Martha Melissa Evans Clark, first lady of Texas, was born on May 21, 1829, in Tennessee to Dr. William F. Evans and Nancy Wilson (Davidson) Evans. The oldest daughter in a family of fourteen children, Martha moved with them to Marshall, Texas, in Harrison County, around 1842. There, in 1850, her father was a prominent physician, the senior partner in a local merchant firm, and a planter with twenty-six enslaved persons and 2,451 acres of land. The family was well-connected politically. Her uncle, Lemuel D. Evans, served in various political roles at the state and national levels through the 1870s. At the age of twenty Martha Evans married Edward Clark, a local lawyer and politician, at her parents’ home in July 1849. Clark had moved from Alabama to Marshall around 1841 after the death of his first wife, then served in the Mexican War. Between 1849 and 1855 Martha gave birth to the couple’s four children: William Evans, John, William Evans Alfred, and Nancy. William Evans died at the age of three. Martha may have had a fifth child, Edward, in 1873, but little information exists to confirm this. According to one account, Martha was not particularly fond of motherhood and was quoted saying that “four worse youngsters never lived.” In 1850 she and her husband owned six enslaved individuals. She also used the enslaved labor owned by her father, including Ellen Payne, a formerly enslaved woman whose slave narrative was recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration in the 1930s.
When Martha’s husband was elected lieutenant governor in 1859, the family bought a house on Twelfth Street and took up residence in Austin, Texas. Martha would have been expected to take on an active role as a socialite given her husband’s status, but there exists few records of her as an active figure in Austin’s social scene. During her time in Austin, she became friends with Mary Anne Tharpe Harrell (known as Mrs. Joe Harrell, Sr.), a neighbor of the Governor’s Mansion. She and Harrell both attended the First Baptist Church in Austin, and Harrell was with her on a regular basis, including an instance when, in a public speech during the debates over secession, Sam Houston “turned his battery of sarcasm on then Lieutenant Governor Clark.” Harrell tried to protect her friend by suggesting the two women return to their homes, but according to writer Pearl Cashnell Jackson, Martha remained “flushed faced and clenched hands and heard the bitter denunciation to the end.”
In 1861 Martha Clark took on her most prestigious role when her husband was promoted from lieutenant governor to governor of Texas upon Houston’s resignation over Texas’s secession and joining the Confederate States of America. However, she only occupied the position as first lady of Texas for about six months until Edward was voted out in October of the same year. During this period, Martha’s mother in-law, Margaret Clark, joined the family in Austin. The senior Mrs. Clark seems to have outshined the younger in her first lady duties. Edward was the third in the Clark family to hold the office of state governor in the United States, so Margaret seems to have assumed an authoritative role within the mansion. In contrast, evidence seems to suggest that Martha suffered stress due to her role as the first lady as she was not naturally drawn to the spotlight that went with the role.
As was often the case with women in her same social position, physical characteristics were regularly the public focus when discussing Martha Clark. In her case, she was described as having beautiful hair, teeth, and a “gentle manner.” She was reportedly also a devoted member of the small “hard shell” Baptist church while in Austin. She likely returned to Marshall with her family in 1861 or 1862, after her husband left office.
Martha Evans Clark died at the age of sixty-one in Harrison County on July 27, 1890. Her cause of death is unknown, and she was laid to rest in the Greenwood Cemetery in Marshall. Posthumously, she is represented in the Texas Woman's University’s Collection of First Ladies’ Gowns through the display of an 1859 gown, the oldest in the collection. Her “ancient Clark family recipe” for oyster loaf is also featured in Carl R. McQueary’s recipe book Dining at the Governor’s Mansion (2003).