As a young, attractive, wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis probably enjoyed more freedom to choose her own destiny than at any other point in her life. She was only twenty-six years old, owned nearly 300 slaves and had more than 17,500 acres of land— worth more than £40,0000. Because her husband had died without a will, she was the executor of his estate. Freed from the strictures of coverture, she had many of the same legal rights as men: she could buy and sell property, make contracts, sue and be sued in court.
Yet Martha may not have reveled in this freedom. Effective though she was at managing the estate, Martha still considered financial matters to be primarily a man’s concern. Having had a happy first marriage, she probably craved the companionship and intimacy of the wedded state. Having grown up in a large family, she loved children and hoped to have more.
Made of purple and yellow silk, these shoes are believed to have been worn by Martha Dandridge Custis during her wedding to George Washington. They not only reflect Martha’s status as a wealthy widow but also her youthful exuberance.
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
As a result, grief-stricken though she was, Martha was willing to consider the possibility of remarriage within a relatively short time after Daniel Parke Custis’s death. Most widows under thirty in colonial Virginia did, in fact, remarry. In Martha’s case, however, since financial need was not an issue, it would have to be a love match.
Within the close-knit world of the Virginia elite, Martha’s status as a wealthy widow soon became common knowledge. One of those who undoubtedly heard about her availability was a young military man named George Washington. Born on February 22, 1732, Washington had grown up in a modestly prosperous Virginia family who lived on a plantation near Fredericksburg.
Unlike many Virginia gentlemen, Washington was not sent to college. Instead, he was trained to be a surveyor, a professional who used specialized instruments to identify and mark the precise boundaries on a piece of property. At a time when settlements were continually expanding westward, surveyors’ services were in great demand. Surveyors, moreover, often knew the location of the choicest lands in the colony, which they might pluck up for themselves.
From an early age, however, Washington had yearned to be something more than a tradesman. Beginning in 1752, Washington received a series of appointments to minor military positions within the colony. Fighting alongside British forces during the French and Indian War, Washington earned a reputation for fairness, bravery, and immense personal courage. He rose to the rank of Colonel of the Virginia Regiment.
In March 1758, during an interlude in the fighting, Washington traveled for a visit to Williamsburg, a place where the colony’s leading men gathered during meetings of the House of Burgesses. Hearing the news about the Custis widow, he contemplated his own future and turned his mind to his marriage prospects.
This garnet necklace dates to the beginning of Martha’s marriage to George Washington. It was probably part of a shipment of jewelry from London that arrived in 1759. Garnets were common among the jewelry Martha purchased in the 1750s and 1760s, as they were one of the most fashionable of gemstones at the time.
(Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
Traveling the thirty-five miles from Williamsburg to Martha’s home, George paid a visit to Martha Dandridge Custis on March 16, 1758. No doubt in a bid to impress her, he noted in his account records that he had left very generous tips for Martha’s household slaves. After returning for another visit on March 25, Washington returned to his military post.
Within months of meeting, both parties began to plan a future together. Washington began renovating and improving his home at Mount Vernon. Martha placed an order for wedding finery from London, a shipment that included brilliant purple slippers and a dress that was to be “grave but not Extravagent nor to be mourning,”** perfect for a bride in her situation.
Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, attractive, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him. Like his future wife, Washington’s own social status had improved as a result of an unfortunate death. After his half-brother Lawrence and his widow died, Washington had inherited Mount Vernon, a beautiful 2000-acre estate located high above the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.
For her part, Martha must have believed that in George she had found someone she could trust as well as love. Although some widows wrote legally binding premarital contracts that protected the assets they had from their previous marriage, Martha did not. For as long as she lived Washington would have the use of Martha’s “widow’s third,” the land, slaves, and money which would be handed down to the Custis heirs after Martha’s death. In addition, Washington would become the legal guardian of Martha’s children, responsible for managing and protecting their financial affairs.
At the end of 1758, Washington resigned his military commission. On January 6, 1759, less than ten months after their initial meeting and less than eighteen months after her husband’s death, Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home in New Kent County. For both Martha and for George, a new era had dawned.
**Martha Custis to Robert Cary and Company, 1758 in “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 25-26.
This article was created out of the collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is made possible through the generous support of Donald and Nancy de Laski.