Martha Washington served as the nation's first first lady and spent about half of the Revolutionary War at the front. She helped manage and run her husbands' estates. She raised her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews; and for almost 40 years she was George Washington's "worthy partner". 

Birth and Family

Birth Date
June 2, 1731
Birth Place
New Kent County, Virginia
Father
John Dandridge (1700-1756)
Mother
Frances Jones (1710-1785)
Brothers
John Dandridge (1732-1749)
William Dandridge (1734-1776)
Bartholomew Dandridge (1737-1785)
Sisters
Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett (1739-1777)
Frances Dandridge (1744-1758)
Elizabeth Dandridge Henley (1749-ca1800)
Mary Dandridge (1756-1763)
Formal Education
None
Religion
Anglican/Episcopalian

The Dandridge Family

Early Life

Portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis, John Wollaston, oil on canvas, 1757. Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA. [U1918.1.1].

Portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis, John Wollaston, oil on canvas, 1757. Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA. [U1918.1.1].

  • Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove, a plantation in New Kent County Virginia.
  • Her father, John Dandridge (1700-1756), immigrated from England, the son of a craftsman. He rose to serve as count clerk and a militia officer.
  • Her mother, Frances Jones (1710-1785), was the daughter of a member of the Virginia House of Burgess. 
  • Martha Dandridge was the eldest child of eight and had three brothers and four sisters.  
  • While not formally educated, Martha Dandridge's education was typical for a girl of her class. She learned housekeeping, religion, music, needlework, and dancing. She also learned to read and write.
  • Religion played a very important role throughout Martha's life. As an adult, she spent an hour reading the Bible and praying daily.
  • According to descriptions by people who knew her, Martha was about five feet tall. Surviving portraits show that she had brown hair and either brown or hazel eyes. As she aged, Mrs. Washington’s hair turned from gray to white.
  • In her late teens, Martha Dandridge caught the eye of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), who, though twenty years her senior, was one of the most eligible bachelors in Virginia.

Early Life

First Marriage

John “Jacky” Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, By Charles Volkmar After John Wollaston, 1757.

John “Jacky” Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, By Charles Volkmar After John Wollaston, 1757.

  • Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis on May 15, 1750.  
  • The couple lived at White House, a plantation in New Kent County, Virginia.
  • Martha and Daniel Custis had four children together. Only two lived to age five and Martha outlived all of her children.
  • After seven years of marriage, Daniel Custis died suddenly in July of 1757. Martha Custis, at age 26, became a very wealthy widow 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.

First Marriage

George Washington

Mount Vernon after George Washington expanded the house in the 1750s.

Mount Vernon after George Washington expanded the house in the 1750s.

  • In the spring of 1758, a number of men attempted to court Martha Custis, including Charles Carter and George Washington. 
  • George Washington visited Martha Custis twice in March of 1758. 
  • Since the two 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 married on January 6, 1759, at the bride's home in New Kent. 

The Washingtons' Courtship

 

Mount Vernon

  • The couple, her two children, and several enslaved workers moved to the Washington family home, Mount Vernon, at the end of the first week of April 1759.
  • George and Martha Washington never had any children together, but they raised Martha's children and grandchildren together. 
  • By the time Mrs. Washington's daughter, Patsy, was 11 or 12 she was plagued with seizures. Despite trying everything Patsy's condition worsened. 
  • On June 19, 1773, Patsy Custis died at the age of 17.
  • Martha Washington's only living child, John Parke Custis, married Eleanor Calvert on February 3, 1774, at the bride's family home, Mount Airy Plantation in Maryland. 

The Washington Family

Revolutionary War

Martha Washington is believed to have embroidered this elegant pincushion during the winter encampment at Valley Forge , 1777-1778, W-2738/B, MVLA.

Martha Washington is believed to have embroidered this elegant pincushion during the winter encampment at Valley Forge , 1777-1778, W-2738/B, MVLA.

    • Martha Washington received a letter from George Washington in June of 1775 announcing he had been made commander of the American military forces.
    • She and Washington's cousin, Lund Washington, manage Mount Vernon throughout the war.
    • Martha Washington spent about half of the war with husband in camp or nearby.
    • While with him, she copied George Washington's letters, knitted for the soldiers, and visited hospitals. 
    • She and a group of women raised money which they used to buy soldiers shirts and other supplies.

At the Front

 

  • In September of 1775, Martha Washington's first grandchild was born. Sadly the girl died shortly after her birth.
  • Martha Washington was inoculated against smallpox on May 23, 1776, in Philadelphia. 
  • On August 21, 1776, Elizabeth Parke Custis was born, Martha Washington's oldest surviving grandchild.
  • Martha Parke Custis, another granddaughter, was born on December 31, 1777. 
  • Granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, was born on March 21, 1779.
  • Martha Washington's first grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, was born on April 30, 1781.
  • In September of 1781, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon for the first time since the war broke out. He was only there for a few days.
  • John Parke Custis enlists in the army and joined his step-father as a volunteer aide-de-camp on or about September 17, 1781.
  • On November 5, 1781, John Parke Custis died of camp fever surrounded by his mother, wife, and step-father. 
  • John Parke Custis's widow remarried and her two youngest children stayed at Mount Vernon and were raised by the Washingtons. 
  • George Washington resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783. 

Private Citizens

Miniature depicting two children believed to be George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, c. 1789, W-487/A-B, MVLA.

Miniature depicting two children believed to be George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, c. 1789, W-487/A-B, MVLA.

  • Between the Revolutionary War and the presidency, George and Martha Washington spent most of their time at Mount Vernon. 
  • They raised two of their grandchildren, George Washington "Washy" Parke Custis and Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis.
  • Due to the war, the Washingtons had become very well known. After the war, hundreds of guests, some friends others strangers, came to Mount Vernon to visit with Martha and George Washington. 
  • Martha Washington and the enslaved individuals who worked in the Mansion had to see to the needs of all of the guests.
  • In January 1785, George Washington wrote that his wife, "does not enjoy very good health." Martha Washington was sick for much of the year.
  • Martha Washington's mother died in the spring of 1785.
  • Martha Washington’s niece, Frances Bassett, married George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington, at Mount Vernon on October 15, 1785. The couple lived at Mount Vernon for most of the next decade. 
  • In April of 1787, Frances Washington gave birth to her first child. Sadly the boy became sick and died within the month.
  • Martha Washington stayed at Mount Vernon while George Washington attends the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. 

An Original Quilt Made By Martha Washington


Martha Washington made many quilts, including this one, from scraps of fabric.

First Lady

Martha Washington painted by James Peale in 1796, W-624, MVLA.

Martha Washington painted by James Peale in 1796, W-624, MVLA.

  • George Washington departed Mount Vernon on April 16, 1789, for New York. It would be one month before Martha Washington and her two grandchildren followed. 
  • On May 16, 1789, Martha Washington, Nelly, Washing, Washington's nephew Robert Lewis, and several enslaved people set off for New York.
  • Their 11-day trip included fireworks, a 13-gun salute, crowded streets, and ringing church bells. 
  • The First Family lived at #3 Cherry Street upon moving to the city, but finding the house too small moved to the Macomb House in February of 1790.
  • Martha Washington hosted Friday evening receptions open to members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community.

The First First Lady

 

  • Granddaughter Martha Parke Custis married Thomas Peter on January 6, 1795.
  • Martha Washington became a great-grandmother on January 20, 1796, when Martha Eliza Eleanor Peter is born.
  • On March 21, 1796, granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis married Thomas Law.
  • During the summer of 1796, Ona Judge, Martha Washington's enslaved maid, fled the executive mansion. 
  • Great-granddaughter Eliza Law was born on January 19, 1797.

Martha Washington's Shawl


While first lady, Martha Washington actively supported American manufacturing, including with this shawl originally made in Massachusetts.

Post-Presidency and Death

An artist's depiction of George Washington's final moments. - Life of George Washington: The Christian, lithograph by Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns,1853, WB-55/A1, MVLA.

An artist's depiction of George Washington's final moments. - Life of George Washington: The Christian, lithograph by Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns,1853, WB-55/A1, MVLA.

Martha Washington painted in 1801 by Robert Field is perhaps the most accurate record of Martha Washington's appearance in her final years, W-2137/A-B, MVLA.

Martha Washington painted in 1801 by Robert Field is perhaps the most accurate record of Martha Washington's appearance in her final years, W-2137/A-B, MVLA.

  • George Washington retired from the presidency and the Washington family returned to Mount Vernon in March of 1797.
  • Columbia Washington Peter, Martha Washington's third great-grandchild, was born on December 2, 1797. 
  • Eleanore Parke Custis was married to Lawrence Lewis, George Washington's nephew, on February 22, 1799, at Mount Vernon.
  • A fourth great-grandchild, John Parke Custis Peter was born on November 14, 1799.
  • Frances Parke Lewis, another great-grandchild, was born on November 27, 1799.
  • George Washington died between 10 and 11 pm on December 14, 1799. Martha Washington was once again a widow. 

George Washington's Death

 

  • Martha Washington was too heartbroken to attend her husband's funeral on December 18, 1799.
  • She moved from the room the two shared to a smaller room on the third floor. 
  • Martha Washington and her family welcomed dozens of mourners to Mount Vernon, wishing to pay their respect.
  • On August 31, 1800, Martha Washington's four-year-old great-granddaughter Martha Eliza Eleanor Peter died.
  • Martha Washington prepared her will in September of 1800.
  • Fulfilling George Washington's will, on December 15, 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission to emancipate his enslaved individuals on January 1, 1801. 
  • Great-grandchild Martha Betty Lewis was born at Mount Vernon on August 19, 1801.
  • Another great-grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis Peter was born on November 18, 1801.
  • In total Martha Washington had 21 great-grandchildren, but most did not survive childhood. 
  • Martha Washington added a codicil to her will bequeathing Elish, the only enslaved person she owned outright, to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
  • At some point after George Washington's death, Martha Washington burned almost all of the couple's correspondences. 
  • On May 22, 1802, Martha Washington died around noon surrounded by friends and family.

Martha Washington's Will

Martha Washington's Property

This is one of four lists that recorded the division of the Custis slaves among Martha Washington’s grandchildren. Each enslaved person was assigned a monetary value.

This is one of four lists that recorded the division of the Custis slaves among Martha Washington’s grandchildren. Each enslaved person was assigned a monetary value.

  • Martha Washington's will detailed bequests of property, funds, and specific household goods to family members and friends. It also specified that a public auction be held to sell items not named in the will.
  • The enslaved people owned by the Custis estate—numbering about 150—were dispersed to Martha Washington's four grandchildren. Legally considered property, enslaved people had no control over their destination.
  • Martha Washington’s four grandchildren lived in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia and many enslaved families were separated.

A Community Divided

A Day in the Life of Martha Washington

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