No known images of
Martha Wayles Skelton
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Biography: When Thomas Jefferson came courting, Martha Wayles
Skelton at 22 was already a widow, an heiress, and a mother whose firstborn son would die
in early childhood. Family tradition says that she was accomplished and
beautiful--with slender figure, hazel eyes, and auburn hair--and wooed by
many. Perhaps a mutual love of music cemented the romance; Jefferson
played the violin, and one of the furnishings he ordered for the home he
was building at Monticello was a "forte-piano" for his bride.
They were married on New Year's Day, 1772, at the bride's plantation home
"The Forest," near Williamsburg. When they finally reached Monticello in
a late January snowstorm to find no fire, no food, and the servants
asleep, they toasted their new home with a leftover half-bottle of wine
and "song and merriment and laughter." That night, on their own
mountaintop, the love of Thomas Jefferson and his bride seemed strong
enough to endure any adversity.
The birth of their daughter Martha in September increased their
happiness. Within ten years the family gained five more children. Of
them all, only two lived to grow up: Martha, called Patsy, and Mary,
called Maria or Polly.
The physical strain of frequent pregnancies weakened Martha Jefferson so
gravely that her husband curtailed his political activities to stay near
her. He served in Virginia's House of Delegates and as governor, but he
refused an appointment by the Continental Congress as a commissioner to
France. Just after New Year's Day, 1781, a British invasion forced
Martha to flee the capital in Richmond with a baby girl a few weeks
old--who died in April. In June the family barely escaped an enemy raid
on Monticello. She bore another daughter the following May, and never
regained a fair measure of strength. Jefferson wrote on May 20 that her
condition was dangerous. After months of tending her devotedly, he noted
in his account book for September 6, "My dear wife died this day at 11:45
Apparently he never brought himself to record their life together; in a
memoir he referred to ten years "in unchequered happiness." Half a
century later his daughter Martha remembered his sorrow: "the violence of
his emotion...to this day I not describe to myself." For three weeks he
had shut himself in his room, pacing back and forth until exhausted.
Slowly that first anguish spent itself. In November he agreed to serve
as commissioner to France, eventually taking "Patsy" with him in 1784 and
send for "Polly" later.
When Jefferson became President in 1801, he had been a widower for 19
years. He had become as capable of handling social affairs as political
matters. Occasionally he called on Dolley Madison for assistance. And
it was Patsy--now Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.--who appeared as the
lady of the President's House in the winter of 1802-1803, when she spent
seven weeks there. She was there again in 1805-1806, and gave birth to a
son named for James Madison, the first child born in the White House. It
was Martha Randolph with her family who shared Jefferson's retirement at
Monticello until he died there in 1826.