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John Wayles

John Wayles

American lawyer and planter
John Wayles
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American lawyer and planter
Was Lawyer Plantation owner Slave trader
From England United States of America
Type Law
Gender male
Birth 31 January 1715, Lancaster, Lancaster, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Death 28 May 1773, Charles City County, Virginia, USA (aged 58 years)
Star sign AquariusAquarius
Spouse: Betty Hemings Martha Eppes
Children: Sally HemingsMartha JeffersonJames HemingsMary HemingsTabitha WaylesAnne Wayles
The details


John Wayles (January 31, 1715 – May 28, 1773) was a planter, slave trader and lawyer in the Virginia Colony. He is historically best known as the father-in-law of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. Wayles was married three times, and these marriages produced eleven children; only five of them lived to adulthood. Wayles' relationship with Betty Hemings resulted in six additional children, including Sally Hemings, who was the mother of six children with Thomas Jefferson and half-sister of Martha Jefferson.

Early life and education

Born in Lancaster, England on January 31, 1715. The slave trade shifted his hometown of Lancaster from a desolate small town to the fourth most prosperous slave-trading port in England by the time Wayles was 21. Wayles emigrated as a young man to the Colony of Virginia, likely during the 1730s.


Wayles received his licence to practice law in Virginia in 1741 and he worked as a lawyer. He began his legal career by traveling on horseback to plantations in the Tidewater, where he obtained work creating legal documents. He was also a prosecuting attorney in Henrico County. In Virginia, Wayles became part of the planter elite. His plantation, called "The Forest", was located in Charles City County.

He was a slave trader. Wayles earned a fortune from the slave trade. He arranged for tobacco sales between growers in Virginia and buyers in England. His role as an agent for Farrell and Jones of Bristol, included performing debt collection. During the period leading up to the American Revolutionary War, the tobacco economy was unstable and laws made the tobacco trade difficult for Wayles to conduct tobacco trade and collect debts. The economic and legal constraints led to the "bankruptcy of the Virginia plantation system". Jefferson began legal work for Wayles in 1768.

Personal life

Marriages and children

On May 3, 1746, Wayles married Martha Eppes (born on April 10, 1721 at Bermuda Hundred), the daughter of Colonel Francis Epps. She was a young widow. Martha Eppes Wayles gave birth to twins on December 23, 1746, but the girl and the boy were dead within hours of birth. On October 31, 1748, Martha Wayles gave birth to daughter, Martha, who was the couple's only surviving child. The 27 year-old mother died days later on November 5, 1748. Daughter Martha first married Bathurst Skelton, younger brother of Reuben Skelton, on November 20, 1766. Their son, John Skelton, was born on November 7, 1767. Martha returned to The Forest plantation with her son after Bathurst died on September 30, 1768. John died on June 10, 1771. Martha married Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1772. They had six children, but only two daughters, Martha and Mary, who survived to adulthood. Martha Jefferson died September 6, 1782 and was buried at Monticello.

Secondly, Wayles married Tabitha of the Cocke family, of Malvern Hill, also of the planter class. They had several children:

  • Sarah, did not survive to adulthood.
  • Elizabeth, born February 24, 1752; married Francis Eppes, the first cousin or nephew of John Wayles first wife, Martha Epps Wayles. Elizabeth and Francis Epps had two sons, Richard and John Wayles Eppes, the latter of whom married Thomas Jefferson's second daughter, Mary Jefferson.
  • Tabitha, born November 16, 1753; and
  • Anne, born August 26, 1756.

Wayles' second wife died after the birth of Anne in August 1756.

On January 26, 1760, Wayles married his third wife, Elizabeth Lomax Skelton (she was the widow of Reuben Skelton, an older brother of Bathurst Skelton, his daughter Martha's first husband). Without producing a child with Wayles, she died on February 10, 1761.

Betty Hemings and children

As part of the wedding settlement between John Wayles and Martha Epps, her parents gave the new couple an African slave woman and her young mixed-race daughter Betty Hemings, whose father was an English sea captain named Hemings. After the death of his third wife, Wayles took the then 26 year-old Betty Hemings as his mistress or concubine. Betty already had four children: Mary, Martin, Betty Brown, and Nance.

Together, Wayles and Betty Hemings had six mixed-race children, which was sometimes called "a shadow family":

As their mother was a slave, the children were all born into slavery under the principle of partus sequitur ventrum, which had been part of the law since 1662. They were three-quarters European in ancestry and half-siblings to Wayles' daughters by his wives.

Wayles was not known to acknowledge his children by Betty, nor did he free her or them in his will. To do so would have communicated his relationship with Betty and would have required a change in Virginia manumission laws at that time. He did, though, allow certain freedoms for his children. For instance his two oldest children were taught to read and write, allowed them to earn their own money, and allowed to travel by themselves. The youngest boy, Peter, was three years old when Wayles died.

Hemings had two more children while she lived at Monticello named John and Lucy.

Death and estate settlement

John Wayles died at age 58 in 1773. He left substantial property, including slaves, but the estate was encumbered with debt. Upon Wayles' death, Betty Hemings and her six children with John Wayles were moved "without hesitancy" to Monticello to prevent the Hemings from being separated.

The estate was worth £30,000, but was in debt to Farrell and Jones in Briston for £11,000. Wayles' three sons-in-law, including Thomas Jefferson, decided to break up the estate and its debts. Martha and her husband Thomas Jefferson inherited the Willis Creek and Elk Hill plantations and a total of 135 people, including members of the Hemings family. They also inherited ₤4,000 in debt. Jefferson and other co-executors of the Wayles estate worked for years to clear the debt.


  • Nash, Gary B.; Hodges, Graham R.G. (2008), Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull. A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and A Tragic Betrayal Of Freedom In The New Nation, pp. 129–130, New York: Basic Books
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 26 Jul 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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