Birth and Childhood at Chestnut Grove

The woman who would later be known as Martha Washington came into the world on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia.

1919 photo of Martha Washington's childhood home, Chestnut Grove. It continued to serve as a residence for 200 years in its original state until it burned down in November 1926 (Wikimedia)

She was the eldest of eight children born to John Dandridge (1700-1756), the son of an English merchant, and Frances Jones (1710-1785), whose father was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis, John Wollaston, oil on canvas, 1757. Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA. [U1918.1.1]Her education was probably typical for a girl of her class at the time and would have stressed housekeeping, religion, music, and dancing, skills which would be useful in her expected role as the wife of a Virginia plantation owner.

Martha eventually grew to about 5 feet tall, with brown hair and eyes, which in portraits, appear to be brown or hazel.

Marriage to Daniel Parke Custis

In her late teens, she caught the eye of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), who, though twenty years her senior, was one of the most eligible bachelors in Virginia.

Daniel’s father initially opposed the marriage, because the prospective bride’s family was not as wealthy as he would have liked. He finally gave his consent, however, telling friends that he was “as much enamored with her character as [his son was] with her person.”

The Custis Family

Daniel Parke Custis (Wikimedia)She and Daniel were married in May of 1750. In their seven years together, the couple had four children, two of whom died as toddlers.

Daniel’s sudden death in 1757, possibly from a heart attack, left her, at the age of 26, the wealthiest widow in Virginia, with a 17,500 acre estate to manage and two very young children, a three year old son and one year old daughter, to raise alone.

Several men, including a militia officer less than a year younger than herself named George Washington, began courting Martha over the next year.

George and Martha Washington were married on January 6, 1759. They moved to his family home, Mount Vernon, several months later.

eorge & Martha’s Courtship

Golden Years

Dinner in the New Room of the Mansion (Lautman)

The next sixteen years of Martha Washington’s life have often been called “the golden years” at Mount Vernon. While they had no children of their own, the Washingtons were busy raising her two surviving children, John (“Jack”) Parke Custis (1754-1781) and Martha (“Patsy”) Parke Custis (1756-1773) and living the lives of rather typical Virginia planters of the period.

George Washington was busy overseeing his lands and business ventures and was taking an active role in Virginia politics and society. Martha Washington was supervising the education of her children and making sure that the domestic operations on the plantation ran smoothly. Her sphere included everything from the physical care and housing of guests, to cleaning, food production and service, the making of textiles on the estate and the production of slave clothing.

Some of the happiness of these years, however, was tempered by the chronic illness of her daughter, Patsy, who suffered from epilepsy, and died one afternoon in the summer of 1773, when she was only 17, after one of the seizures associated with that disorder.

Patsy Custis

Revolutionary Martha

Martha Washington is believed to have embroidered this elegant pincushion during the winter encampment at Valley Forge as a present for the daughter of her host. [W-2738/B]

Martha Washington’s world expanded immeasurably during the Revolution, which she strongly supported. Suddenly, after having lived her entire life in Virginia, this rather sheltered woman in her mid-40s found herself traveling to other parts of the country for all eight years of the war, in order to spend time at his winter quarters with her husband.

She also underwent inoculation, a procedure she feared, in order to protect her from the ravages of smallpox, a deadly disease threatening the health of the American army in the early years of the war.

Years later, she would proudly relate that, “she always heard the first cannon on the opening, and the last at the close of the campaigns of the Revolutionary war.”

While in the military camp, she entertained visiting diplomats and the wives of fellow officers, assisted with secretarial duties, and brightened her husband’s existence. One of his generals made the comment to his own wife that, “Mrs Washington is excessive fond of the General and he of her. They are very happy in each other.”

Her private efforts to improve the lot of soldiers went public in 1780, when she became the public face in a campaign to raise money to supply the troops with badly-needed supplies. Although much less than her husband’s, Martha Washington also came to have a symbolic role for the American people: children were named after her, at least two ships bore her name, and an engraved portrait of her was produced for sale.

Much of the happiness of the military victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, however, was drowned out by the loss of her only remaining son, who died at Yorktown of camp fever at the age of 27. When the diplomatic end of the war finally came in 1783, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife.

Martha at the Front

Home Again (For a Little While)

Undoubtedly Edward Savage's most famous work, The Washington Family was the only contemporary painting to depict the first president at Mount Vernon (MVLA)

The next six years were another happy period at Mount Vernon, where the Washingtons were raising Martha’s late son’s two youngest children, Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis (1779-1852) and George Washington (“Washy”) Parke Custis (1781-1857).

While much about this time paralleled “the golden years” before the war, there were differences. Although theoretically retired, George Washington was now a figure of international renown and the couple found themselves hosting not just friends, but hundreds of guests each year, from all over the country and the world, who came to meet this great man. Their very presence dramatically increased the workload of Mrs. Washington, who, as she always did, won them over with her charm and hospitality.

 

A Reluctant First Lady

This 1861 painting by noted American portraitist Daniel Huntington is an idealized portrayal of the weekly gatherings hosted by Martha Washington during the Washington’s presidency (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

In 1789, George Washington was again called to serve his country, this time in the role of its first president. Mrs. Washington was initially reluctant to go back into public life, complaining at first of feeling like a “state prisoner,” because of the restrictions placed on her in the role of first lady.

She settled into the job, however, and became a great asset to the president in his official entertaining. A warm and friendly person, she was a good balance to her rather reserved spouse, and the relative informality of her weekly Friday night levees gave those who attended their only opportunity to freely socialize with the president.

During these years, she was terribly troubled by criticism of her husband and took political attacks against him very personally.

The First First Lady

Twilight Years at Mount Vernon

Eight years later, the Washingtons retired for good to their beloved Mount Vernon.

George Washington died after a scant two years, leaving his deeply religious widow devastated by his loss and confiding to everyone she met that she herself was ready to join him in death. It was sometime in this period, that she burned forty years of correspondence with her husband, seemingly as a way of protecting their privacy.

After an illness of several weeks duration in the spring of 1802, Martha Washington got her fondest wish, dying at home on May 22nd, surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was eulogized in newspapers throughout the country as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.” 

In all the trials and wide-ranging experiences of her long life, Martha Washington brought a personal philosophy, which helped her to endure. As she once related to a friend,

“I am…determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have…learnt from [experience] that the greater part of our happiness or misary [sic] depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances; we carry the seeds of the one, or the other about with us, in our minds, wherever we go.”

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