The Roles of Martha Washington
Learn more about the many roles Martha Washington played throughout her life.
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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.
Dandridge's education was typical for a girl of her class at the time and stressed housekeeping, religion, music, and dancing, skills that would be useful in her expected role as the wife of a Virginia plantation owner.
The eldest of eight children, she was named Martha after one of her cousins. Her father, John Dandridge immigrated to America in 1714 with his older brother, Colonel William Dandridge. After arriving in North America, John Dandridge served as the clerk of New Kent County, a colonel in the county militia, and also as a vestryman and warden of his parish church. Martha Washington's mother was Frances Jones, the daughter of a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
In her late teens, Martha Dandridge caught the eye of Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy Virginia planter twenty years her senior. Custis' father initially opposed the marriage, viewing the prospective bride's family as not being wealthy enough. He finally gave his consent, however, and the two were married in May of 1750.
In their seven years together the couple had four children, two of whom died as toddlers. Daniel's sudden death in 1757 left Martha as the wealthiest widow in Virginia with a 17,500 acre estate to manage and two very young children to raise alone, at the age of just twenty-six. Several men, including a militia officer less than a year younger than herself named George Washington, began courting her the next year. She married Washington on January 6, 1759, and moved to his family home of Mount Vernon several months later.
The next sixteen years of Martha Washington's life were largely spent at Mount Vernon. While the Washingtons had no children of their own, they were busy raising Martha's two surviving children, John ("Jack") Parke Custis and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis, while living the lives of rather typical Virginia planters of the period.
During this time period, Martha Washington supervised the education of her children and made sure that the domestic operations on the plantation ran smoothly. Her sphere included everything from the physical care and housing of guests, to cleaning, food production and service, the making of textiles on the estate, and the production of slave clothing. Some of the happiness of these years was tempered by the chronic illness of her daughter who suffered from epilepsy, and died one afternoon in the summer of 1773 when she was only seventeen after having a seizure.
Martha Washington's world expanded immeasurably during the American Revolution, an event that she strongly supported. After having lived her entire life in Virginia, this rather sheltered woman in her mid-forties found herself traveling to other parts of the country for all eight years of the war in order to spend time at George Washington's winter quarters.
Martha Washington also served a symbolic role for the American people during the Revolution: children were named after her, at least two ships bore her name, and an engraved portrait of her was produced for sale. Much of the happiness of the military victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, however, was drowned out by the loss of her only remaining son, who died at Yorktown of camp fever at the age of twenty-seven.
The next six years were another happy period at Mount Vernon, where the Washingtons raised Martha's late son's two youngest children, Eleanor ("Nelly") Parke Custis and George Washington ("Washy") Parke Custis. While much about this time paralleled the years before the war, there were differences. Although theoretically retired, George Washington was now a figure of international renown and the couple found themselves hosting not just friends but also hundreds of guests each year from all over the country and the world.
In 1789, George Washington was again called to serve his country, this time in the role of its first President. Martha Washington was initially reluctant to go back into public life, because of the restrictions placed on her in the role of First Lady. She settled into the job, however, and became an asset to the President in his official entertaining. A warm and friendly person, she was a good balance to her rather reserved spouse, and the relative informality of her weekly Friday night levees gave those who attended their only opportunity to freely socialize with the President. During these years, she was deeply troubled by criticism of her husband in the press and by other political leaders, and took political attacks against him very personally.
Eight years later, the Washingtons retired for good to their beloved Mount Vernon. George Washington passed away after just two years, leaving his widow devastated by his loss and confiding to everyone she met that she herself was ready to join him in death. During this time period she burned forty years of correspondence with her husband, seemingly as a way of protecting their privacy.
After an illness of several weeks duration in the spring of 1802, Martha Washington died at home on May 22, surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was eulogized in newspapers throughout the country as "the worthy partner of the worthiest of men."
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. New York: Viking, 2005.
Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. New York: Wiley, 2002.
Washington, Martha. Joseph E. Fields, ed. Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.