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Despite the constraints of the time, Martha Washington took charge as a widow and wielded enormous influence as a wife.

"Martha Washington in Her Early Days," after Alonzo Chappel, 1867, MVLA.
"Martha Washington in Her Early Days," after Alonzo Chappel, 1867, MVLA.

As the wife of the commander of the Continental Army, and later, the president, Martha Washington was celebrated for her hospitality, but she also played a mostly forgotten role in the management of a large plantation that relied primarily on the labor of enslaved Black people.

At Mount Vernon, alongside her husband and especially during George’s frequent and lengthy absences, Martha was involved in the daily operations of the estate. She did so in spite of laws and customs that sharply limited the independent business decisions of women.

In her understanding of the varied operations of the estate and in their shared conversations about farming, trade, and the work of enslaved laborers, Martha was a behind-the-scenes partner to George in the running of a Virginia plantation.

Widow Custis

By the time Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington in January 1759, she already knew something about the wide-ranging business of a large estate. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had died without a will, effectively leaving the young widow in charge of one of colonial Virginia’s wealthiest estates, which controlled the lives of nearly 290 enslaved persons who labored across more than 17,000 acres.

Virginia laws, following the custom of English common law, denied married women almost all rights to control property. The same set of laws, however, granted widows enormous influence over property, including land and enslaved persons. And so it was that in 1757 Martha became the administrator of the Custis estate and its varied business interests, much as George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, managed the business of farming a much smaller property after the death of her husband, Augustine.

First husband, "Daniel Parke Custis," John Wollaston, 1757, Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington & Lee University.

Taking Charge

The widow Martha notified several prominent London tobacco merchants that she would continue to ship the estate’s large crops for sale in England, and, as Virginia planters often did, she reminded the merchants that she expected a good price for what she insisted was extremely good tobacco.

She also asked London merchants to represent her various legal interests in Great Britain and to pay the fees in a complicated case that had threatened the financial interests of the Custis family for years. The Custis estate was notable for its unusually large reserves of cash, and Martha followed her late husband’s practice of offering large interest-bearing loans to other planter families.

Bill of exchange from Robert Cary to Martha Custis, 1758 May 18. (MVLA)

Becoming Mrs. Washington

With her marriage to Washington, Martha lost the legal rights she had exercised as a widow but not her influence over decisions about land, money, and the lives of enslaved persons. Her knowledge of the Custis business and her familiarity with many of the enslaved individuals were invaluable to George after the courts recognized him as administrator of the estate and later as guardian of Martha’s young children, Jacky and Patsy Custis. George insisted that Martha accompany him to a meeting with a legal adviser so that she could answer questions about the Custis estate.

George controlled Martha’s “dower rights” to one-third of the Custis property in land and enslaved persons, and one of the early decisions by the couple determined the fate of the more than 80 enslaved individuals whom the executors designated as part of her share of the estate. The death of an enslaver always threatened to disrupt the lives of the enslaved, and Martha and George initially brought to Mount Vernon at least a dozen enslaved servants and artisans, severing their familiar ties with relatives and friends who remained on the Custis plantations, more than 100 miles to the south.

Many of the enslaved relocated from the Custis lands worked as domestic servants, such as Martha’s maid Sally. Others were selected for special responsibilities, suggesting Martha was familiar with their skills and experience on a much larger plantation. Jack, traveling without supervision, frequently carried letters for Washington or delivered supplies and livestock to plantations west of the mountains. Anthony, living with his wife, Betty, operated the gristmill at Mount Vernon and reported on the work of hired laborers. Morris, a carpenter from the Custis estate, became the first enslaved overseer at Mount Vernon and supervised other enslaved field workers at Dogue Run plantation for nearly 25 years.

Above: A 19th-century artist's conjecture of Martha's 1759 wedding to George Washington, "Life of Washington, The Citizen," Claude Regnier after Junius Stearns, 1854, (MVLA)

Mistress of Mount Vernon

As the mistress of Mount Vernon, Martha managed the household, from the work in the kitchen to the preparation of the Mansion for the many guests the Washingtons received. She instructed enslaved women in sewing and supervised them in the making of cloth. Martha also wrote shopkeepers in London to specify her orders of clothing and jewelry and chastised a milliner who charged exorbitant prices. The surviving copies of Martha’s letters to London are in George’s handwriting, reflecting their collaboration in preparing the annual orders for the fashionable goods and foodstuffs imported from Great Britain.

And Martha kept a careful eye on commercial transactions. When then President Washington instructed a merchant to sell tobacco that had been left in a warehouse while he waited for improved prices, he acknowledged that sale of the crop “is a matter that rarely occurs to me except when I am reminded of it by Mrs Washington.”

Martha lost legal rights when she married Washington but continued to be a partner with great influence over decisions about land, money, and enslaved people. "Washington and His Family," engraved by William Sartain, after Christian Schussele, 1864. (MVLA)

Wartime Command

In the early months of the Revolutionary War, after General Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, Martha refused advice to leave Mount Vernon, in spite of rumors that the British might attempt to capture her, and she organized the general’s papers and books for safekeeping.

While she was in residence, she controlled the financial accounts and provided the estate manager, Lund Washington (a distant cousin), with important business documents. Lund complained that Martha occasionally neglected correspondence, but he deferred to her management and relied on her for access to Washington’s office.

During the war, Martha instructed Lund to make an annual cash payment to the enslaved overseer, Morris, as had been her husband’s practice.

"Mrs. Washington," engraved by John Norman after Benjamin Blythe, 1782. Gift of Mrs. Augustine Jaquelin Todd, Vice Regent for West Virginia, 1968. (MVLA)

First Lady

From the new nation’s temporary capital of Philadelphia, where the president and first lady lived for nearly seven years, Martha tried to maintain her oversight of enslaved artisans who manufactured clothing for the laborers at Mount Vernon, but she increasingly criticized the work of the women she had supervised for years.

She described Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress, as “indolent,” and accused her of feigning illness. After reviewing one of the weekly work reports delivered to Philadelphia, Martha informed her husband that Caroline Branham, an enslaved housemaid and seamstress, had produced barely half the usual number of shirts, and he sent word that he would force the seamstresses to labor in the fields if they did not increase their output.

Within the president’s household, Martha experienced a more direct form of resistance when Ona Judge, her enslaved maid, escaped to New Hampshire. Hercules Posey, who had worked under Martha’s direction as the enslaved chef for the Washingtons in the capital, also escaped several months after he was sent back to Mount Vernon. The Washingtons made a considerable effort to recapture Judge and Posey, but both remained free.

While the presidential couple lived in Philadelphia, Martha's enslaved maid, Ona Judge, escaped to New Hampshire. (MVLA)

Widowed Once Again

With the death of Washington in December 1799, the widowed Martha was again responsible for the business of an entire estate, which he left for her benefit during the remainder of her life. For nearly two and a half years, Martha managed the plantation and other properties. She collected rents on her house in Alexandria and from tenants on her lands west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was responsible for managing the labor of nearly 320 enslaved people at Mount Vernon, and she purchased corn and cloth to supplement the provisions distributed to the laborers and their families. She also purchased items produced by the enslaved, such as poultry from David Gray, the enslaved overseer who had supervised work at several Mount Vernon farms for more than 30 years.

Martha frequently called doctors to attend to the enslaved, on one occasion offering partial payment in potatoes and herring. After a season of great illness, she wrote to a friend, “All my family whites, and Blacks, have been very sick, some of them very ill — thank God they have all recovered again.”

At Washington's death, the widowed Martha was again responsible for the business of an entire estate. The extensive Mount Vernon plantation consisted of five farms. "Washington's Farm," by George Washington and Arthur Young, 1801. (MVLA)

Freeing Washington’s Enslaved

Washington in his will provided for the emancipation of all of the enslaved people he owned, but he delayed their freedom until after the death of Martha. He had owned more than 120 enslaved persons, but an even larger number of those enslaved at Mount Vernon were the property of the Custis estate, to be inherited by Martha’s four grandchildren after her death. Washington thought the delay in emancipation would spare Martha from witnessing the painful break-up of the many families in which one parent was owned by Washington and the other by the Custis estate.

Within a few weeks of Washington’s death, however his nephew, Bushrod Washington, advised Martha to be rid of the enslaved people under her control and to withdraw from the management of a plantation, which he thought too great a financial burden. The following summer, the estate manager submitted to Martha a sobering account of the costs of maintaining the household at the Mansion House, which could not be met by the revenue produced from the farms.

In late 1800, following a visit to Mount Vernon, Abigail Adams reported that Martha had decided to free the enslaved people who had been owned by Washington. Martha admitted she was financially pressed to provision and care for all of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon, and she also confided to Adams that she did not believe her life was safe in the hands of so many people who would be freed at her death.

Whatever the motivation, Martha signed a deed of manumission, which, as of January 1, 1801, freed all of the enslaved who had been owned by Washington. Within two months, all but a few of the freed persons had left Mount Vernon, separated from their family members who remained under Martha’s control.

Above: Portrait of Bushrod Washington by Henry Benbridge, 1783. (MVLA)

Legal Restrictions

Even as a widow responsible for the management of Mount Vernon, Martha Washington had no authority to sell or bequeath the land her husband left to family members, nor could she free or sell the more than 150 enslaved people who would be divided among her Custis grandchildren.

In her final distribution of the limited property she controlled, Martha sought to promote the financial well-being of her family. She left her house in Alexandria to a nephew and provided that Elish, an enslaved servant she purchased after the death of Washington, be left to her grandson. She requested that most of her household goods be sold after her death to support the education of her Dandridge nephews, and she left gifts of cash to a few friends and her local church.

For each of her Custis grandchildren, who were enormously wealthy, Martha designated cherished pieces of furniture, silver, or paintings. These would be reminders of the Washingtons’ life at Mount Vernon and the great estate that Martha had done so much to support.