admiration and music, lived with him, and Jefferson was in the habit of taking his violin out to "The Forest" of an evening to play duets with her. Their acquaintance extended over three or four years. 

Martha was a widowed in 1768 and Jefferson first mentions his love for her in 1770.  They were married on New Year's Day, 1772. He left a number of letters concerning his courtship of the pretty widow with the pretty fortune which indicate that he was scarcely off with an old love before he was on with the new, and had considerable vexation in adjusting his conduct to the satisfaction of his own conscience. 

The courtship story goes' that Jefferson was spurred into an engagement with Martha Skelton by the rivalry of two friends, with whom he came to an understanding that they should draw cuts for the first proposal. If the first were rejected, he was to retire and give the next a chance, and if number two were not accepted, the third was at liberty to propose. Jefferson drew number one and started for the Wayles plantation. His rivals followed him and hung over the hedge, listening to the music as he played duets with his inamorata. They concluded from the joyful tones of his instrument that his wooing was successful and walked home disconsolate.

The license-bond for the marriage required by the laws of Virginia was written in Jefferson's own hand, and is signed by him with Francis Eppes, a neighbor, whose son afterwards married Jefferson's daughter, as surety. He must have been a little nervous or absent-minded at the time, for he described his bride as " a spinster." Somebody corrected the mistake by running a pen through "spinster" and writing the word "widow" over it; but Jefferson was not so agitated that he neglected to set down in his account-book every item of expenditure in connection with his wedding. 

We find that he "loaned Mrs. Skelton ten shillings" two days before the ceremony; paid forty shillings for the marriage-license; gave five pounds to the Reverend Mr. Coutts, the minister who married them; and then borrowed twenty shillings from the parson before the close of the day. He gave ten shillings to the fiddler, and five shillings to each of the servants of the household.

On one of the early days in January the newly married pair started in a two-horse chaise from "The Forest" for Monticello. The mansion was half built when Jefferson took his bride home. They drove from Williamsburg, a distance of at least one hundred miles, and arrived in the midst of a fearful blizzard. Jefferson reports in his diary that the snow was more than two feet deep on the road, and that his horse had a desperate struggle to haul them through the icy hills. They spent their first night in a little brick house that is still standing, attached to the slave quarters, and lived there until the mansion was habitable.

About a year after his marriage the death of his father-in-law brought him forty thousand acres of land and one hundred and thirty-five slaves. The Natural Bridge, eighty miles from Monticello, was included in the property, and Jefferson, who considered it one of the greatest wonders in the world, planned to build there a hermitage to which he could retire in seclusion at will for rest and study. Jefferson speaks of his wife's father in these terms: 

"Mr. Wayles was a lawyer of much practice to which he was introduced more by his industry, punctuality and practical readiness, than by eminence in the science of his profession. He was a most agreeable companion, full of pleasantry and humor, and welcomed in every society. He acquired a handsome fortune, and died in May, 1773, leaving three daughters. The fortune which came on that event to Mrs. Jefferson, after the debts were paid, which was very considerable, was about equal to my own patrimony, and consequently doubled the ease of our circumstances."

Although everything that concerned her has an interest, we know very little about Mrs. Jefferson, except that she was a covetous woman, because on her deathbed she exacted a promise that Jefferson would never remarry. Edward Bacon, the manager of the plantation, tells the story in these words: 

When Mrs. Jefferson died, Mr. Jefferson sat by her, and she gave him directions about a good many things that she wanted done. When she came to the children she wept, and could not speak for some time. Finally she held up her hand, and spreading out her four fingers she told him that she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a step-mother brought in over them. Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never be married again. And he never did.

Visitors to Monticello have described her as 

a beautiful woman,—her countenance brilliant with color and expression, luxuriant auburn hair, somewhat tall, of a very graceful figure, but too delicate for the wear and tear of this troublesome world. She has an educated mind and a taste for higher literature. Her skill in playing the harpsichord and her voice in singing are said to be remarkable.

Martha had six children, all of them girls. The first child, Martha, and the fourth, Mary, alone survived infancy. Years after her death six of the women-slaves of the house enjoyed an honorable distinction at Monticello as "the servants who were in the room when Mrs. Jefferson died."

Thomas Jefferson  wrote the following epitaph for his wife's tomb:

To the memory of Martha Jefferson, 

Daughter of John Wayles, 
Born October 19th, 1748 O. S.; 
Intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1st, 1772; 
Torn from him by death September 6th, 1782: 

If in the melancholy shades below, 
The flames of friends and lovers cease to glow, 
Yet mine shall sacred last; mine undecayed 
Burn on through death and animate my shade.

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Edited Appleton's Biography

On 1 January, 1772, Jefferson married Mrs. Martha Skelton, a beautiful and childless young widow, daughter of John Wayles, a lawyer in large practice at the Williamsburg bar. His new house at Monticello, was then just barely habitable, and he took his wife home to it a few days after the ceremony. Next year the death of his wife's father brought them a great increase of fortune -- 40,000 acres of land and 135 slaves, which, when the encumbrances were discharged, doubled Jefferson's estate.

Martha Jefferson Randolph and her Father Thomas Jefferson

The Jefferson's thrived in Virginia and in September the birth of their daughter Martha was a cause for celebration. Martha had four more children but only two lived to maturity, Martha, called Patsy, and Mary, called Maria or Polly.

Thomas Jefferson due to Martha's poor health was force to resign from the Continental Congress to stay near her. Jefferson served in Virginia's House of Delegates and as governor. On January 3rd 1781, a British invasion led by Benedict Arnold forced Martha to flee the capital in Richmond her fourth child a  baby girl who died in April that same year. 

In June Martha was forced to flee again from Monticello barely escaping  an enemy raid. Martha birthed her last child, a daughter, the in May 1782, and never remained ill throughout the summer. On 6 September, 1782, Martha Jefferson died, to his unspeakable and lasting sorrow, leaving three daughters, the youngest four months old. Jefferson wrote "My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M."

Martha Jefferson
White House Biography - 2008  
When Thomas Jefferson came courting, Martha Wayles Skelton at 22 was already a widow, an heiress, and a mother whose firstborn son would die in early childhood. Family tradition says that she was accomplished and beautiful--with slender figure, hazel eyes, and auburn hair--and wooed by many. Perhaps a mutual love of music cemented the romance; Jefferson played the violin, and one of the furnishings he ordered for the home he was building at Monticello was a "forte-piano" for his bride.
They were married on New Year's Day, 1772, at the bride's plantation home "The Forest," near Williamsburg. When they finally reached Monticello in a late January snowstorm to find no fire, no food, and the servants asleep, they toasted their new home with a leftover half-bottle of wine and "song and merriment and laughter." That night, on their own mountaintop, the love of Thomas Jefferson and his bride seemed strong enough to endure any adversity. 
The physical strain of frequent pregnancies weakened Martha Jefferson so gravely that her husband curtailed his political activities to stay near her. He served in Virginia's House of Delegates and as governor, but he refused an appointment by the Continental Congress as a commissioner to France. Just after New Year's Day, 1781, a British invasion forced Martha to flee the capital in Richmond with a baby girl a few weeks old--who died in April. In June the family barely escaped an enemy raid on Monticello. She bore another daughter the following May, and never regained a fair measure of strength. Jefferson wrote on May 20 that her condition was dangerous. After months of tending her devotedly, he noted in his account book for September 6, "My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M."
Apparently he never brought himself to record their life together; in a memoir he referred to ten years "in unchequered happiness." Half a century later his daughter Martha remembered his sorrow: "the violence of his this day I not describe to myself." For three weeks he had shut himself in his room, pacing back and forth until exhausted. Slowly that first anguish spent itself. In November he agreed to serve as commissioner to France, eventually taking "Patsy" with him in 1784 and send for "Polly" later.
When Jefferson became President in 1801, he had been a widower for 19 years. He had become as capable of handling social affairs as political matters. Occasionally he called on Dolley Madison for assistance. And it was Patsy--now Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.--who appeared as the lady of the President's House in the winter of 1802-1803, when she spent seven weeks there. She was there again in 1805-1806, and gave birth to a son named for James Madison, the first child born in the White House. It was Martha Randolph with her family who shared Jefferson's retirement at Monticello until he died there in 1826.

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