Even before she became the first First Lady, Martha Washington led a fascinating life. Learn about her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, her beloved children and grandchildren, and her incredible relationship with the father of our country.Explore the Timeline
Martha Dandridge is born at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, the oldest of eight children born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones.
Martha Dandridge marries socially prominent Daniel Parke Custis, a vestryman from her family church, who is twenty years older than herself and someone she has known since childhood.
Martha Dandridge Custis gives birth to her first child, Daniel Parke Custis, named after his father.
Martha Dandridge Custis gives birth to her second child, Frances Parke Custis.
Daniel, the oldest child of Daniel and Martha Custis, dies at the age of three.
Martha gives birth to her third child, John Parke Custis; he will be known in the family as “Jacky” or “Jack.”
Martha Dandridge Custis gives birth to her fourth and last child, Martha Parke Custis, who will be known in the family as “Patsy.”
Martha’s father, John Dandridge, dies at the age of fifty-six.
Frances, the second child of Daniel and Martha Custis, dies at the age of four.
Daniel Custis's lawyer, Robert Carter Nicholas, to Martha Dandridge Custis
It gave me no small pleasure to hear with how great Christian patience and resignation you submitted to your late misfortune; the example is rare, though a duty incumbent upon us all; and therefore I can not help esteeming it a peculiar happiness when I meet with it.”
In the spring of 1758, the young widow Custis is courted by several men, including George Washington, who stops by her home, called White House, in late March and early June.
Martha Dandridge Custis marries George Washington on January 6th, in a ceremony at her home. The couple and the bride’s two surviving children will move to the groom’s home, Mount Vernon, in the spring of that year.
George and Martha Washington, 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.
Martha Washington comes down with measles on January 1st, but is feeling “a good deal better” by her first wedding anniversary on the 6th. Her favorite sister, Anna Maria, is visiting at this time, probably for the Christmas holidays.
Martha Washington’s daughter, Patsy, is afflicted with “fitts & fevours” in late September; these may be the first indications of the seizures which will plague her for the rest of her life and eventually cause her death 13 years later.
Martha Washington and both of her children are sick with whooping cough in the late winter and early spring of 1761.
In late July and early August, Martha Washington takes her daughter Patsy to Westmoreland County, Virginia, to visit George Washington’s brother, John Augustine, and his wife, Hannah Bushrod. As an experiment, she leaves her son Jacky at home “for a trial to see how well I coud [sic] stay without him.”
It apparently did not go well, as Martha admitted to her sister that she became "impatiant to get home" and felt overwhelmingly worried about the possibility that her son "was sick or some accident had happened to him".
George and Martha Washington set out from Mount Vernon for Warm Springs (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), an area containing mineral water springs which was a popular resort destination during the early years of the United States. They traveled in the company of their neighbors, George William and Sally Cary Fairfax from August 3rd through early September
The two children, Jacky and Patsy, remained at Mount Vernon in the care of George Washington’s cousin, Lund Washington.
George and Martha Washington set out for Williamsburg and a visit to relatives on April 26th, accompanied by Jacky, Patsy, and Martha Washington’s nephew, Billy Bassett. The family will return home to Mount Vernon on May 31st.
A doctor is called to look after Patsy, who appears to have had another seizure.
On June 28th, George Washington leaves Mount Vernon, taking his stepson Jack to boarding school in Caroline County, Virginia. The school was run by Reverend Jonathan Boucher (1738-1804), an Anglican minister.
At that time, Washington noted that Jacky had been introduced to both Greek and Latin by his tutor and described his stepson as "a boy of good genius, about 14 yrs. of age, untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners." He considered Jacky “a promising boy" and expressed "anxiety" that as "the last of his Family," who would be coming into "a very large Fortune," he wanted to see the boy made "fit for more useful purposes, than a horse Racer."
Martha and her daughter presumably remain at Mount Vernon.
On February 16th, blacksmith Joshua Evans comes to Mount Vernon to put an iron ring on Patsy. Sometimes referred to as a "cramp ring", it was thought this could be a potential remedy for seizures.
On July 31st, George and Martha Washington set out from Mount Vernon for Warm Springs, to see if the waters there would be helpful for Patsy’s seizures. The family arrives there on August 6th and will return to Mount Vernon on September 12th.
Martha Washington’s son, Jacky, spends a few days at Mount Vernon, before leaving for Annapolis, where his teacher and school are relocating. He would come home several other times that summer, in order to take dancing lessons.
On July 30th, George and Martha Washington, and her daughter, Patsy, leave Mount Vernon to visit relatives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Patsy becomes gravely ill on the trip, suffering from seizures, as well as “ague and fever.” The young woman is now having seizures frequently—in one 86-day period, she had seizures on 26 days, sometimes more than once a day. The family would return home on August 9th.
On May 12th, George and Martha Washington, and Patsy Custis, go in to Alexandria to see the launching of a new ship.
In May, artist Charles Willson Peale comes to Mount Vernon, with his friend, Jacky Custis, to paint portraits of the entire family—a large oil painting of George Washington, and watercolor on ivory miniatures of Martha Washington and her two children.
On June 13th, a doctor arrives at Mount Vernon with some medicine—musk capsules, which were thought to be efficacious in relieving epileptic seizures, for Martha Washington’s daughter, Patsy.
George and Martha Washington discover Jacky's secret engagement to Eleanor Calvert, the daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert, who was the illegitimate son of Charles Calvert, the 5th Baron Baltimore.
George Washington was able to convince the young couple to postpone the marriage until after Jack had completed his college education and could "thereby render himself more deserving of the Lady & useful to Society”. Jack was sent off to King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City in May of 1773 to finish school.
Martha Washington’s seventeen year old daughter, Patsy, who has been suffering for years, probably from epilepsy, has a seizure after dinner. She dies within just a few minutes, at about 5 o’clock on the evening of June 19th.
A funeral is held the following day and her body is laid to rest in the old family vault on the Mount Vernon estate. George Washington writes to his brother-in-law that Patsy’s death has “reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.” During the rest of the summer, Washington makes a concerted effort to get Martha out of the house and see that she keeps busy.
On September 26th, George Washington sets out for the Annapolis, leaving Martha Washington at home. He returned to Mount Vernon on October 2nd, with Jacky Custis in tow. The young man had decided to drop out of college.
George Washington in a letter about his stepson in 1773
The favourable account you was pleas'd to transmit me of Mr Custis's conduct at College, gave me very great satisfaction...but these hopes are at an end; & at length, I have yielded, contrary to my judgment, & much against my wishes, to his quitting College; in order that he may enter soon into a new scene of Life, which I think he would be much fitter for some years hence, than now; but having his own inclination-the desires of his mother---& the acquiescence of almost all his relatives, to encounter, I did not care, as he is the last of the family, to push my opposition too far; &. therefore have submitted to a Kind of necessity.”
Martha Washington’s twenty-year-old son, John Parke Custis, marries sixteen-year-old Eleanor (“Nelly”) Calvert at the bride’s family home, Mount Airy Plantation in Maryland. His stepfather, George Washington goes to the ceremony, but his mother is still too grief-stricken to attend.
Jack, his new bride, Nelly, and the latter’s parents and sister will visit Mount Vernon between March 1st and 7th.
George Washington leaves Mount Vernon on August 31st, accompanied by Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton, to attend the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Martha Washington’s send-off for them was later recorded by Pendleton: “I was most pleased with Mrs. Washington and her spirit. She seemed ready to make any sacrifice and was cheerful though I knew she felt anxious. She talked like a Spartan mother to her son going to battle. ‘I hope you will stand firm – I know George will,’ she said. The dear little woman was busy from morning to night in domestic duties, but she gave us much time in conversation and affording us entertainment. When we set off in the morning, she stood in the door and cheered us with the good words, ‘God be with you gentlemen.’”
George Washington will return to her at Mount Vernon on October 30th, 1774.
George Washington is told on June 16th that he is being given command of the American forces; he writes to Martha on the 18th to give her the news. Five days later, he heads north to Massachusetts to meet the army, but pens a note to his wife before he leaves, writing that, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.”
The letter reveals the private side of Washington, a side rarely seen in his daily correspondence. After his death in 1799, Martha Washington destroyed all the letters written between herself and George Washington. Three letters survived the destruction, including this letter and another that were found in a desk drawer by Martha's granddaughter Martha Parke Custis Peter.
George Washington to Martha Washington, June 23, 1775
As I am within a few Minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line; especially as I do not know whether it may be in my power to write again till I get to the Camp at BostonI go fully trusting in that Providence, which has been more bountiful to me than I deserve, & in full confidence of a happy meeting with you sometime in the FallI have not time to add more, as I am surrounded with Company to take leave of meI retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change, my best love to Jack & Nelly, & regard for the rest of the Family concludes me with the utmost truth & sincerety”
Martha Washington’s daughter-in-law, Nelly, gives birth to her first child, a little girl, who dies shortly after her birth.
In early October, George Washington writes letter asking his wife to come to stay with him at his winter quarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Martha Washington leaves Mount Vernon to be with him in mid-November, traveling with her son Jack, daughter-in-law Nelly, and her husband’s nephew, George Lewis. She would arrive at his headquarters on December 11th.
Every year, during the long winter months when the fighting was at a standstill, the General asked Martha to join him at his winter encampment.
John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint companion portraits of George and Martha Washington for his home. The Washingtons will order miniature copies for themselves.
The copies ordered by the Washingtons are today part of the collection at Mount Vernon.
Mrs. Washington is inoculated in Philadelphia on May 23rd, to protect her from the smallpox, which is threatening the American army.
Martha Washington returns to New York in mid-June and stays until the British begin arriving in New York harbor on June 30th; she then travels to Philadelphia until at least the end of August. She is, therefore, in that city when the Continental Congress signs the Declaration of Independence on July 4th.
Martha Washington becomes a grandmother for the first time on August 21st, with the birth of her eldest surviving granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, at Mount Airy Plantation in Maryland.
Martha Washington leaves Mount Vernon in March, heading for her husband’s winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.
Mrs. Washington travels back to Mount Vernon in June, accompanied by her son, Jack. On the way, they stop in Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania legislature gives her a magnificent coach.
Martha Washington, along with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild visits her sister and brother during the summer. While at her sister’s home in August, she makes a trip to Williamsburg, where she is presented with a gold medal.
Martha Washington’s favorite sister, Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett, dies at her home, Eltham Plantation, on December 17th.
Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis, is born in one of the second-floor bedchambers at Mount Vernon. The baby girl was named Martha for her grandmother and her father’s late sister, but later went by the nickname "Patty".
In late January, Martha Washington leaves Mount Vernon for the army’s winter quarters at Valley Forge, in Pennsylvania; she arrives in early February.
In early November, Martha Washington leaves Mount Vernon for Philadelphia; her husband joins her there on December 22nd, where they are able to spend Christmas together for the first time in four years.
George and Martha Washington leave Philadelphia on February 2nd, on their way to his winter quarters at Middle Brook, in New Jersey, where they arrived on the 5th.
Martha Washington’s becomes a grandmother for the third time with the birth of Eleanor Parke Custis, who will be called “Nelly.”
George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis, comes to Mount Vernon in September to keep Martha company.
Martha Washington sets out from Mount Vernon for Philadelphia in early to mid-November; she stays in the city until just around Christmas, when she heads to the army’s winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.
Martha Washington’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor Calvert Custis, gives birth to twin girls, who live only three weeks; the exact date of their birth is unknown.
In June of 1780, Martha Washington is briefly in Philadelphia on her way back to Mount Vernon. In the city, she becomes involved in a campaign to raise money to aid the soldiers in the Continental Army.
In November of 1780, just prior to leaving Mount Vernon for winter quarters once again, Mrs. Washington entertains a group of foreign officers at the estate. She arrives at her husband’s quarters in New Windsor, New York, about ten days before Christmas.
Martha Washington’s fourth and last grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis (known to the family as “Washy” and later “Wash”) is born on April 30th at Mount Airy Plantation in Maryland.
Martha Washington becomes very ill in late May, possibly from gall bladder disease. It would be late June before she was well enough to travel back to Mount Vernon from New York.
George Washington arrives at Mount Vernon on September 9th, his first visit home since the war began. Over the next several days preparations are made for the arrival and entertainment of Washington’s military aides and two French generals, all of whom are on their way to cut off the British army at Yorktown. The men set out from Mount Vernon on the 12th, leaving Mrs. Washington at home.
Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, leaves Mount Vernon to join his step-father as a volunteer aide-de-camp, on or about September 17th.
Jacky joined his stepfather at Yorktown, General Washington's most celebrated victory. The British surrendered to the Americans on October 19th, ending the active military phase of the war.
Martha Washington, her daughter-in-law, and oldest granddaughter set out from Mount Vernon for Williamsburg on October 19th, anticipating a happy reunion with George Washington and John Parke Custis.
Sadly, John Parke Custis contracts camp fever at Yorktown and the women arrive to find him gravely ill. He dies on November 5th in the company of his wife, mother, and step-father. The Washingtons will raise his two youngest children, Nelly and Washy.
John Parke Custis to George Washington, Spring 1776
...It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I can not sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir.”
Martha cared for one of her favorite nephews, Lieutenant George Augustine Washington of the Second Virginia Regiment, who was recuperating from “an intermittant [sic] fever,” probably an early symptom of tuberculosis.
In mid-October, George Washington writes to his wife, asking her to come to spend the winter at his headquarters. Within a month, she is back on the road, arriving at Newburgh on November 30th.
Unofficial word arrives at Newburgh in the spring that a peace treaty had been agreed upon by the British, French and American negotiators in Paris. The army celebrates with a grand illumination.
In June, Martha Washington takes a trip through New York with the governor of that state and his wife. During her visit, Mrs. Washington becomes very sick, probably a reoccurrence of the gall bladder problems of several years before. It will be September before she is fully recovered.
On her way home, Martha stops in Philadelphia to buy household furnishings and other things for Mount Vernon, and to have her carriage repaired.
Sometime late in the year 1783, Martha Washington’s widowed daughter-in-law, Eleanor Calvert Custis, is remarried to a family friend, Dr. David Stuart.
Martha’s two oldest grandchildren, Eliza and Patty, will continue to live with their mother and step-father at Abingdon Plantation but make frequent visits to the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. The two youngest grandchildren, Nelly and Washy, continue to live at Mount Vernon.
In November, General Washington received news that the peace treaty with Great Britain had been signed and the war for American Independence was finally over. Washington rode to Annapolis to meet with Congress and to famously surrender his commission.
For his return, Washington had purchased various "sundries" including a locket, three small pocket books, three thimbles, three sashes, a dress cap, a hat, a whirligig, fiddle, gun, and quadrille boxes as Christmas presents for his family.
George Washington finally arrives at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783, having promised his wife he would be home in time to eat Christmas dinner with her.
After his brother Samuel's death, George Washington takes over the education of his orphaned nephews, George Steptoe Washington and Lawrence Augustine Washington. The eleven and nine years olds would become semi-permanent members of the Mount Vernon household for approximately the next decade.
In September, George Washington sets out with his old friend Dr. James Craik to visit his lands west of the Appalachian Mountains in western Pennsylvania through the end of October. In the early fall, both during and after Washington’s western excursion, Mrs. Washington and the two grandchildren were very sick; all were pretty well recovered by the beginning of November.
Martha Washington’s seventeen year old niece, Frances Bassett, who is known to the family as “Fanny,” is brought to Mount Vernon on December 24th by her father to become a permanent member of the household.
Martha Washington to Burwell Bassett, 1777
...my dear sister in her life time often mentioned my taking my dear Fanny if she should be taken away before she grew up -- If you will lett her come to live with me, I will with the greatest pleasure take her and be a parent and mother to her as long as I live.”
At the end of January, George Washington writes to a friend that his wife “does not enjoy very good health.” By the beginning of March, she was still “too often troubled with bilious and cholicky complaints, to enjoy perfect health.”
Word arrives at Mount Vernon on April 24th that Martha Washington’s mother, Frances Jones Dandridge, and younger brother, Bartholomew Dandridge, died within nine days of each other earlier in the month. George Washington will write in July that word of those deaths added to his wife’s “indisposition.”
English painter Robert Edge Pine comes to Mount Vernon, where he does portraits of Martha Washington’s four grandchildren and her niece, Fanny. The portraits of the grandchildren were hung in the Washington's bedroom, and were among the "6 Paintings of Mrs. W-ns family" noted on the inventory of household furnishings taken after George Washington's death.
The illness, which has plagued Mrs. Washington through this whole year continued into the fall. George Washington noted to a friend that his wife “is scarce ever well” and to another that her “indisposition” would prevent her from attending the wedding of his nephew, Bushrod Washington.
Martha Washington’s niece, Fanny, marries George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington, at Mount Vernon on the evening of October 15th. Over much of the next decade, the young couple will make their home at Mount Vernon and assist the Washingtons in running the estate and entertaining guests.
George Washington writes to a friend on April 10th, that Mrs. Washington has “of late been much less troubled with the bilious cholick than formerly.”
Martha Washington’s niece, Fanny, gives birth to her first child on the morning of April 10th at Mount Vernon. The little boy becomes sick on April 22nd, is christened in the mansion on the evening of April 24th, dies the following morning, and is buried later the same day.
George Washington leaves Mount Vernon on May 9th, to preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, leaving Mrs. Washington and the family at Mount Vernon.
George Washington leaves Mount Vernon to be inaugurated as first president of the United States on April 30th in New York City. His wife is very unhappy about the situation.
Martha Washington and her youngest grandchildren, Nelly and Washy, accompanied by George Washington’s nephew, Robert Lewis, set off from Mount Vernon on May 16th. They arrive in New York on the 28th. In New York, the First Family initially makes their home at #3 Cherry Street, which has been rented for them by Congress.
They leave Mount Vernon in the care of George Augustine and Fanny Bassett Washington.
Gazette of the United States on Martha Washington, May 22 1789
...like her illustrious husband, she was clothed in the manufacture of our Country, in which her native goodness and patriotism appeared to the greatest advantage.”
Artist Edward Savage begins a family portrait, including George and Martha Washington, her two youngest grandchildren, and an enslaved man. Six years later he will do a larger version of the painting (now in the National Gallery of Art) and, two years after that, an engraved version, which will be published in Philadelphia and London.
Undoubtedly Edward Savage's most famous work, The Washington Family was the only contemporary painting to depict the first president at Mount Vernon.
Finding that the house on Cherry Street is too cramped for the presidential household, the Washingtons move to a new house on Broadway.
George Washington becomes very sick on May 10th, complaining initially of a bad cold, and then developing symptoms of pneumonia. The four doctors who were called in believe he will die, but he starts to mend and is out of danger by the 20th , although he will spend the next six weeks recuperating.
Martha Washington on her husband's illness, 1790
The sevear illness with which the President was attacked some weeks ago absorbed every other consideration, in my care and anxiety for him Happily he is now perfectly recovered and I am restored to my ordinary state of tranquility, and usually good flow of spirits.”
At the end of August, the Washingtons, accompanied by the two grandchildren, two aids, two maids, eight other servants, and sixteen horses, leave New York for a vacation at Mount Vernon. Mrs. Washington gets sick on the way, forcing the travelers to spend a few days in Philadelphia, before their eventual arrival at Mount Vernon on the evening of September 11.
The government is in the process of moving the executive mansion to Philadelphia during this period.
After leaving Mount Vernon once again, George and Martha Washington and her two youngest grandchildren move into their new home in Philadelphia on the morning of November 27. The house was rented from financier Robert Morris.
In the first half of the year, Charles Willson Peale paints a miniature portrait of Martha Washington for one of her granddaughters. The current location of that work is unknown.
Martha Washington, accompanied by her two youngest grandchildren, and her maid, leave Philadelphia on the morning of May 17th to visit General Philemon Dickinson in Trenton; they will return on the 19th, after stopping along the way at the annual fair in Bristol, Pennsylvania.
Scottish artist Archibald Robertson completes a set of watercolor on ivory miniature portraits of George and Martha Washington on January 11th. In a verbal description of the First Lady, Robertson mentions her “easy, polished and familiar gayety, and ceaseless cheerfulness.” Those portraits are now owned by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Martha’s niece, Fanny, is widowed when her husband, George Augustine Washington, finally succumbs to tuberculosis in February; she is left with three small children.
Artist John Trumbull, who had been an aide to George Washington during the American Revolution, paints small oil on board companion portraits of George and Martha Washington later this year and presents them to the Washingtons. Those portraits are now at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Polly Lear, the wife of Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, and Martha Washington’s friend and assistant, becomes very ill in mid-July and dies of yellow fever in the executive mansion, on July 28th. Her death is one of the first during an epidemic, which will cripple the city over the next few weeks and largely shut down the federal government.
The Washingtons and their two grandchildren leave Philadelphia on September 10th for Mount Vernon to escape the yellow fever epidemic.
Mrs. Washington and the children stay at Mount Vernon until the danger from the epidemic is past. They will return to the executive mansion in Philadelphia on December 9, 1793.
Martha Washington’s two oldest granddaughters, Eliza and Patty, come to Philadelphia for a long visit with the Washingtons and their younger brother and sister. Both girls arrive with bad colds.
Mrs. Washington orders a new set of false teeth in April from a Mr. Whitelock, writing that she would like them “something bigger and thicker in the front and a small matter longer[.] She will be very glad if he will do them as those she has is almost broak [sic].”
On June 17, George Washington sets out for what he hopes will be a quick visit to Mount Vernon, leaving Mrs. Washington and the grandchildren in Philadelphia. Instead, he severely injures his back in a riding mishap and is forced to stay for several weeks longer.
Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, June 30, 1794
I have been so unhappy about the Presidt that I did not know what to do with myself he tells me in his letter of Wednesday that he is better, - I hope in god that he is so if I could have come down with any conveniance [sic] I should have set out the very hour I got the letter I hope and trust he is better and that he will soon be able to return hear [sic] again if he is not getting better my dear Fanny dont [sic] let me be deceved [sic] let me know his case and not say he is getting better if he is not it would make me exceeding unhappy to be told or made to believe he is getting better if he is not I besech [sic] you to let me [k]now how he is as soon as you can and often, - if he is likely to be confined at mount vernon longer than was expected I will get into the stage or get stage horses and come down emidately [sic] to you.”
At the end of July, the presidential household moves out to Germantown for about two months, because of fears of a recurrence of the yellow fever epidemic from the previous year.
Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, June 30, 1794
I believe, a man of strict honor and probity; and one with whom you would have as good a prospect of happyness [sic] as with any one I know; but beg you will not let anything I say influence you either way. The President has a very high opinion of and friendship for Mr. Lear; and has not the least objection to your forming the connection but, no more than myself, would wish to influence your judgement, either way.”
Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Patty, marries Thomas Peter at the home of her mother and stepfather: Hope Park Plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Martha Washington has her portrait painted yet again by Charles Willson Peale. According to the artist’s son, Peale had run into “General Washington in the market, and remarked to him that he had just seen Mrs. Washington, and she looked so well that her portrait must again be painted; to which General Washington replied, “that she certainly would sit again [to be painted], as the temptation of looking well was too strong to be resisted.”
The portrait is now part of the collection at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.
At least three portraits are made of Mrs. Washington this year: a miniature, painted in watercolor on ivory by artist James Peale; a pastel on paper profile by James Sharples (both now at Mount Vernon); and an unfinished oil on canvas by Gilbert Stuart, done as a companion piece to the so-called Athenaeum portrait of George Washington (jointly owned by The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).
Martha Washington becomes a great-grandmother for the first time, with the birth of Martha Eliza Eleanor Peter on January 20th. The baby is described by granddaughter Nelly Custis (the child’s aunt) as, “a very fat, handsome good tempered, clever toad.”
By February, Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, Eliza, is engaged to Englishman Thomas Law, a developer in Washington, DC, who made his fortune in India and is twenty years older than his intended bride. The wedding takes place on March 21st at Hope Park Plantation, Fairfax County, Virginia.
Martha Washington’s beloved niece, Fanny Bassett Washington Lear, dies, probably of tuberculosis, in Washington, DC. She leaves behind her second husband, Tobias Lear, three surviving children from her first marriage, and a stepson, Benjamin Lincoln Lear.
During the summer, Martha Washington’s enslaved maid, Ona Judge, runs away from the executive mansion in Philadelphia. She heads north from Philadelphia and will eventually make a new life for herself as a free woman in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law, gives birth to a daughter, Eliza Law, on January 19th. The baby will be inoculated for smallpox in May.
George Washington retires from the presidency on March 4th, when John Adams is inaugurated as the second president. The Washingtons and granddaughter Nelly return to Mount Vernon, setting out on March 9th and arriving on the 15th.
On their way back to Mount Vernon, The Washingtons stop at the Laws’ home where they visited both married granddaughters and their great-grandchildren.
When they first return to Mount Vernon, Martha Washington is “much indisposed with a violent cold & cough.” In the late summer Martha Washington is again ill, this time with a “swelling on one side of her face.”
In the late summer or fall of this year, George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis, a thirty-year-old widower, comes to Mount Vernon to become part of the household and take some of the burden of entertaining guests from his uncle and aunt.
Martha Washington’s third great-grandchild, a little girl named Columbia Washington Peter, is born on December 2nd.
In the spring, Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, is sent to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, but by August, he will drop out and come home to Mount Vernon.
Polish nobleman Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz meets George and Martha Washington in the Federal City, where they are visiting for a few days with Mrs. Washington’s married granddaughters and their families. They invite Niemcewicz to come to Mount Vernon, which he eventually does, staying with them there from June 2nd through the 14th.
Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz on Martha Washington
...at one time one of the most beautiful women in America and today there remains something extremely agreeable and attractive about her.”
Martha Washington has “a very bad Cold” in March. In early September, Martha Washington is very ill for several weeks with “a kind of Ague and fever.” George Washington is so concerned that he sends for the doctor twice and notifies granddaughters Eliza Law and Patty Peter in the city of Washington.
Martha Washington’s fourth great-grandchild, John Parke Custis Peter, in born on November 14th.
A fifth great-grandchild, Frances Parke Lewis, is born at Mount Vernon, to Nelly and Lawrence Lewis.
Martha Washington is widowed for the second time, with the death of her husband of forty years, George Washington between 10 and 11 o’clock o on the evening of December 14th. Sitting at the foot of the bed, she makes the statement, “’Tis well….All is now over[.] I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!”
Martha Washington was too distraught to attend George Washington's funeral on December 18th. It would be two weeks before the shock of her husband’s death had worn off enough that she could even cry.
Martha Washington moves from the room she had shared with her late husband to a smaller room on the third floor of the mansion. She will never again enter either their bedroom or George Washington’s study.
Sometime during the next two years, Martha Washington will burn almost all of her correspondence with her husband, probably in an effort to retain their privacy.
Martha Washington’s first great-granddaughter, Martha Eliza Eleanor Peter, dies on August 31st. She was four years old.
Mrs. Washington prepares her will and names four executors: her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis; two nephews, Julius B. and Bartholomew Dandridge; and Thomas Peter, the husband of her second granddaughter, Patty.
Mrs. Washington signs a deed of manumission to emancipate those Mount Vernon slaves who had belonged to George Washington; they are officially freed on January 1, 1801.
Thomas Jefferson, then Vice President, visited Mount Vernon in 1801 to pay a condolence call on Martha Washington. According to historian Don Higginbotham, Mrs. Washington supposedly said later “that, next to the loss of her husband,” Jefferson’s appearance there was “the most painful occurrence of her life.” She had come to dislike Jefferson for his frequent attacks on her husband as a monarchist bent on destroying the rule of the people and a senile follower of the policies of Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson even refused to attend memorial services for the President, saying in private that the "republican spirit" in the nation might revive now that Washington was dead and the Federalists could no longer hide behind his heroic image.
Thomas Jefferson to Mary Jefferson Eppes, January 4, 1800
I went yesterday to Mount Vernon, where mrs [sic] Washington & mrs [sic] Lewis enquired very kindly after you. mrs [sic] Lewis looks thin, & thinks herself not healthy; but it seems to be more in opinion than any thing [sic] else. she [sic] has a child of very uncertain health ”
Martha Washington’s final portrait is made this year—a watercolor on ivory miniature by Robert Field, described as a “striking likeness. She is drawn to please her grandchildren, in her usual long-earred cap and neckerchief, that they may see her, as she expressed it, in her everyday face.”
Martha Washington’s sixth great-grandchild, Martha Betty Lewis, is born at Mount Vernon.
A seventh great-grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis Peter, is born. Martha Washington will ultimately have twenty-one great-grandchildren, although only a few will survive childhood.
Mrs. Washington adds a codicil to her will, bequeathing the only enslaved person she owns outright to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. In accordance with Virginia law, the remaining enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon, all of whom belonged to the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, will be divided among her four grandchildren upon her death.
Martha Washington becomes seriously ill in early May with a bilious fever. Both the doctor and minister come to care for her, as she makes preparations for her death and burial. She will die at Mount Vernon, surrounded by friends, relatives, and enslaved people, about noon on May 22nd. Her body is laid to rest next to her husband's in the Washington family tomb.
Did you know that unlike most women in Virginia in the early 1700s, Martha Washington learned to read and write? Go beyond the stereotypes and learn more about the life of Martha Washington. From mother to First Lady, learn about her many important roles.Learn More