Before Martha became the first lady, she was previously married to Daniel Parke Custis from 1750-1757. Daniel was a wealthy plantation and land owner who was well known in Virginia and 20 years older than her. They had four children together.
George and Martha would not have been together if it was not for the unfortunate death of Daniel Parke Custis, who left Martha as a very wealthy widow. This is the event that would set in motion one of the most admired romantic relationships in American history.
The earliest record of George interacting with Martha in his life is during the spring of 1758 (in George's financial records dating March 16, 1758 where it is recorded that he left tips for the slaves after visiting the widow Custis at the White House in New Kent County).
Martha was recently widowed, and very wealthy. In comparison, Washington was not nearly at the same social or economic level as she was. However, she was still attracted to the man who held the highest position of the Virginia provincial troops, and was known for his pivotal role fighting the French in the western territories.
George and Martha are wed at her home in New Kent County.
George and Martha leave Williamsburg and move to Mount Vernon. This was most likely a big move for Martha, as she had spent her whole life up to that point living around the capital of Virginia, and was a prominent figure. The mansion at Mount Vernon was a also bit of a step down for Martha, but over the years, she came to have as much love for it as George did.
In a rare post-script, Martha expresses how much she misses Washington while he is away managing assets and politics. This was in a letter written by Lund Washington:
It was with very great pleasure I see in your letter th⟨at⟩ you got safely down we are all very well at this time but it still ⟨is⟩ rainney and wett I am sorry you will not be at home soon as I expe⟨ct⟩ed you I had reather my sister woud not come up so soon, as May woud be much plasenter time than april1 we wrote to you las⟨t⟩ post as I have nothing new to tell you I must conclude my self your most Affcetionate..."
George and Martha never had any children together, with no records of miscarriages or accidents. One summer, the two traveled to Warm Springs in Western Virginia, a mountain spa. They were there for a month, and it was thought that bathing in the waters there would help increase chances of fertility.
After being selected as a representative for Virginia at the first continental congress in Philadelphia, George made his way there from Mount Vernon with delegates Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendelton. In a letter, Pendelton recorded his observations of Martha’s behavior:
"She seemed ready to make any sacrifice and was cheerfull though I knew she felt anxious. She talked like a Spartan mother to her son going into battle. ‘I hope you will stand firm – I know George will.’"
Learn more about Washington's appointment to lead the continental army
I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern - and this concern is greatly aggravated and Increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you - It has been determined in Congress that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay were to be Seven times Seven years.”
After Washington joined the cause, Martha visited George at his military camps every winter as her husband led the Continental Army in the battle for independence during the Revolutionary War.
The Washington’s are reunited in Morristown, New Jersey during the war. Nathanael Greene described them in a letter to his wife, saying, “Mrs. Washington is excessive fond of the General and he of her. They are very happy in each other.” This may seem like a normal observation today, but back then was a rare comment of a couple going on 20 years of marriage. It is also said that George was very affectionate when not in the public eye.
Martha is noted as having been exceptionally supportive of George during the war. When writing to his own wife, the Marquis de Lafayette noted how many officers had requested their wives to join them at the camp during the winter, and had observed Martha’s strong affection for the General. Lafayette noted “General Washington has also just decided to send for his wife, a modest and respectable person, who loves her husband madly…”
George was unanimously elected President of the United States. He had originally planned to retire from public service after the war, but he recognized that many only saw him fit enough to lead the new nation. As any normal spouse would react, Martha was not too pleased, but understood and knew she would be there to support him. As he departed for New York, she wrote to her nephew John Dandridge saying, “When, or whether he will ever come home again God only knows. I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again, but it was not to be avoided…Our family will be deranged, as I must soon follow him.”
While she always stood by her husbands side, Martha famously noted in a letter in the fall of 1789 of her “dull life” in New York. However, ever so modest, Martha was aware of her husband’s achievements, and the unique life she was leading at that time. In a letter to Mercy-Otis Warren, Martha said “no, God forbid, for everybody and everything conspire to make me as contented as possible in it.” She also recognized that, in her role as the wife of the first president, “the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our disposition.”
George passed away in his bed at Mount Vernon. After he died, Martha made a remark displaying her undying love for her husband:
“Tis well…All is over. I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through.”
After George’s death, it is thought that Martha burned the majority of her written correspondences over the course of her marriage to George. This missing aspect has made it tough for scholars to study the unique relationship between the two, only leaving them to study letters written by others describing the iconic couple. However, during this time period, it was not uncommon for couples to burn personal letters written to each other.