Martha Washington was sixty-eight years old and a widow for the second time.
In the months after George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington received thousands of condolence letters and hundreds of requests for mementos.
Visitors flocked to Mount Vernon and Mrs. Washington handled the onslaught as best she could. Fatigued and grieving, she often delegated routine household tasks and secretarial duties to trusted aides, enslaved individuals, and family members.
Mrs. Washington took solace in her family. Her grandchildren, Wash Custis and Nelly Custis Lewis, and Nelly’s husband, along with their two young daughters, still lived at Mount Vernon. Tobias Lear, her niece’s widower and her husband’s former secretary, resided there as well. Her other grandchildren, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Martha Parke Custis Peter visited, often bringing their children. These interactions enlivened her days.
Freeing Washington’s Enslaved People
In the months after George Washington’s death, a new threat to Mrs. Washington’s security arose. Under the provisions of his will, Washington had declared that the 123 enslaved people that he owned outright (separate from those controlled by Martha Washington's first husband's estate) were to gain their freedom after his wife’s death. Hearing the news, however, these enslaved people may have become restive. Rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon that may have been set by some of those enslaved.
Fearing for her life, Martha Washington, at the urging of her nephew Bushrod Washington, decided to free her deceased husband’s enslaved community. On January 1, 1801, a bit more than a year after George’s death, Washington’s enslaved people gained their liberty.