Martha Washington Juvenile/Educational Biography
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
June 2, 1731 – May 22, 1802
The nation’s first First Lady Martha Washington was born on June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, near Williamsburg. She was a first generation American on her father’s side and the oldest child of Frances Jones Dandridge and John Dandridge, a well-to-do planter and the clerk of New Kent County. Three brothers and five sisters followed in rapid succession. Like most young women of her day, Martha received little in the way of formal education. She was trained at home in the “domestic arts” of music, sewing, and household management. Her later skills in plantation management, crop sales, homeopathic medicine, and animal husbandry suggests what one biographer calls a “wider education” or perhaps a quick mind that soaked up information and questioned what went on around her. As was the custom of the day, she was probably tutored by an indentured servant of the Dandridge family, Thomas Leonard, and received regular tutoring at a nearby plantation, Poplar Grove. And it was reported that she was an excellent horsewoman.
In 1750, before her 19th birthday, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis who managed the New Kent plantation of his father Councilor John Custis of Williamsburg. They lived at the mansion called “White House.” Daniel was twenty years older than Martha. The couple had four children, only 2 of which lived to young adulthood, John Parke “Jacky” Custis and Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis. When Daniel died after only seven years of marriage, Martha was a very wealthy woman. She received independent control of her dower inheritance as well as trustee control of her husband’s inheritance for their minor children. She was also a very powerful woman not only because of her wealth but also because of her social position. As one biographer has noted, we have evidence of her business abilities in the letters sent to London merchants who handled the exporting of the vast Custis tobacco crop output.
Two years later, the young widow met Colonel George Washington of the Virginia militia. George had served as commander of the First Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War and a former member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from Frederick County. Martha decided within days of their meeting that they were perfectly suited. The two were married on January 6, 1759, in the front parlor of the Custis estate, White House. Although the couple did not have children together, George assumed guardianship of her son and daughter. When Jacky died in 1781 during the siege of Yorktown, the Washingtons brought his two children, George Washington Parke “Wash” Custis and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, to live with them at Mount Vernon. In addition, George and Martha provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews, and other family members over the years.
Shortly after their marriage, George resigned his commission in the colonial arm of the British military due to the British policy that denied colonials any command opportunities with the regular British Army. The two lived at Mount Vernon, an estate they initially leased from his half-brother Lawerence’s widow and later inherited upon her 1761 death. These were happy years for the couple. Martha spent considerable time directing the large staff of slaves and servants and overseeing the harvesting, preparing, and preserving of herbs, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy products for use on the estate. George oversaw all financial transactions related to their combined holdings. They were a formidable team.
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, George became Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Each winter, when the military action slowed because of bad weather and difficult housing conditions, Martha would join her husband in camp as did many other officers’ wives. This period of military inactivity coincided with agricultural inactivity, freeing her from responsibilities at Mount Vernon. In fact, during the bitter winter of 1777-78, often referred to as the Valley Forge winter, Martha was in camp with George. Her concern for his men—the starving, the ragged, the sick and dying, tugged at her heart. She organized the other officers’ wives in camp to join her in doing what they could to ease the soldiers’ conditions. They patched clothing, knitted socks, and made warm shirts. In gratitude, the soldiers called her “Lady Washington.”
Although Martha preferred their private life at Mount Vernon, she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country. …I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” It was during this time that her only son, Jacky, died at Yorktown, probably of typhus.
The couple longed to return to private life at Mount Vernon; however, the fledgling nation called on George to lead the new government of the United States of America. He was the only president named unanimously, and as a result, there was no election campaign. Although Martha was unable to attend his April 30, 1789 inaugural ceremony in the first capital city of New York, she followed the route he had traveled the month before. Everywhere “Lady Washington” was received as a public figure in her own right. She was present for his second inaugural on March 4, 1793 in Philadelphia; however, she took no public role in the ceremonies.
Martha did not care for the pomp and ceremony called for by her new role as First Lady. She viewed it, however, as her duty and as such she performed it to perfection. She held formal dinners on Thursdays and public receptions on Fridays. There are no records that indicate that she attempted to influence public policy. She was criticized for the formality of her public receptions; many citizens felt that they invoked the rigidity of the European courts the Revolution had sought to escape. However, the Revolutionary War veterans loved her and many were aided individually by her generosity.
It is reported that Martha was relieved when her husband’s Administration ended with his second term, even though he was asked to remain in office. They retired to Mount Vernon and assumed again the life of plantation owner and Virginian. She reportedly wrote to a friend, “The General and I feel like children just released from school.” George lived to enjoy only two years of retirement. He died on December 14, 1799, and was buried at Mount Vernon. Their slaves were promised freedom upon Martha’s death. Martha continued to welcome political figures to Mount Vernon as they came to pay their respects to her and to visit George’s burial place. The federal government requested that she permit his remains to be interred at the United States Capitol Building; however, the plan was never activated. Martha was buried beside her beloved George at Mount Vernon.