Martha Wayles Skelton ,a widow whom Jefferson married, died before he was elected president. She made him promise that he would never remarry. He kept that promise.
There is no picture available of Martha Jefferson, who was said to have been beautiful, talented and dainty, with luxurious auburn hair, hazel eyes and a slim figure. She was a talented harpsichordist ( one of the first things that attracted Jefferson to her), and was an expert at needlepoint. She was also an heiress, as the daughter of Martha Eppes and John Wayles, wealthy plantation owners.
Martha Jefferson’s First Marriage
Born at The Forest, Charles City County, Virginia, in 1748, she married Bathurst Skelton (1744-1768) at age eighteen. When he died following an accident in 1768, she became a 22-year old widowed mother of a son, John, who was born in 1767. She was courted by many suitors who hoped to win such a lovely young woman.
When she met Thomas Jefferson she found a kindred spirit who loved music and all things artistic. They would spend hours playing together…he on the violin, she on the harpsichord. They soon fell in love and were married at The Forest on New Year’s Day, 1772. Arriving at their destination, Monticello (which was only a one -room house at that time), after traveling through a severe snowstorm, they found only a half-bottle of wine to warm them. That September their first child, Martha, was born. This was the beginning of constant childbearing that eventually led to Martha’s early demise.
Martha Jefferson’s Children
During the next ten years Martha would bear six more children, and her first son, the child of Bathurst Skelton, died in 1771, at the age of four. Her children were:
- Martha 1771-1836
- Jane Randolph 1774-1775
- unnamed 1777
- Mary 1778-1804
- Lucy Elizabeth 1780-1781
- Lucy Elizabeth 1782-1785
Governor of Virginia
While Jefferson was Governor of Virginia and Martha was First Lady, she was forced to flee Richmond on New Year’s Day in 1781 by the attacking British forces. She was carrying with her a baby girl but a few weeks old. The child, Lucy, died in April. The following May she would deliver another daughter, also named Lucy. So Martha Jefferson’s life was one of constant childbearing and death.
Death of Martha Jefferson
After, as Jefferson himself put it, ten years of unchequered happiness, my dear wife died this day at 11.45 AM. (Excerpt from Jefferson’s diary). He isolated himself for three weeks and did not mention Martha’s name to anyone again. Jefferson became president in 1801 after being widowed for 19 years, and his daughter Martha served as First Lady.
- First Ladies Carl Sferrazza Anthony Quill William Morrow New York 1990
- The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies ed. Edith P.Mayo Henry Holt and Company New York 1996