Martha Jefferson: Wife of American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was born on October 19, 1748 to John and Martha Wayles at The Forest, the family's plantation home in Charles City County, Virginia. Her mother died due to complications from the birth shortly after. She was raised by her father, two stepmothers, tutors and became an accomplished musician, singing and playing the pianoforte and spinet.

Her first marriage to Bathurst Skelton produced a son, John, born on November 7, 1767. He died on September 30, 1768.

She and Thomas Jefferson were married on New Year’s Day, 1772 at The Forest... they traveled back to Monticello in a late January snowstorm to begin married life. Martha’s dowry and her father’s death in 1773, made Thomas Jefferson the second largest slave owner in Albemarle County. The Jeffersons were left with the majority of Wayles’ holdings, but also the majority of its debt.

Allegedly a good cook, Martha Jefferson was skilled at needlepoint, and would concoct homemade remedies to treat light sickness. In addition to crafting household necessities, she used the skills she learned while watching her father run his plantation. She maintained Monticello’s household accounts, keeping inventory of things such as purchases, livestock, and how much soap or how many candles she made on a given day.

She kept house with the help of an extended family, which included her deceased mother’s enslaved half-sister, Sally Hemings, and the illegitimate children that Hemings bore to Thomas Jefferson. He fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’s children. Four survived to adulthood and are mentioned in Jefferson’s plantation records:  Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings.

Within 10 years, Martha and Thomas Jefferson had five more children. Of the seven, two survived childhood: Martha, called Patsy, and Mary, called Maria or Polly.

During the Revolutionary War, she was nominated for and placed in charge of the effort to raise money and make clothing for the soldiers of the Continental Army in Virginia at the prompting of Martha Washington.

Martha Jefferson, like her mother and her daughter Maria, eventually succumbed to the difficulties of childbirth. On September 6, 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his account book, “My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M.” She did not live to see him become President.

On her deathbed, Martha and Thomas Jefferson copied lines from one of their favorite novel, Tristram Shandy. Thomas Jefferson retained the paper with a piece of Martha’s hair wrapped around it for the rest of his life.

Among the few remaining examples of her handwriting is a precise ledger of the plantation’s main cash crop, tobacco, suggesting she worked with Jefferson as a full partner in this aspect of life at Monticello.

It was his eldest daughter, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson—now Martha Jefferson Randolph—who appeared as the lady of the President’s House in the winter of 1802-1803. She spent seven weeks and was there again from 1805-1806, giving birth to a son named James Madison, the first grandchild of a president to be born in the White House.


Like this post? Stop by and read Deborah Read: Wife of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin." Deborah Read, wife of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, was born about 1707. In 1730, the couple entered into a common law marriage, agreeing to live together as husband and wife without formal approval by religious or civil authorities. Deborah managed their businesses and sold such items as soap, medicines, chocolate, tea, cloth, feathers and lottery tickets.

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