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Martha Washington: Wealthy Widow, Intrepid Wartime Wife

When Martha Dandridge was growing up in the 1740s on the Pamunkey River in colonial Virginia, no crystal ball or fortune-teller could have foreseen her future life as hostess in the winter headquarters of revolutionary commander in chief George Washington.

By Flora Fraser

Her role to come as hostess of presidential drawing rooms in New York City and Philadelphia was equally unimaginable. At the age of 18 in 1750, this pretty and vivacious young woman made a most advantageous marriage to a wealthy older neighbor, Daniel Parke Custis. Martha’s father was a respected clerk of courts in New Kent County, with a sizable estate of 500 acres. But the riches of her new husband were of a different order of magnitude. Daniel was heir to two Virginia fortunes, and sent tobacco from 18,000 acres of land in six counties yearly to London for sale. At the time of his death, his personal property and slaves were to be valued at £30,000 current money, and there was a further £10,000 in cash in Virginia and England.

"Martha Washington," Adrian Lamb, after Wollaston, 1981 (Anne Kingery)
"Martha Washington," Adrian Lamb, after Wollaston, 1981 (Anne Kingery)

The births of two sons and two daughters followed Martha and Daniel’s marriage. The Parke Custis line looked set to prosper at the White House, the family home 30 miles northwest of Williamsburg, the colonial capital. Though two of the children died young, there was no reason to suppose that there would not be additional siblings for Jacky, born in 1754, and his younger sister, Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis, born three years later.

It seemed that Daniel and Martha Dandridge Custis could look forward to a comfortable and genteel lifestyle and spent accordingly. They sent, with the hogsheads of tobacco shipped to London for sale, yearly invoices detailing the many and varied items to be purchased there. Carriages, silver, tea services, field hoes, and carpenters’ nails—the consignment trade supplied all this and more from across the Atlantic. Martha, who had always possessed a keen eye for quality, ordered fashionable dresses, haberdashery, and jewelry.

Then Daniel Parke Custis died unexpectedly in the summer of 1757, aged 45. More surprising still, he died intestate, without a will. In accordance with English common law, Martha and the children each received outright a third of Daniel’s personal property and cash, the children’s shares to be held in trust until they reached their majorities. Martha also received lifetime use of one-third of her late husband’s land and slaves, which would revert to the estate upon her death; as heir, three-year-old Jacky received the other two-thirds in trust.

Martha, widowed at 26, showed herself self-assured and capable in adversity, including in her business dealings with the London merchant houses. Still, remarriage was an attractive prospect for the matron; a new husband would provide a guardian for her children and assume legal control of her property, which she had never imagined managing single-handedly. Finally, he would provide companionship and intimacy for the warm and sociable Martha, perhaps even blessing her with more children.

Martha did not make her choice of a second husband from within the upper tier of Virginia planters she had joined through her first marriage. Instead she chose George Washington, a young officer in the colonial Virginia Regiment who came wooing “the widow Custis” in the spring of 1758. Aged 26, Washington was no great landowner, merely his sister-in-law’s tenant at Mount Vernon, a plantation on the Potomac in northern Virginia. The difference in the pair’s social status and wealth was marked. But Washington was known in Williamsburg as an enterprising officer and once-industrious backcountry surveyor. If Martha gambled that he would prove an assiduous husband and responsible guardian of the Parke Custis estate, her instinct was rewarded.

Among the landed classes in the 18th century, marriages were as much financial as social contracts. But to promote the longevity of unions, it was important that couples be well-suited to each other. Divorce was expensive and rare, and required a Private Act of Parliament. Separation, though not uncommon, had financial and social consequences for both parties.

Martha and George had little time to discover whether they were well-suited before they wed on January 6, 1759. George had been serving for most of the previous year in the backcountry, and we know of only two interviews between them. Nevertheless, the marriage was to prove the happiest of unions, lasting more than forty years.

Explore the Courtship
Wealthy Widow, Wartime Wife
"Washington's First Interview with His Wife," George R. Hall (1863) after John Whetton Ehninger. MVLA. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley DeForest Scott, 1985.

The couple’s temperaments proved complementary. Martha was all warmth and sociability, whereas George was naturally reserved and reflective. At gatherings of friends and family at Mount Vernon, he was happiest when seated apart, while Martha presided over the throng, an affable and expert hostess. All their married life, they were united in a common pursuit—the amelioration of the Mount Vernon estate, in which they both exhibited astuteness and business savvy, as well as an infinite capacity for attention to detail. In the 15 years before war erupted on American soil, George and Martha established a close partnership, using her dower share of the Parke Custis estate to embellish the Mansion and improve Mount Vernon, which he owned outright following the 1761 death of his brother’s widow.

The Washingtons’ lifestyle was typical of Virginia planter families. They attended balls in nearby Alexandria, and visited relations farther afield. Martha and the children also sometimes accompanied George to Williamsburg, where he was a member of the House of Burgesses. George and Jacky traveled to New York together in 1773, so that the young man could enroll in undergraduate studies at King’s College.

And yet there was sadness in the union, as the Washingtons had no children together. Still George acted as a father to both of his stepchildren children, keeping impeccable guardian accounts for them. He lavished time and care on Jacky’s education and upbringing, as he would have on a son of his own. Unfortunately, Jacky had little interest in schooling and was cosseted and indulged by his mother, developing wastrel tendencies that Washington deplored. But the couple negotiated even this vexed issue with some skill.

"George acted as a father to both of his stepchildren children, keeping impeccable guardian accounts for them."

By the age of 19, Jacky had entered into a secret engagement with the dowerless 15-year-old sister of a school friend. When the betrothal was discovered, he happily abandoned university studies to marry his “Nelly.” Martha was happy to have her son nearer to home. George, whose patience with his troublesome ward sometimes appears inexhaustible, consoled himself with thoughts that Jacky could now father a son and heir to secure the Parke Custis line.

Martha’s daughter Patsy Parke Custis was little more than a toddler when she arrived at Mount Vernon. Here her pleasant childhood was filled with schoolwork and music and dancing lessons. But as she approached puberty, she became plagued by “fits”—likely epileptic seizures. George and Martha were strenuous in their attempts to find a cure or relief for her affliction, but neither a journey to a spa in western Virginia nor treatment in Williamsburg had any effect. Patsy expired, aged 17, in 1773. Amid his own mourning, Washington’s paramount concern was to support his wife, who took her daughter’s death very hard. It compounded the swift succession of losses—two children, her father, and her first husband— which she had suffered earlier in her life.

The Washingtons were not hasty in joining the growing agitation for revolt against taxation viewed as illegitimate and imposed on the colonies by Parliament. In the years before war broke out, however, George was a signatory to two import bans, obtaining the goods instead on the domestic market. Then, in 1775, following dramatic sessions in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Washington was elected commander in chief of the nascent Continental army. As he departed for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his new command, the newly minted General Washington wrote to his wife, “You may believe me...I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years.”

There was no thought then that Martha should join her husband in Massachusetts. It was understood that she, with Lund Washington—a cousin appointed to act as “factor,” or steward, in the General’s absence—would manage Mount Vernon. And at first Martha devoted herself to this task, refusing to depart even when rumor indicated that Virginia governor Lord Dunmore might attack the estate. Washington had fretted in letters from Philadelphia that his wife would find life difficult without him, but it was he who grew lonely and, in late autumn, asked her to join him at Cambridge.

Miniature portrait of John Parke Custis (1774), C.W. Peale. MVLA. Gift of Katherine Merle-Smith Thomas, 2010.

Miniature portrait of Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (c. 1772), C. W. Peale. MVLA. Purchase and partial gift of an anonymous donor, 2000.

Cambridge was the first of many winter headquarters over the eight years of war where Martha would act as hostess to her husband’s generals and aides de camp. She adeptly entertained congressmen, officials, and, in the course of time, diplomats and volunteers from France and Spain. She bore the vicissitudes of war with aplomb, writing to a Virginian friend from Cambridge, “some days we have a number of cannon and shells from Boston and Bunkers Hill.”

Officers and aides welcomed Martha’s presence in camp. Her husband’s mood softened and his spirits improved. General Nathanael Greene wrote to his wife in Rhode Island from Morristown headquarters in the spring of 1777: “Mrs. Washington is excessive fond of the general and he of her. They are happy in each other.”

Back at Mount Vernon Martha told her brother-in-law Burwell Bassett in December 1777: “he [George] cannot come home this winter but as soon as the army under his command goes into winter quarter he will send for me. If he does, I must go.” The call came, and she headed north for headquarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. It became an established fact that Martha would join her husband at the close of each campaigning season, and leave him before the opening of the next. Accustomed to a luxurious home with every comfort, she shared tavern bedchambers with George for long months and inhabited cramped, rented rooms in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. When there were not enough secretaries to copy correspondence, she lent a hand. At dinner with the “family,” as the commander’s aides and secretaries were known, she sat on camp stools to eat off tin plates.


Learn More about Martha Washington at the Front

The General and Martha Washington at Valley Forge. Harry T. Peters, "America on Stone" Lithography Collection, National Museum of American History.

She was in residence at Valley Forge when word came that France was newly the United States’ ally. She was at Morristown in 1780 in the hard winter, when officers and men in the tents were buried like sheep under snow. Knowing that letters might be intercepted, Martha rarely complained in her correspondence. But she dropped her guard once when she described, to her brother-in-law Bassett, the recent atmosphere at the Morristown headquarters: “There was not much pleasure there from the distress of the army and other difficulties.... The poor General was so unhappy that it distressed me exceedingly.”

Washington had occasion to support his wife, as she supported him, during the war. In 1781, when he was only 27 years old, Jacky Parke Custis died from “camp fever”—typhus—contracted at the successful siege of Yorktown. Martha was at her son’s deathbed as was his young wife, Nelly. Washington, usually the dutiful servant of Congress, deferred participation in victory celebrations to bury his stepson and spend a few days at Mount Vernon with his wife—one of only two visits home during the entire war. But shortly thereafter, the couple departed for headquarters at New Windsor, New York. The fight for independence was too important to let private grief intrude for long.

Martha was at the general’s side at Newburgh, New York, in the spring of 1783, when news came that Britain had declared an end to hostilities. The eight years of war had strengthened the Washingtons’ individual characters and their bond as a couple. Now, in their early fifties, they looked forward to living retired at home together.

Though that period of grace began when George returned his commission to Congress in December, it ended all too soon. Within five years Martha was reluctantly packing, while Washington impatiently awaited his wife in New York, where Congress was in session and where he was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789. Martha privately believed that her husband had served the new country long enough, but Congress had decreed otherwise. The Electoral College had been wise in its choice of president. In New York and later in Philadelphia, George and Martha forged, with grace and care, the roles of president and consort that endure to this day.

About the Author

Prize-winning historian Flora Fraser is the author of The Washingtons: George and Martha, "Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love," winner of the 2016 George Washington Prize. In 2017, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington named her the 2017 Georgian Papers Fellow.

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