Washington, Martha (1731–1802)

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Washington, Martha (1731–1802)

First first lady of the United States who, despite the loss of all four of her children, maintained a simple dignity as one of Washington's warmest hostesses. Born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove plantation, on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia; died at Mount Vernon Plantation, Fairfax County, Virginia, on May 22, 1802; daughter of John Dandridge (a planter) and Frances (Jones) Dandridge; taught by tutors and parents at home; married Daniel Parke Custis (died 1757), on May 15, 1750 (some sources cite 1749); married George Washington, on January 6, 1759 (died 1799); children (first marriage) Daniel Parke Custis II (b. 1751, died in infancy); Frances Parke Custis (b. 1753, died in infancy); Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (1754–1773); John "Jacky" or "Jackie" Parke Custis (1755–1781).

Inherited one-third of large estate (dower right) upon first husband's death (1757); courted by George Washington (spring 1758); married to Washington (January 1759); became mistress of Mount Vernon plantation; spent winters at Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War; lived at the nation's capitals during Washington's presidency (1789–97), New York (1789–90), and Philadelphia (1789–97); was responsible for management of Mount Vernon and the other plantations of George Washington after his death (1799–1802).

Martha Washington's simple dignity, devotion to her husband and family, and acceptance of public duty exemplified the virtues extolled by Americans during the era of the founding of a new nation. Giving much attention to domestic concerns, she was always the supportive wife and discreet in social functions so as not to say or do anything that might be of embarrassment to her husband.

Martha Dandridge was the eldest of eight children of Colonel John Dandridge and Frances Jones Dandridge . Although the Dandridges did not rank among the first tier of Virginia gentry, Martha could boast a distinguished lineage. Her great-grandfather, Reverend Rowland Jones, immigrated from England, and became the first rector of Bruton Parish Church, and her grandfather Orlando Jones served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1715, John Dandridge, Martha's father, came to Virginia at age 15, and by 1730 owned 500 acres on the south bank of the Pamunkey River, where he built Chesnut Grove, a two-story frame house, with chimneys at each end and a hip roof. John Dandridge and Frances Jones were married on July 22, 1730. John evidently had a basic education, for he was clerk of the New Kent County Court for 25 years and also vestryman for St. Peter's Church. Martha's mother Frances must have received some learning, since her father possessed one of the largest libraries in the colony. Learning from her parents and probably also from itinerant tutors, Martha acquired the rudiments of reading and writing and useful knowledge of household management, cooking, and needlework. She learned how to play the spinet, and in later years instructed family members how to play it. Like all young ladies of the time brought up in proper society, she mastered dancing—the minuets, quadrilles, and country dances.

Despite her family being of moderate means, Martha had opportunity to mingle in the company of Virginia's elite. With light brown hair and hazel eyes, though a bit on the plump side, she was considered a very attractive young woman. Important genteel families lived in her neighborhood, and her own home was only 30 miles from the colonial capital at Williamsburg. The Dandridges hobnobbed with the best of families. Thus, Martha could expect to attract attention from any of a number of prospective suitors. At age 15, she met Daniel Parke Custis. Daniel was the son of Colonel John Custis, one of the wealthiest men in the colony and a member of the governor's council. A romance developed between Martha and Daniel, who was still a bachelor and old enough to be her father. Colonel Custis disapproved of marriage between the two, because the Dandridge estate was too small. Daniel, a dutiful son and not wishing to lose an inheritance, bent to the wishes of his father. But, after skillful diplomacy by friends who momentarily caught the old colonel in the right mood, consent to the marriage was finally obtained. Eighteen-year-old Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis, age 38. When John Custis died on November 22, 1749, either before or shortly after the wedding, Daniel inherited the bulk of the estate, which included five plantations (17,000 acres), the White House (the family homestead), and also Six Chimney House in Williamsburg.

Martha and Daniel had seven blissful years, during which four children were born. Daniel Parke Custis II (b. 1751) and Frances Parke Custis (b. 1753) died in infancy. Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis was born in 1754, and John "Jacky" Parke Custis the next year. When Daniel Parke Custis died of a heart attack on July 8, 1757, age 45 and nine months, he died intestate, which meant under Virginia law that Martha inherited outright one-third of the estate, and, as sole executrix, acted in trust for the administration of the rest of the estate until the two surviving children reached their majority. Martha, at age 26, was probably the richest widow in Virginia.

In spring 1758, while visiting the neighboring plantation of Richard Chamberlayne, Martha met George Washington, who was on his way to Williamsburg to consult a doctor for dysentery and other ailments he had contracted while serving in the military campaign against the French along the Pennsylvania frontier. A wealthy planter, Colonel Washington had already achieved a most respected reputation as commander of Virginia's armed forces, and recently had been elected burgess for the Virginia Assembly. Washington soon returned to the theater of war, but after victory over the French in November 1758, he resigned his commission and returned to Virginia. On January 6, 1759, Martha and George were married at the Custis homestead. After the wedding, the couple resided at the Six Chimney House in Williamsburg while Washington attended the legislative session. Thereafter, they lived at Washington's Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon, which Washington was leasing from Ann Fairfax Washington , the widow of his half-brother Lawrence Washington, and which became his sole possession upon her death in 1761. According to the law of the time, Washington now also controlled all of Martha's property under her dower rights, and eventually, upon the death of Martha's two other children, the whole of the Daniel Parke Custis estate. Besides Mount Vernon, Washington owned several other plantations. On June 12, 1759, he wrote the English firm of Capel & Osgood Hanbury: "I must now desire that you will please to address all your Letters which relate to the Affairs of the Deceas'd Colo. Custis to me."

Martha kept busy at Mount Vernon, managing the household and supervising domestic production. She often had 16 spinning wheels constantly in motion. Especially, she attended to the curing of meat in the smokehouse. Lund Washington, after a visit to Mount Vernon, wrote George Washington in January 1776 that "Mrs. Washington's charitable disposition increases in the proportion as her meat house." Martha was

deeply religious. She maintained close contact with women friends and relatives. Mount Vernon became known for its hospitality, with visitors staying over almost every day. Martha also looked after the welfare of some 200 slaves.

Family tragedy struck frequently. Within four years, Martha had lost her first husband, two children, and a younger sister; by 1775, five brothers had also died; in 1785, she lost her mother and last brother. The deaths of her last two children in early life would bring unremitting sorrow. George Washington adored the children, Patsy and Jacky, and, though trying hard to be an exacting parent, George, like Martha, was indulgent. It has been said that if George and Martha Washington ever had children on their own (which they did not), George would have been somewhat a failure as a parent. Yet the two Custis children were turning out well, though Jacky was lazy and easy-going, knowing full well that he was to be, and was briefly, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Patsy was an amiable and loving child. As a teenager, she was regarded as a beauty, often referred to as the "dark lady" because of her brunette complexion. At age 17, Patsy died suddenly during one of her epileptic seizures, on June 17, 1773. George Washington wrote: "This sudden, and unexpected blow … has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery."

Washington looked after Jacky's education, putting him in a school conducted by the Reverend Jonathan Boucher in Annapolis, Maryland. Sent to King's College in New York, Jacky was back home after three months. In February 1774, he married Eleanor "Nellie" Calvert of Mount Airy, Maryland. The newlyweds made their home upriver from Mount Vernon at Abingdon and had four children. Jacky would be an aide to his father at the battle of Yorktown. Contracting "camp (typhoid) fever," he would die on November 6, 1781, at age 26. The two youngest of his four children, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (age two) and George Washington Parke Custis (age six months), would be raised by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.

The Revolutionary War brought long separations between Martha and George Washington. Only twice, between 1775 to 1783, did George visit Mount Vernon. Martha, however, regularly visited George at the army's winter encampment. From December 11, 1775, to April 20, 1776, she and her son Jacky stayed with George at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters. The trip was considered somewhat a necessity since it was feared that the royal governor of Virginia would descend upon Mount Vernon with loyalist troops. Such an attempt was made in July 1776, but was repelled by Virginia militia. Martha endured the severe winters at Morristown, Valley Forge, Middlebrook, New Windsor, and Newburgh. She acted as the official host at headquarters, and together with wives of other generals helped to create a society atmosphere, in which there was much dancing. General and Lady Washington (a title that she bore for the rest of her life) had dinner guests daily from the officer corps. Martha once said that she timed her visits to the army between the closing guns of one campaign and the beginning of another. When the war ended, George submitted a bill of £1,064 to Congress for the "lawful" expenses incurred during Martha's sojourns in camp. During the war, she dressed only in clothes spun and woven by servants at Mount Vernon.

Custis, Eleanor "Nellie" Calvert (fl. 1775)

Daughter-in-law of Martha Washington. Name variations: Mrs. John Parke Custis; Nellie Custis. Born Eleanor Calvert in Mt. Airy, Maryland; flourished around 1775; married John "Jacky" Parke Custis, in February 1774; children: (first marriage) Martha Parke Custis (who married Thomas Peter); Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (1779–1852); George Washington Parke Custis (b. 1781), and one other; (second marriage) 16 children.

Eleanor Calvert Custis married John "Jacky" Parke Custis in February 1774; they had four children. Following the death of her husband, Eleanor kept two of her children, her older daughters; the other two were sent to live with her in-laws, George and Martha Washington . Eleanor would later remarry and give birth to 16 more children.

Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke (1779–1852)

Granddaughter of George and Martha Washington who was raised by her grandparents at Mount Vernon . Name variations: Eleanor Custis Lewis; Nelly Custis. Born Eleanor Parke Custis in 1779; died in obscurity on her son's farm in the Shenandoah Valley in March 1852; daughter of John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert Custis; granddaughter of George and Martha Washington; married Lawrence Lewis, on February 22, 1799 (died 1839); children: Francis Parke Lewis; Agnes Lewis; Angela Lewis (d. 1839); Lorenzo Lewis; and four others.

Like her grandmother Martha Washington , Nelly Custis knew sorrow; during her lifetime, she sat bedside for most of the deaths of seven of her eight children. Nelly grew up in the heady atmosphere of the capital, while her step-grandfather George Washington was president of the United States, and leaned heavily on her grandparents. In 1804, on the death of her grandmother, and having already lost two of her children, Nelly wrote to her friend Elizabeth Beale Bordley : "I look back with sorrow, & to the future without hope. It appears to be a dream long passed away, so heavily has time passed to me." In later years, she suffered many illnesses and watched as her husband's poor management ate into their money. Following the death of her husband and daughter in the same year (1839), Nelly went to live with her son Lorenzo on an isolated estate in the Shenandoah Valley. She died there in 1852, having despaired for many years.

suggested reading:

American Heritage. February 1977, pp. 80–85.

Back home after the war, the Washingtons entertained a stream of guests, even strangers. George confided in his diary of June 30, 1785: "Dined with only Mrs. Washington which I believe is the first instance of it since retirement from public life." Retirement at Mount Vernon proved only temporary. Martha had thought that at the end of the war, as she later wrote Mercy Otis Warren , no "circumstances" could possibly "have happened which would call the General into public life again. I had anticipated, that from this moment we should have been left to grow old in solitude and tranquility togather [sic]." George traveled alone to his presidential inauguration in New York City; Martha followed several weeks later with her two grandchildren, being greeted by dignitaries and military honors along the way, culminating with the firing of 13 cannon in New York City. At the nation's capitals, first New York City and then Philadelphia, Martha endured stoically the restraints of being the president's wife. She complained to her niece, Fanny Bassett Washington , in October 1789:

I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town—I Never goe to any publick place, indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from—and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.

Yet Martha made friendships with other women, and occasionally visited them. "We live upon terms of much Friendship & visit each other often," wrote Abigail Adams , wife of the vicepresident. "Mrs. Washington is a most friendly, good Lady, always pleasent and easy." Although always interested in fashion, Martha kept her appearance unpretentious. An Englishman wrote in 1794: "Mrs. Washington struck me as being older than the president. She was extremely simple in dress, and wore her gray hair turned up under a very plain cap." The head covering became a trademark for Martha, who thought it made her look taller and slimmer, but which in reality had the opposite effect. Becoming a little more plump as she aged, Martha also developed a "portly double chin."

While President Washington held an official reception each Tuesday, known as a "levee," for men only, Lady Washington hosted every Friday evening a reception, which she called a "drawing room." This function was an open house, without special invitation, for women and men of prominent political or social connections. Martha remained seated while receiving guests. Tea, coffee, and cakes were served as refreshments. President Washington mingled with the guests.

After the Washingtons came home to stay in 1797, Martha delighted in the domestic life, free from the public limelight. She wrote Lucy Knox , wife of Washington's secretary of war, that "I am again fairly settled down to the plesant duties of an old fashioned Virginia house-keeper, steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and as cheerful as a cricket."

She reminded me of the Roman matrons of whom I had read so much, and I thought that she well deserved to be the companion and friend of the greatest man of the age.

—Peter Stephen Du Ponceau

When George Washington died on December 14, 1799, Martha supposedly said: "Tis well, I have no more trials to pass through, I shall soon follow." By Virginia law, Martha received one-third of the estate, and, according to Washington's will, the "use and benefit" of the entire estate during her lifetime. According to custom, Martha closed off her and George's bedroom, and made her chamber in a small room on the third floor of Mount Vernon. George Washington also decreed that all of his personal slaves would be freed upon Martha's death. Martha, however, did not wait. She granted 123 slaves their freedom on January 1, 1801. Those slaves not freed had been inherited by Martha from her first husband and were partly owned by the children of that marriage.

During her last years, Martha Washington had the company of her two grandchildren and George's nephew Lawrence Lewis. Lawrence and Eleanor Parke Custis were married at Mount Vernon on George Washington's last birthday, February 22, 1799. After George died, Lewis stayed on to manage the estate's farms. Martha continued to receive visitors.

Martha Washington died of a prolonged "severe fever" and was entombed next to her husband at the family vault at Mount Vernon. She left her portions of the estate to the two grandchildren and the nephews and nieces. By George's will, Mount Vernon passed to Bushrod Washington (appointed a Supreme Court justice in 1798), son of George's younger brother, John Augustine Washington, who had predeceased George.

Martha Washington gained admiration from all who knew her. Not born to aristocracy, she attained the height of social status. Still she maintained throughout her life a simple dignity and a plain style in appearance and in her relations with people. Her foremost concern was the welfare of her family. Although not particularly keen of wit, she charmed everyone by the warmth of her personality. As one obituary fittingly said: "The silence of respectful grief is our best eulogy."


Freeman, Douglas S. Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. NY: Scribner, 1949–57.

Thane, Elswyth. Washington's Lady. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1960.

Wharton, Anne H. Martha Washington. NY: Scribner, 1897 (reprint ed., 1967).

suggested reading:

Desmond, Alice C. Martha Washington: Our First Lady. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1942.

Wilson, Dorothy C. Lady Washington. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.


Fields, Joseph E., ed. "Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Jackson, Donald, et al., eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976–79.

Harry M. Ward , Professor of History, University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia, and author of American Revolution/Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788, St. Martin's Press, 1994

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Washington, Martha (1731–1802)

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