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, possibly from a heart attack, left Martha, at the age of 26, the wealthiest widow in Virginia. She now in charge of a 17,500 acre estate, many enslaved people, and two very young children.