Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was born October 19, 1748 O.S. at The Forest, the plantation of her father John Wayles, and died at Monticello on September 6, 1782. She was married first to Bathurst Skelton in 1766; however, he died just two years later. When Jefferson began courting the young widow in December 1770 she was living again at The Forest with her young son, John. She married Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1772.
There are no known portraits of Martha Wayles Jefferson and descriptions of her appearance are scant. In his Memoirs Monticello slave Isaac described Mrs. Jefferson as small and said the younger daughter, Mary, was pretty "like her mother". 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 gentle 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 Jefferson was apparently talented in music. A Hessian officer who visited Jefferson at Monticello in 1780 noted, "You will find in his house an elegant harpsicord piano forte and some violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his lady touches very skillfully and who, is in all respects a very agreeable sensible and accomplished lady." During 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."
During her lifetime Martha Jefferson bore seven children. The son John born during her first marriage died at the age of three the summer before she married Jefferson. Of the six children born during her ten-year marriage with Jefferson, only two daughters, Martha and Mary, would live to adulthood. Two daughters and a son died as infants, and her last child Lucy Elizabeth would die at the age of two of whooping cough. Martha herself lived only four months after the birth of this last child.
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 this last birth. Lucy Elizabeth was born May 8 and Martha died the following September. In his letter Jefferson refers to ". . .the state of dreadful suspense in which I had been kept all the summer and the catastrophe which closed it." He goes on to say, "A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up." Jefferson buried his wife in the graveyard at Monticello, and as a part of her epitaph added lines in Greek from Homer's The Iliad. A modern translation reads:
Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade.