Martha Jefferson – History, Family, Children & Cause of Death

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was the wife of the third president of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson and former First Lady of Virginia from 1779-1781. She died nineteen years before Thomas Jefferson was elected President of our nation, becoming the first woman to die before her husband’s ascent to the presidency. She was 33 years old when she died.

Martha Jefferson, portrait by John Hutton

Background: Birth & Early Life

Martha Jefferson, born Martha Wayles, was born at The Forest plantation in Charles City County, Virginia to John Wayles and Martha Eppes Wayles. After getting married to John, Martha Eppes set sail to Virginia, carrying along an African slave woman and the slave’s mixed-race daughter. While at sea, the captain of the ship, who went by Captain Hemings, impregnated the slave woman and they had a daughter named Betty. Upon learning that John Wayles had inherited his daughter and concubine through his marriage to Martha Eppes, Captain Hemings attempted to buy them, but John refused and instead took Betty as his mistress.

Martha never knew her mother since she passed away a few weeks after giving birth to her. Her father, John married two more times – to Mary Cocke and Elizabeth Lomax, with whom he had a number of children. John also took Betty as his mistress and had six children with her, including Sally Hemings.

As the first child of many half-siblings, Martha was most likely educated at home and studied various subjects like French and poetry. She was also trained in music and could play the harpsichord or piano.

Marriages and Children

In 1766, Martha married Bathurst Skelton and they welcomed their son, John the following year. Bathurst died in 1968 and Martha returned to her parent’s home. Three years later, her son also died.

Before her son’s death, Thomas Jefferson, who was her third cousin, started courting her. They had shared interests, especially in literature, music, and horseback riding. After getting married in 1772, the newlyweds received several properties, including Elk Hill Plantation, where Martha had previously lived with Bathurst. The plantation had many slaves who built Thomas’s Monticello residence on the estate.

Martha was married to Thomas Jefferson from 1772 to 1782, when she passed away. After the death of her father, the couple inherited his debt, which also affected Thomas’s finances.

The couple welcomed six children in their marriage; however, only two of them lived made it past childhood. Their children were:

  • Martha Jefferson (September 1772 – October 1836)
  • Jane Randolph Jefferson (April 1774 – September 1775)
  • Unnamed Son (May – June 1777)
  • Mary Jefferson (August 1778 – April 1804)
  • Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (November 1780 – April 1781)
  • Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (May 1782 – October 1784)

The Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello

Monticello, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the primary plantation of Martha and Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson used enslaved African people for extensive cultivation of a number of crops, including tobacco and wheat.

Through her marriage to Thomas and the inheritance she received after her father’s death, the Jeffersons became the second largest slave owners in their county. In total, Thomas Jefferson owned over 550 slaves in his lifetime. Betty Hemings and her descendants were part of the slaves that found their way to Monticello and because they were related to Jefferson, many of them held more prestigious positions on the plantation and were called servants instead of slaves.

In the later years, after her death, Martha’s teenage half-sister, Sally Hemings, was embroiled in a scandal with Thomas after it was revealed that he had illegitimately fathered several of her children.

Becoming First Lady of Virginia

Martha and her husband Thomas Jefferson lived in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg during Jefferson’s time (from 1779 to 1781) as the governor of Virginia.

From 1779 to 1781, Martha Jefferson became the First Lady of Virginia after her husband was appointed governor and represented Virginia in the House of Delegates. She ran her term during the American Revolution, and during that time, she was tasked by Martha Washington, wife of General George Washington, to rally Virginian women to raise funds in support of the Continental Army’s war efforts against Great Britain. Through her efforts, about $300,000 were raised to buy clothing and other provisions for the army.

How did Martha Jefferson die?

Over the next couple of years, Jefferson’s health quickly deteriorated, especially after surviving smallpox. It’s been said that Martha may have been a diabetic. Her pregnancies, which occurred in short periods, also took a toll on her health and made her weak.

She experienced two major raids in 1781 and had to flee Monticello with her young children, which resulted in many of them dying. During that time, the British, hoping to deliver a huge blow to the leaders of the American Patriots, wanted to capture either her or her husband.

Due to her ill health, Thomas Jefferson took a step back from politics to be closer to his wife. He returned to her after drafting the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He also refused an appointment to serve as a commissioner to France so as to properly take care of Martha.

Martha Jefferson’s last pregnancy was reportedly her most difficult, and her health declined a few months after the birth of her child.

She died on September 6, 1782 and requested that her husband never remarry, most likely as a result of the distasteful experience and poor relationships she had had with her father’s later wives.

Other Interesting Facts

Martha Jefferson’s life was cut short at the age of 33. She did not live long enough to see her husband, Thomas Jefferson, become president of the United States. Image: A 1965 oil portrait of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by artist George Geygan

  • Martha and Thomas were married for 10 years, from 1772 to 1782.
  • Thomas Jefferson mourned the loss of his wife, Martha. A few months after Martha’s passing, the Virginia politician and lawyer was appointed Minister to France. He took his two surviving daughters – Marth (“Patsy”) and Mary (“Polly”) with him.
  • In 1801, about 19 years after the death of Martha, Thomas Jefferson was elected the third President of the USA. In the absence of Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph (aka “Patsy”), served as informal First Lady of the United States from 1801 to 1809.

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