Martha Wayles Jefferson
Wife of Thomas Jefferson, Signer of the Declaration of Independence
1748 – 1782 A.D.
Martha Skelton, daughter of John Wayles of “The Forest,” in Charles County, Virginia, was a young and beautiful widow when she was married to Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1772. Her first husband, Bathurst Skenton, had died four years before, her only child had died in infancy, and she was living with her father at “The Forest.” A pen picture of her at the time of her second marriage is given by Randall, in his Life of Jefferson.
“Mrs. Skelton,” he says, “was remarkable for her beauty, her accomplishments, and her solid merit. In person she was a little above medium height, slightly but exquisitely formed. Her complexion was brilliant – her expressive eyes of the richest tinge of auburn. She walked, rode, and danced with admirable grace and spirits; sang and played the harpsichord and spinet with uncommon skill. The more solid parts of her education had not been overlooked.”
Happily the biographer of Thomas Jefferson, unlike most of those who have lent their pens to perpetuate the memories of the Fathers of the Republic, has not confined his observations entirely to the political side of his life, but has given us delightful glimpses into the domestic. “She was,” he continues, “well read and intelligent, conversed agreeably, possessed excellent sense, and a lively play of fancy, and had a frank, warm-hearted, and somewhat impulsive disposition.”
Mrs. Jefferson was twenty-three years old at the time of her second marriage, and her husband was three years her senior. After graduating at William and Mary College, he had studied law under George Wythe and was enjoying a prosperous practice. After the wedding festivities at “The Forest,” Mrs. Jefferson and her husband set out for his home, Monticello, meeting some unlooked-for [[sic] adventures along the way. A manuscript of Mrs. Randolph, their eldest daughter, and furnished to the biographer by her granddaughter, says:
“They left ‘The Forest’ after a fall of snow, light then, but increasing in depth as they advanced up the country. They were finally obliged to quit the carriage and proceed on horseback. Having stopped for a short time at Blenheim (the residence of Col. Carter) where and overseer only resided, they left at sunset to pursue their way through a mountain track, rather than a road, in which the snow lay from eighteen inches to two feet in deep, having eight miles to go before reaching Monticello. They arrived late a night, the fires all out and the servants retired to their own houses for the night. The horrible dreariness of such a house at the end of such a journey, I have not often heard both of them relate. Part of a bottle of wine found on a shelf behind some books had to serve them for both fire and supper.”
There were nine years of domestic happiness, mingled with the anxiety occasioned by the times for both Mrs. Jefferson and her husband – nine years in which five little ones came to gladden their home and in which the husband had served his country and his State in ways that have left his name imperishable. Then came a time when Mrs. Jefferson began to show unmistakable signs of the decline that was to bring her to an untimely grave. Mr. Jefferson refused an important mission to Europe in order not to be separated from her, but was almost immediately called to the Executive chair of his native State.
Several attempts where made by the British to make him a prisoner. In November, 1779, Mrs. Jefferson’s fifth child was born, and two months later she fled with it in her arms as Arnold approached Richmond.
“The British General Tarleton sent troops to capture Governor Jefferson, who was occupied in securing his most important papers. While thus engaged, his wife and children were sent in a carriage to Colonel Coles [sic], fourteen miles distant. Monticello was captured and the house searched, though not sacked, by the enemy. Many of the negroes [sic] were taken but five ever returned. The farm was stripped of valuable horses and many thousand dollars’ worth of tobacco and grain.”
In April the loss of her infant, together with constant anxiety for the safety of her husband, shattered the remaining strength of Mrs. Jefferson. Her last child was born in May, 1782, and she never rallied, but died early in September. Her eldest daughter, Mrs. Randolph, many years afterward, recorded her recollection of the sad event:
“He [her father] nursed my poor mother in turn with Aunt Carr, her own sister, sitting up and administering medicines and drink to the last. For four months that she lingered, he was never out of calling; when not at her bedside, he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed. A moment before the closing scene, he was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister, Mrs. Carr, who with great difficulty got him into his library, where he fainted and remained so long insensible that we though he would never revive.
“The scene that followed I did not witness, but the violence of his emotion, when almost by stealth I entered his room at night, to this day I dare not trust myself to describe. He kept his room three weeks and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly, night and day, only lying down occasionally, when nature was completely exhausted, on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fits My aunts remained almost constantly with him for some weeks. I do not know how many. When at last he left his room, he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain roads and just as often through the woods. In those melancholy rambles, I was his companion, a solitary witness to many a violent outburst of grief, the remembrance of which has consecrated particular stones of that lost home beyond the power of time to obliterate.”
Mrs. Jefferson was survived by three daughters, Martha, Mary born in 1778 and Lucy who died in childhood.
Reference: The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. Third Volume, Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.