A Life in Letters
Papers of Martha Washington
Martha Washington maintained a lively correspondence with siblings, friends, family, and merchants that helps present a more three-dimensional portrait of America’s first first lady.
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.
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.
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.
This is the story of Martha Washington, the worthiest of partners to the worthiest of men.
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 the enslaved individual who did most of the cleaning, food production and service. She also oversaw the making of textiles on the estate and the production of clothing for much of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon.
Some of the happiness of these years, however, was tempered by the chronic illness of her daughter, Patsy, who suffered from epilepsy. Despite seeking the best treatments available, Patsy died in the summer of 1773, after a seizure. She was only 17.
Martha Washington’s world expanded immeasurably during the Revolutionary War, which she strongly supported. Suddenly, after having lived her entire life in Virginia, now in her mid-40s she found herself traveling to other parts of the country for all eight years of the war, to spend time with Washington at his winter quarters.
Martha Washington also underwent smallpox inoculation, a procedure she feared. However, it protected her from the disease, which threatened the health of civilians and the army throughout the war.
Years later, Martha Washington 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, Martha Washington entertained visiting diplomats and the wives of fellow officers, and assisted with secretarial duties. One of Washington's 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 lives of soldiers went public in 1780. Martha Washington became the public face of 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 Martha Washington's only remaining son. Jack died at Yorktown of camp fever at the age of 27, leaving behind his wife, Eleanor Calvert Custis, and their four children. 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.
The next six years were another happy period at Mount Vernon, where the Washingtons raised two of their grandchildren, 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 Martha Washington and those who worked in the Mansion.
In 1789, George Washington was again called to serve his country, this time as president. Martha 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. 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, Martha Washington was terribly troubled by criticism of her husband and took political attacks against him very personally.
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.”
Eight years later, the Washingtons retired for good to their beloved Mount Vernon.
George Washington died after only two years, leaving his deeply religious widow devastated by his loss and confiding to many that she 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 in the spring of 1802, Martha Washington died at home on May 22, surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was eulogized in newspapers throughout the country as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.”