Martha Jefferson: The First Lady Who Never Was

Martha Wayles was born on October 19, 1748, on her father's plantation, "The Forest" in Charles City County, Virginia.

Her father, John Wayles, was a lawyer and landowner, and her mother, also named Martha, died when baby Martha was 17 days old.

Known to friends as Patty, she was said to have been just over five feet tall with thick auburn hair and hazel eyes. There is no historical evidence that she had formal schooling. She was reportedly well-read and knowledgeable in French, literature, poetry, and bible study. She was also a gifted piano and harpsichord player.

Women did not work outside the home in the 18th century, but she helped her father manage the business at his plantation with her excellent accounting skills.

She was married at the age of 18 to Bathurst Skelton, who died 22 months later, leaving her with an infant son, John. The infant died of a fever in 1771 at the age of 3.

The beautiful, wealthy widow caught the eye of Thomas Jefferson in 1770, who began to court her, but she reportedly had several other suitors, and it was nearly two years before he secured his place in her life as her fiance.

On New Year's Day of 1772, at the age of 23, she was married to the future President, who had reportedly pursued her for two years.

The newlyweds set off in a horse-drawn carriage on their honeymoon, traveling more than 100 miles to Tom's one-room brick cottage in one of the worse snow storms to ever hit Virginia. After their carriage became mired in two feet of snow, the couple finished the last eight miles of their trip on horseback. They then spent the next few years on the property upon which the mansion called Monticello -- the one we see on the back of the American nickel -- was built.

Their first child, Martha, was born in September of that year, the beginning of a decade of childbearing, and with each pregnancy, Mrs. Jefferson became more ill. She and Thomas had five daughters and one son, and only two of their daughters made it to adulthood.

Patty was sickly from almost the very beginning of the marriage, and forensic historians have postulated that she suffered from diabetes, which explains her problems with bearing children.

By all accounts, the couple was devoted to one another, and friends frequently described their relationship as felicitous. Patty managed the household at Monticello, was an active and gracious hostess, and frequently accompanied Thomas, who played the violin, on her harpsichord.

Only a few documents in her own handwriting survived her husband's grief, but one such document includes a ledger of Monticello's tobacco crop, which would suggest that she and her husband functioned as full business partner, which was unusual for the time.

During the first three years she was married to him, Patty stayed in Williamsburg, which was the colonial capital of Virginia, since Thomas was there due to his membership in the House of Burgesses.

Later in their marriage, she stayed at Monticello, separated from her husband while he was in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, where he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

They were reunited, living in Richmond, which was the new capital of Virginia, while he was Governor of Virginia, but she and her infant daughter Lucy had to flee when Benedict Arnold led the British as they attacked the city.  Baby Lucy died a few months later, and Tom promised his beloved wife that he would remain home with her.

They had their youngest child, also named Lucy, in May of 1782, and Patty became fatally ill. Tom did not leave her side in the next four months until she died, eighteen years before Thomas was elected President.

He was inconsolable upon her death, having collapsed just before she died. It is said that Martha asked him to never remarry, as she did not want her children to have a stepmother.  It happened that her own stepmothers had not been kind to her in her childhood. Thomas promised her on her deathbed that he would not remarry. He kept that promise.

He refused to leave his library for three weeks after the funeral and destroyed her pictures, letters, and anything else which reminded him of her. He never spoke her name again. His daughter, Martha, who was known as Patsy, wrote in her diary, "When at last he left his room he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods; in those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many violent bursts of grief."

Of his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up."