Martha Jefferson

Martha Jefferson (1748-1782)
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  • Known for: wife of Thomas Jefferson, died before he took office as U.S. President.
  • Dates: Oct. 19, 1748–Sept. 6, 1782
  • Also known as: Martha Eppes Wayles, Martha Skelton, Martha Eppes Wayles Skelton Jefferson
  • Religion: Anglican

Background, Family

  • Father: John Wayles (1715-1773; English immigrant, barrister, and landowner)
  • Mother: Martha Eppes Wayles (1712-1748; daughter of English immigrants)
  • John Wayles and Martha Eppes married on May 3, 1746
  • Martha Jefferson had 10 half-siblings: one (who died young) from her father's second marriage to Mary Cocke; three half-sisters from her father's third marriage to Elizabeth Lomax; and three half-sisters and three half-brothers by her father's enslaved person, Betsy Hemings; one of the half-sisters was Sally Hemings, who bore six of Thomas Jefferson's children.

Marriage, Children

  • Husband: Thomas Jefferson (married Jan. 1, 1772; Virginia planter, lawyer, member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Virginia governor, and, after Martha's death, U.S. President)
  • Five children: only two survived to adulthood:
    Martha "Patsy" Jefferson (1772-1836; married Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.)
  • Mary "Maria" or "Polly" Jefferson Eppes (1778-1804; married John Wayles Eppes)
  • Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774-1775)
  • unnamed son (1777)
  • Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1780-1781)
  • Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1782-1785)

Martha Jefferson Biography

Martha Jefferson's mother, Martha Eppes Wayles, died less than three weeks after her daughter was born. John Wayles, her father, married two more times, bringing two stepmothers into young Martha's life: Mary Cocke and Elizabeth Lomax.

Martha Eppes had also brought to the marriage an enslaved African woman and that woman's daughter, Betty or Betsy, whose father was the English captain of the ship carrying enslaved people, Captain Hemings. Captain Hemings tried to buy the mother and daughter from John Wayles, but Wayles refused.

Betsy Hemings later had six children by John Wayles who were thus half-siblings of Martha Jefferson; one of them was Sally Hemings (1773-1835), who was later to play an important part in the life of Thomas Jefferson.

Education and First Marriage

Martha Jefferson had no known formal education but was tutored at her family home, "The Forest," near Williamsburg, Virginia. She was an accomplished pianist and harpsichordist.

In 1766, at 18, Martha married Bathurst Skelton, a neighboring planter, who was the brother of her stepmother Elizabeth Lomax's first husband. Bathurst Skelton died in 1768; they had one son, John, who died in 1771.

Thomas Jefferson

Martha married again, on New Year's Day, 1772, this time to a lawyer and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Thomas Jefferson. They went to live in a cottage on his land where he would later build the mansion, at Monticello.

The Hemings Siblings

When Martha Jefferson's father died in 1773, Martha and Thomas inherited his land, debts, and enslaved people, including five of Martha's Hemings half-sisters and half-brothers. Three-quarters White, the Hemingses had a more privileged position than most enslaved people; James and Peter served as cooks at Monticello, James accompanying Thomas to France and learning culinary arts there.

James Hemings and an older brother, Robert, were eventually freed. Critta and Sally Hemings took care of Martha and Thomas' two daughters, and Sally accompanied them to France after Martha's death. Thenia, the only one sold, was sold to James Monroe, a friend and fellow Virginia, and another future President.

Martha and Thomas Jefferson had five daughters and one son; only Martha (called Patsy) and Maria or Mary (called Polly) survived to adulthood.

Virginia Politics

Martha Jefferson's many pregnancies were a strain on her health. She was often ill, including once with smallpox. Jefferson's political activities often took him away from home, and Martha likely accompanied him sometimes. He served, during their marriage, in Williamsburg as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, in Williamsburg and then Richmond as Virginia's governor, and in Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress (where he was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776). He was offered a position as commissioner to France but turned it down to remain near his wife.

The British Invade

In January 1781, the British invaded Virginia, and Martha had to flee from Richmond to Monticello, where her youngest baby, just months old, died in April. In June, the British raided Monticello and the Jeffersons escaped to their "Poplar Forest" home, where Lucy, 16 months old, died. Jefferson resigned as governor.

Martha's Last Child

In May of 1782, Martha Jefferson bore another child, another daughter. Martha's health was irreparably damaged, and Jefferson described her condition as "dangerous."

Martha Jefferson died on September 6 of 1782, at 33. Their daughter, Patsy, later wrote that her father isolated himself in his room for three weeks of grief. Thomas and Martha's last daughter died at three of whooping cough.

Polly and Patsy

Jefferson accepted the position as commissioner to France. He brought Patsy to France in 1784 and Polly joined them later. Thomas Jefferson never remarried. He became U.S. President in 1801, nineteen years after Martha Jefferson died.

Maria (Polly) Jefferson married her first cousin John Wayles Eppes, whose mother, Elizabeth Wayles Eppes, was a half-sister of her mother. John Eppes served in the U.S. Congress, representing Virginia, for a time during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, and he stayed with his father-in-law at the White House during that time. Polly Eppes died in 1804, while Jefferson was president; like her mother and maternal grandmother, she died shortly after giving birth.

Martha (Patsy) Jefferson married Thomas Mann Randolph, who served in Congress during Jefferson's presidency. She became, mostly through correspondence and his visits to Monticello, his advisor and confidante.

Widowed before he became President (Martha Jefferson was the first of six wives to die before their husbands became president), Thomas Jefferson asked Dolley Madison to serve as the public hostess at the White House. She was the wife of James Madison, then Secretary of State and the highest-ranking cabinet member; Jefferson's vice-president, Aaron Burr, was also widowed.

During the winters of 1802-1803 and 1805-1806, Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph lived at the White House and was the hostess for her father. Her child, James Madison Randolph, was the first child born at the White House.

When James Callender published an article claiming that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by his enslaved person, Patsy Randolph, Polly Eppes, and Patsy's children came to Washington to make a show of family support, accompanying him to public events and religious services.

Patsy and her family lived with Thomas Jefferson during his retirement at Monticello; she struggled with the debts incurred by her father, which eventually led to the sale of Monticello. Patsy's will included an addendum, written in 1834, with a wish that Sally Hemings be freed, but Sally Hemings died in 1835 before Patsy did in 1836.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Martha Jefferson." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Martha Jefferson. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Martha Jefferson." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).