Martha Dandridge Custis Washington served as the nation's first first lady, helped manage and run her husbands' estates, raised her children and grandchildren, and was George Washington's "worthy partner" for almost 40 years.
Birth and Childhood at Chestnut Grove
The woman who would later be known as Martha Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. 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.
Her education was probably typical for a girl of her class at the time and would have stressed housekeeping, religion, reading, writing, music, and dancing, skills which would be useful in her expected role as the wife of a Virginia plantation owner.
Martha Dandridge eventually grew to about five 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, John Custis IV, initially opposed the marriage, because the prospective bride’s family was not as wealthy as he would have liked. He finally gave his consent after meeting Martha Dandridge, telling friends that he was “as much enamored with her character as [his son was] with her person.”
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. Their children were: Daniel Custis (1751–1754), Frances Custis (1753–1757), John "Jacky" Parke Custis (1754–1781), and Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (1756–1773).
Daniel’s sudden death in 1757 left Martha, at the age of 26, a very wealthy widow. Leaving Martha with two young children, a 17,500-acre plantation to manage, and responsible for almost 300 enslaved people. Under English property laws, women could only own property if they were single or widowed. While a widow, Martha Custis managed the Custis estate and business interests. She communicated with agents in England about business matters and to order supplies. When the goods arrived in the colonies if they were not of high quality she complained to the English agents.
Less than a year after the death of her first husband, several men, including a militia officer less than a year younger than herself, began courting Martha Custis. Since George Washington and Martha Custis shared friends and acquaintances it is probable they met before Martha was widowed, however, there is no record of their first meeting. George and Martha Washington were married on January 6, 1759. They, her two children, and several enslaved people moved to Washington's home, Mount Vernon, in early April 1759.
The Washingtons' Courtship