Monday, September 26, 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson 1748-1782 & Her Half-Sister Sally Hemings 1773-1835

It gets a little complicated...

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (1748-1782), was Thomas Jefferson's (1743-1826) wife. She was born in Virginia at The Forest, the Charles City County plantation of her father John Wayles (1715-1773) & his 1st wife, Martha Eppes (1721-1748), who died just a week after giving her birth. John Wayles was an attorney, slave trader, business agent for the Bristol-based tobacco exporting firm of Tarell & Jones, & wealthy plantation owner. In 1734, her father John Wayles, born in Lancaster, England, had sailed for the colonies alone at the age of 19, leaving his family in England. Her mother Martha Eppes was a daughter of Francis Eppes of Bermuda Hundred. She had already been widowed once, when John Wayles married her.

As part of her dowry when she married John Wayles, Martha Jefferson’s mother Martha Eppes brought with her a personal slave, Susanna, an African woman who had an 11-year-old mixed-race daughter, Elizabeth Betty Hemings. John Wayles & Martha Eppes' marriage contract provided that Susanna & Betty were to remain the property of Martha Eppes & her heirs forever. The slave Betty Hemings & her children would eventually be inherited by Martha's daughter, Martha Wayles, by then married to Thomas Jefferson.

Martha Jefferson’s father John Wayles married a 2nd time, to Mary Cocke, who had 4 children. After Mary Cocke died, John Wayles married a 3rd time to Elizabeth Lomax Skelton, who died within 11 months & had no children from their union.

After his 3rd wife died in 1761, he took the mulatto slave Elizabeth Betty Hemings (1735-1807) as his concubine & had 6 children with her. Born into slavery, these children were 3/4 European in ancestry, & they were half-siblings to Martha Wayles Jefferson. And those surviving eventually came to live at Monticello as slaves.

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson had siblings:

From her father & stepmother Mary or Tabitha Cocke Wayles d 1759 - ,

Sarah Wayles (d. infancy),

Elizabeth Wayles-Mrs Richard Eppes (1752-1810),

Tabitha Wayles-Mrs Robert Skipworth (1754-1851),

Anne Wayles-Mrs Henry Skipworth (1756-1852).

From her father & his slave Elizabeth Betty Hemings -

Nance or Nancy Hemings sold from T Jefferson's estate 1827 to Thomas Jefferson Randloph (slave, 1/2-brother 1761-a 1827),

Robert Hemings freed by T Jefferson in 1794 (slave, 1/2-brother 1760-1819 in Richmond, VA),

James Hemings freed by T Jefferson 1776 (slave, 1/2-brother 1765-1801 in Philadelphia, PA),

Thenia Hemings sold to James Monroe 1794 (slave, 1/2-sister 1767-a 1794),

Critta Hemings - Mrs Zachariah Bowles (slave, 1/2-sister 1769-a 1827 perhaps 1850),

Peter Hemings freed in T Jefferson's will (slave, 1/2-brother 1770-1834 in Albemarle, VA),

Sally Hemings (slave, 1/2-sister 1773-1835).

Betty Hemings also had several children born before those from her union with John Wayles. At Wayles death, the Jeffersons inherited her father’s slaves which had come into John Wayles' household with his marriage with her mother Martha Epps, including the Hemings family. Many of the Hemings family members who came to Monticello had privileged positions, They were trained & worked as domestic servants, gardeners, chefs, & highly skilled artisans.

Just like her mother, Martha Wayley Jefferson had been widowed once, when Thomas Jefferson married her. She was married 1st to Bathurst Skelton on 20 November 1766. Their son, John, was born the following year, on 7 November 1767. Bathurst died on 30 September 1768. Although Thomas Jefferson may have begun courting the young widow in December 1770, while she was living again at The Forest with her young son, they did not marry until 1 January 1772, six months after the death of her young son John Skelton on 10 June 1771.

Following their January 1, 1772 wedding, the Jeffersons honeymooned for about 2 weeks at her father's plantation The Forest, before setting out in a two-horse carriage for Monticello. They made the 100-mile trip in a horrible snowstorm. Just 8 miles from their destination, their carriage bogged down in 2–3 feet of snow. The newlyweds had to continue their journey on horseback. The 2 horses which had been pulling the carriage, now carried them. Arriving at Monticello late at night to find no fire, no food, & the slaves asleep, they toasted their new home with a leftover half-bottle of wine & "song and merriment and laughter." The couple settled into a freezing one-room, 20-foot-square brick building, they nicknamed "Honeymoon Cottage." Later known as the South Pavilion, it was to be their home, until Jefferson had completed the main house at Monticello.

Silhouette of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

There are no known portraits of Martha Wayles Jefferson, & descriptions of her appearance are scant. The above silhouette is posted on the National First Ladies Library website. I certainly have my doubts that this was done during her lifetime or even shortly thereafter. It is difficult to know what Martha Jefferson looked like, when she was alive. 

In his Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, Isaac described Mrs. Jefferson as small & said the younger daughter, Mary, was pretty "like her mother." Unfortunately, no contemporary portrait of Mary Jefferson Epps exists either.

Slave Isaac Jefferson wrote that Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was small & pretty.

As to her disposition, the Marquis de Chastellux described her as, "A gentle & amiable wife. . ." & her sister's husband, Robert Skipwith, assured Jefferson that she possessed, ". . .the greatest fund of good nature. . .that sprightliness & sensibility which promises to ensure you the greatest happiness mortals are capable of enjoying."

As a young girl Martha probably was educated at home by tutors. As a young woman, she was considered accomplished in music, painting & other refined arts. Hessian officer Jacob Rubsamen who visited Jefferson at Monticello in 1780, noted, "You will find in his house an elegant harpsichord piano forte & some violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his lady touches very skillfully & who, is in all respects a very agreeable sensible & accomplished lady." During their courtship Jefferson had ordered a German clavichord for Martha, then changed his order to a pianoforte, "worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it."

Thomas Jefferson, Martha Jefferson, Anne Cary Randolph. Memorandum Book, 1768-1769, 1772-1782, 1805-1808. This book had first been used by Jefferson for legal notes & then by his wife, Martha (1748-1782), for her household records & recipes.

During her lifetime Martha Jefferson bore 7 children. Her son John, born during her first marriage, died at the age of 3, in the summer before she married Jefferson. Of the 6 children born during her 10 year marriage with Jefferson, only 2 daughters, Martha & Mary, would live to adulthood. Two daughters (Jane Randolph & Lucy Elizabeth) & an unnamed son died as infants. Her last child, also named Lucy Elizabeth, would die at the age of 2 of whooping cough. Martha herself lived only 4 months after the birth of this last child.

Children of Martha Wayles Skelton & Thomas Jefferson were:

Martha "Patsy" Washington Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836)
Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774–1775)
Unnamed Son Jefferson (b./d. 1777)
Mary "Polly" Jefferson Eppes (1778–1804)
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1780–1781)
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1782–1785)

Before her death in September of 1782, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson copied the following lines from Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy: "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days & hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of windy day never to return--more. Every thing presses on..."

One of just 4 documents in Martha's hand known to survive, this incomplete quotation was completed by Jefferson, transforming the passage into a poignant dialogue between husband & wife: "And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!"

The exact cause of Martha's death is not known; however, a letter from Jefferson to the Marquis de Chastellux would indicate that she never recovered from the birth of her last child. Lucy Elizabeth was born May 8, & Martha died the following September.

Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Chastellux, November 26, 1782.

Jefferson noted in his account book for September 6, 1782, "My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M." In his letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, Jefferson refered to "...the state of dreadful suspense in which I had been kept all the summer & the catastrophe which closed it." He goes on to say, "A single event wiped away all my plans & left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up."

Edmund Randolph reported to James Madison in September 1782, that "Mrs Jefferson has at last shaken off her tormenting pains by yielding to them, & has left our friend inconsolable. I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good; but I scarcely supposed, that his grief would be so violent, as to justify the circulating report, of his swooning away, whenever he sees his children."

Jefferson buried his wife in the graveyard at Monticello, & as a part of her epitaph added lines in Greek from Homer's The Iliad. "Εί δέ φανόντων περ καταλήφοντ ειν Αίδαο, Αύτάρ έγω κάκείθι φίλσ μεμνήσομ' έταίρσ." A modern translation reads: Even if I am in Hell, where the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear companion.  Below the Greek inscription, the tombstone reads: "To the memory of Martha Jefferson, Daughter of John Wayles; Born October 19th, 1748, O.S. Intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1st, 1772; Torn from him by death September 6th, 1782: This monument of his love is inscribed."

His wife's death left Jefferson distraught. After the funeral, he withdrew to his room for 3 weeks. Afterward he spent hours riding horseback through the woods on the hill surrounding Monticello. His daughter Martha wrote, "In those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief." Half a century later his daughter Martha remembered his sorrow: "the violence of his this day I not describe to myself."

Detail of Portrait of Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph  (1772-1836) by Thomas Sully (American artist, 1783-1872)  c 1836

Not until mid-October, did Jefferson begin to resume a normal life, when he wrote, "emerging from that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss occasioned it." In November of 1783, he agreed to serve as commissioner to France, eventually taking his older daughter Martha "Patsy" with him in 1784, and sending for Mary "Polly" later. Accompanying them in France was the family slave Sally Hemings.

Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) by James Westhall Ford (American artist, (1794-1866)

Sally Hemings was lady’s maid to Jefferson’s daughters, & also worked as a chambermaid & seamstress. She spent 2 years in Paris, after accompanying 9-year-old Mary "Polly" Jefferson across the ocean. According to her son Madison, Sally Hemings began a relationship with Jefferson in Paris, & bore him a number of children. Although she was not freed by the terms of Jefferson's will, she was not among the slaves sold at the 1827 estate auction at Monticello. Jefferson's daughter Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph presumably gave Sally "her time," that is, freed her unofficially, so that she would not be subject to the 1806 Virginia law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within 1 year. Madison Hemings recalled that after Jefferson's death in 1826, he & his brother Eston took their mother to live with them in a rented house down in Charlottesville. Sally Heming would have been about 54 at that time, & she would live nearly a decade more.

The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings burst into the public arena during Jefferson's 1st term as president, & it is still the subject of discussion & debate. In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a failed office-seeker & former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." "Her name is Sally," Callender claimed that Jefferson had "several children" by her.  Public knowledge of even the rumors that Jefferson had parented several slave children became a scandal during his Administration.

In 1873, the Pike County (Ohio) Republican, ran a series entitled, "Life Among the Lowly," Which included a memoir by Madison Hemings, a resident of Ross County, Ohio. Hemings stated that his mother Sally, who was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson & a slave of Thomas Jefferson, gave birth to 5 children "and Jefferson was the father of them all."  Madison Hemings said in 1873, that his mother had been pregnant with Jefferson's child (who, he said, lived "but a short time"), when she returned from France in 1789.

Sally Hemings' children listed in Monticello records are:

Harriet (1795-1797), 
Beverly (born 1798),
an unnamed daughter (born 1799; died in infancy),
Harriet (born 1801),
Madison (1805-1877),
Eston (1808-1856).

All 4 of Sally Hemings’s surviving known children became free close to their 21st birthdays. The oldest surviving son Beverly Hemings & his sister Harriet Hemings were allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit & apparently passed into white society. Their descendants have not been located. Their brothers Madison Hemings & Eston Hemings remained at Monticello until after Jefferson's 1826 death; both were freed in his will.

As one DNA study indicates, the widower Jefferson & Martha Wayley Jefferson's half sister Sally Hemings parented at least one, possibly several illegitimate children, after the death of Martha Jefferson.  The Thomas Jefferson Foundation states on the Monticello webiste, "TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings."

This article is based on information from the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, based on Gaye Wilson, Monticello Research Report, October 10, 1998. Also see John Kukla, Mr. Jefferson's Women, (New York: Knopf Books, 2007)