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 plantation home of her father in Charles City County, Virginia. Her mother died shortly after she was born due to complications from the birth. She was raised by her father, two stepmothers, tutors and became an accomplished musician, singing and playing the pianoforte and spinet.

Martha Jefferson was married first to Bathurst Skelton. Their son, John, was born the following year, 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 near Williamsburg and then traveled back to Monticello in a late January snowstorm to begin married life. Martha’s dowry and her father’s death in 1773, making 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 could come up with homemade remedies to treat light sickness. In addition to making and crafting household necessities, she used the skills she learned while watching her father run his plantation. She maintained Monticello’s household accounts, keeping track 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 ten years, Martha and Thomas Jefferson had five more children. Of her seven children, 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 suggestion 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.

While on her deathbed, Martha and Thomas Jefferson copied lines from one of their favorite novels, Tristram Shandy. Thomas Jefferson kept the paper they wrote the lines on 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 more 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, 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 president’s grandchild born in the White House.

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