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 Washington was the first first lady of the United States and spent about half of the Revolutionary War at the front with General Washington. She helped manage and run her husbands' plantations and raised her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

Childhood

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) and Frances Jones (1710-1785). She was named Martha after one of her cousins.

Her father, John Dandridge was the son of an English merchant and 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.

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.

First Marriage

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: Daniel Custis (1751–1754), Frances Custis (1753–1757), John "Jacky" Parke Custis(1754–1781), and Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis(1756–1773). The eldest two died by the age of four and Martha Washington would outlive all four of her children. 

Daniel's sudden death in 1757 without a will meant that as his widow, Custis had dower rights to the use of one-third of her late husband's estate during her lifetime, while the other two-thirds would go to his children when they reached adulthood or got married. At the death of the widow, her share would be divided among her late husband's remaining heirs. Daniel left an estate of 17,500 acres and almost 300 enslaved people. 

Custis was twenty-six years old and now responsible for managing her late husband's plantation and business interests. She wrote to his agents in England to let them know of his death and that all business issues should come directly to her. 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. The couple, her two children, and several enslaved workers moved to the Washington family plantation, Mount Vernon, at the end of the first week of April 1759.

Mount Vernon and Motherhood

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 raised her two children, Jacky and Patsy, while living the lives of rather typical Virginia planters of the period. During this time period, Washington supervised the education of her children and made sure that the domestic operations on the plantation ran smoothly. She oversaw the domestic staff of hired and enslaved butlers, housekeepers, maids, cooks, waiters, laundresses, spinners, seamstresses, and gardeners.

When Patsy was about 12, she began having seizures, probably a symptom of epilepsy. The Washingtons consulted many doctors and tried an array of medicines and therapies. In 1773, Patsy had a seizure after dinner and died within a few minutes when she was only 17 years old. 

Revolutionary War

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 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 child, John died at Yorktown of camp fever at the age of twenty-seven. He left behind a wife, Eleanor Calvert, and children: Elizabeth "Eliza" Parke Custis Law (1776–1831), Martha "Patty" Parke Custis Peter (1777–1854), Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis Lewis (1779–1852), and George Washington "Washy" Parke Custis (1781–1857).

Grandmother

The next six years were another happy period at Mount Vernon, where the Washingtons raised Johns's two youngest children, Nelly and Washy. 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.

First Lady

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. Regardless of her feelings, she, Nelly, and Washy, along with several enslaved workers joined George Washington in New York. 

Martha Washington settled into the job and became an asset to the president especially with his official entertaining. The couple hosted members of Congress, local politicians, diplomats, and their wives at dinner on Thursdays. On Fridays, Martha presided over a levee or reception, an informal function for both ladies and gentlemen, allowing the president to mingle with guests. 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.

Retirement

After eight years of living in New York and Philadelphia, 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
Research Historian
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

 

Bibliography:

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.

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