Martha Jefferson

Martha Jefferson Biography.com

U.S. First Lady(1748–1782)
Martha Jefferson was married to Thomas Jefferson for 10 years and bore six of his children, but died in 1781, at age 33.

Synopsis

Born Martha Wayles in Charles City County, Virginia in 1748, Martha Jefferson married Thomas Jefferson on New Year's Day in 1772. Martha tragically died at age 33, on September 6, 1781—20 years before Thomas Jefferson was elected president. While Martha never served as a U.S. first lady, she has posthumously been given the title by many historians and organizations. Though the couple had six children together, only two daughters survived until adulthood. She died in 1782 at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Early Life

Born Martha Wayles in 1748, Martha Jefferson was the first and only wife of President Thomas Jefferson. She, however, never got to fulfill any duties as first lady—she died years before he was elected president. A member of a wealthy family, she grew up at "The Forest," a plantation in Virginia's Charles City County. She was named "Martha" after her own mother who died shortly after giving birth to her.

Known for her beauty and grace, Martha Wayles married her first husband Bathurst Skelton in 1766. The couple welcomed a son they named John the following year. But her first union proved to be short lived, however. Her husband died in 1768, leaving her a wealthy young widow. She and her son went to live with her family back at the Forest plantation.

Marriage to Thomas Jefferson

In 1770, Martha attracted the attentions of a successful lawyer named Thomas Jefferson. The couple shared an interest in music and literature. Unfortunately, their romance was rocked by tragedy early on. Martha's son John died in June of 1771.

Martha Wayles Skelton married Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1772. The couple went to live at his estate known as Monticello, located near Charlottesville, Virginia. To please his new bride, Thomas Jefferson bought a pianoforte for their home. The pair liked to perform duets, with Thomas Jefferson joining in on the violin. They soon started a family; Martha gave birth to their first daughter, Martha, also known as "Patsy," in September 1772. During the early years of their marriage, Jefferson's husband served as a member of the House of Burgesses in Richmond. It is likely that she accompanied him there, handling the social responsibilities of a politician's wife.

During their decade-long marriage, Jefferson had five more children. She delivered another daughter, Mary, also known as "Maria" or "Polly," in 1778; and then gave birth to a son—both of whom died in infancy. Around this time, her husband became the governor of Virginia during the American Revolution. Jefferson did what she could to support her husband, but she became increasingly ill over the years. In 1780, she gave birth to daughter Lucy Elizabeth, who also died as an infant.

Final Years

Some consider Jefferson's last pregnancy in 1782 to be a contributing factor in her death: She delivered a second daughter, also named Lucy Elizabeth, in May 1782, and fell ill soon after. Her husband stayed close by, watching over her as she continued to deteriorate. Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, at Monticello. Sadly, her youngest daughter died of whooping cough nearly two years later.

Jefferson's husband never remarried after her death. Only two of their children—daughters Martha and Mary—lived to be adults, and only Martha survived her father. When he became president in 1801, Thomas Jefferson sometimes relied on future first lady Dolley Madison (wife of James Madison) for assistance with social affairs.

Thomas Jefferson also likely became involved with Sally Hemings, his late wife's slave, according to years of speculation and, later, scientific findings: The rumored relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began to circulate during the 1790s in both Virginia and Washington, D.C. The talk intensified in 1802, when the journalist James Callender published the accusation, and in November 1998, scientific evidence linked the Hemings family to the Jefferson bloodline. In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation stated its belief that Jefferson and Hemings had in fact been sexual partners, and that Jefferson was the father of Hemings's six children, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston. Hemings is believed to have been Martha's half-sister, as well.

Martha Jefferson

(Photo: via First Ladies.org)

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