First Ladies: Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

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Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of President Thomas Jefferson, never served in the capacity of First Lady in the White House. She had died eighteen years before her husband became President of the United States.

a young Martha Jefferson

Martha Wayles was born on October 30, 1748 in Charles City Virginia to John and Martha Eppes Wayles. She was the couple’s only child.

Her mother died when she was six days old.

While nothing is known of her education, she is reported to have a strong appreciation for literature, avid reader, very musical and known as a strong writer. This leads one to believe she received schooling, via tutors at the very least.

Her father, John Wayles, married a Mary Cocke and they had four children. Mary eventually passed away and John married for a third time, but she died about a year after they were married. Her father then took a mulatto slave as his concubine for the rest of his life. He and his concubine had six children, the youngest was named Sally Hemings.

On November 20, 1766, eighteen year old Martha Wayles married Bathurst Skelton, an attorney. A year later, the couple had a son they named John.

Bathurst Skelton died suddenly on September 30, 1768 in Williamsburg, Virginia. She was left a very rich widow.

Upon her husband’s death she returned to her father’s home.
Martha’s son, John Skelton, died of a few on June 10, 1771.

According to reports by her daughter and published in The Unknown Presidential Wife, “She was a little over five feet tall, with a lithe figure, auburn hair, and hazel eyes. She was an accomplished needlewoman. Her music book and several examples of her embroidery survive.”

Martha and Thomas Jefferson

Granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge voices the family’s oral history by describing her grandmother as “… a very attractive person … a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman.” As to her disposition, the Marquis de Chastellux described her as a “mild and amiable wife ….,” and her sister’s husband, Robert Skipwith, assured Jefferson that she possessed “… the greatest fund of good nature … that sprightliness and sensibility which promises to ensure you the greatest happiness mortals are capable of enjoying.

Martha Wayles and Thomas Jefferson were third cousins. They were married on January 1, 1772. After staying at her father’s plantation for a few weeks, the couple journeyed to Monticello. They lived in the North Pavilion until the rest of the mansion was finished.

Martha’s father, John Wayles, died in 1773. She inherited her father’s estates, debts and slaves, including an infant named Sally Hemings.

By all accounts Thomas and Martha had great affection for one another. The couple had six children, five daughters and a son who lived for 17 days. Only two of her daughters lived into adulthood, but another daughter died while in her 20’s.

No known miniature or sketches of Martha appear to exist today, although there is a silhouette. It is said that her younger daughter, Mary Jefferson Eppes, strongly

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

resembled her mother.

Martha was in delicate health for much of her life. A miscarriage in the summer of 1776 {same time her husband wrote Declaration of Independence} only complicated her health issues.

In 1779, Martha Jefferson became First Lady of Virginia. This was a role she would hold for the next two years. She served as hostess for her husband, as well as being a fund raiser.

In 1782, Martha gave birth to a child, but her health worsened. She died four months later on September 6, 1782. Thomas Jefferson is said to be inconsolable at her death and entered into a period of great mourning.

President Thomas Jefferson never remarried, a request Martha made on her deathbed. The common belief is this request was due to her disputes and issues with her own stepmothers. He is said to burn all of their letters after her death.

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was only thirty-three years old when she died. Thomas Jefferson buried her at Monticello.


TomorrowMartha Jefferson Randolph who served in the capacity of First Lady for her father.


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