Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was the wife of George Washington, first president of the United States. The term “First Lady” would not be used until much later, but Martha is considered to be the first First Lady.
On June 2, 1731, Martha Dandridge was born in New Kent County, Virginia. She was the eldest of eight children (three boys, five girls) born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones. John Dandridge most likely had two illegitimate children, one born to one of his slaves, giving Martha two half siblings.
Not much is known about Martha’s childhood as there are no diaries or letters that were saved. She was raised as a member of the Church of England and was taught reading and writing at a young age. Most girls were not taught either of those growing up. Her mother most likely taught her many other things such as sewing and whatever she would need for when she was married.
Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Washington were noted to have first met at the church. His father, John Custis IV was one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia at the time. Custis had been born in 1711, so about twenty years older than Martha. John Custis was very strict when it came to his children and had not allowed his son to wed even though he was in his late thirties.
Eventually, despite John disapproving of the two of them being together, Martha won him over with her personality. She had arranged to meet with him in hopes he would allow her to marry his son. Daniel Custis had been fond of Martha for quite some time by then.
Martha married Daniel on May 15, 1750 when she was nearly nineteen. Daniel was thirty-eight. His father had recently passed, giving him the title of one of the most wealthy men in the colony. Martha quickly moved in with him at his estate, which was called the White House.
Now, Martha was not only mistress of the Household, but also mistress of the household slaves. Daniel owned nearly three hundred slaves. Martha oversaw the twelve household slaves. He provided his wife with the most lavish and exquisite items, such as the nicest gowns made of the finest silks and so much more.
On September 19, 1751, a bit over a year after their wedding, Martha gave birth to a son they named Daniel Parke Custis. Their second child, a daughter they named Frances, was born on April 12, 1753. Frances would soon die on April 1, 1757 and Daniel on February 19, 1754. Later that same year of Daniel’s death, John “Jacky” Parke Custis was born on November 27, 1754. Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis was born in 1756.
Not long after Frances’s death, Martha’s husband grew very ill. Martha did whatever she could to keep him alive, but he died on July 8, 1757 at 45 years of age. With two young children, one only a year old, Martha was widowed at 26.
Devastated over her husband’s death, Martha gained support and comfort from her siblings, most of which lived nearby. She would also have to be the one to pay over her husband’s debts because he had not written a will. Martha was granted a third of her husband’s estate though. The other two-thirds would be given to Jacky and Patsy once they were old enough.
Unlike many women, Martha was able to overcome her grief and take charge of the Custis household. She worked hard to oversee her husband’s three-hundred slaves and to make sure the work was done and the tobacco was exported. Martha also had to care for her two young children.
George Washington, a young Virginian who was about six months Martha’s junior, made his way to the Custis estate on March 16, 1758. He returned to visit Martha once again on March 25. After that, he had to go back to his duties in the military. The two quickly began to plan for marriage in the future. Washington worked hard to make sure his home was suitable and Martha was noted to have purchased fine silks for the wedding.
On January 6, 1759, the two married. Martha had not even been widowed for two years. Washington became Jacky and Patsy’s legal guardian and took over Martha’s land at the Custis estate. He had also recently become the owner of his brother’s Mount Vernon estate. He was shot up to one of the wealthiest men in Virginia with both estates.
In April, Martha, Washington, and the children left the Custis estate for Mount Vernon. Martha also brought her twelve household slaves with her. Originally, it was hard for her to move away from her family members, but was ready to start over with a new husband. The two showed much affection and admiration to each other. Washington was notably careful to make sure his new wife was always pleased. The two were a very social couple, often holding dinner parties and dances at their home.
Martha loved her children very much and tended to their every needs. Washington loved the children as well, often having the newest, best toys imported from overseas. However, the couple did not have any children together. Martha had always been fond of children because of her seven younger brothers and sisters.
Martha and Washington worked hard to ensure the children received the best education possible. Martha was also very careful when it came to her children becoming ill after losing two of her other children. Patsy, at twelve, started having seizures frequently. Martha did whatever she could to try and treat the growing epilepsy, but there was no cure. The seizures only grew worse. Patsy died at seventeen years old on June 19, 1773 after her worse seizure yet. Martha was devastated.
Jacky had been sent to boarding school five years before the death of his sister in 1768. There, he met the young Eleanor Calvert through a friend of his. Him and Eleanor were engaged secretly before he had to leave for college. Originally, Washington did not want Jacky to marry her, but Martha did. The couple married on February 3, 1774. Eleanor was sixteen and Jacky nineteen. During their marriage, they had four children and split their time between Mount Vernon and the Calvert household. Jacky died on November 5, 1781 shortly before his twenty-seventh birthday due to an illness. Martha now having lost all four of her children and her first husband, was more grief stricken than ever.
Her husband was soon named Commander-in-Chief of the new army when war between Britain and the colonies broke out. Both their lives were now in danger, especially because Martha had been seen as a symbol of patriarchy. Washington, in fear that his wife would be kidnapped, made her leave their estate to stay with different relatives in safety.
Martha would often spend time with her husband when he was camped with his troops. She greatly enjoyed being able to entertain his husband and his men. She became close friends with Lucy Knox, General Henry Knox’s wife, and the wife of General Nathanael Greene, Kitty Greene. Martha also helped to fundraise money for the war.
Because her husband was being sent off to war, she had to make the sacrifice of possibly losing him. Not only that, but her son Jacky also wanted to join his step-father’s side. When he joined the army, he quickly became ill which led to his death.
After the war and her son’s death, Martha helped Eleanor in raising her four children. Eleanor remarried in 1783, leaving two of her children (Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis and George Washington Parke) with Martha in Mount Vernon.
When her husband was elected president, Martha made her way to New York with her two grandchildren and seven of her household slaves. She led a busy life as the new president’s wife. Even with the two grandchildren she had to raise, Martha had to be kept in the public eye and stay very social. Every Friday evening, a reception for anyone who wished to attend was held at the White House, too. Martha gained the titles “Lady Washington” and “Lady Presidentess.”
The capitol changed from New York City to Philadelphia in 1791. Martha was noted to have become much more comfortable with her role. In Philadelphia she was able to reunite with many old friends she had met during the war. But that didn’t stop her from wishing to return to Mount Vernon. She was quite thankful when her husband announced not to run a third time so they could return home. Martha was nearly 60.
Martha was often ill after she returned home. There was much work to be done at the estate to keep it in good shape after being gone for so long. This made Martha’s health decline even more so. Her eldest grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis, or Wash, soon left for college.
In February of 1799, Nelly married a nephew of Washington’s. The two stayed with Martha and Washington for a while as their home was being built. Martha’s two other granddaughters who were already married with children, Martha Parke Custis and Elizabeth Parke Custis, were also very close with her. However, they did not share the same relationship with Martha as Nelly did with their grandmother. After all, Martha had pretty much raised Nelly as her own.
When John Adams was elected, he appointed Washington in case of army with the French as Commander-in-Chief of the Provisional Army. Luckily, war never broke out between the two countries. This was especially lucky for Martha who had already lost so many of her loved ones.
Not even three years of being back home in comfort, George Washington died on December 14, 1799. It was quite unexpected and sudden after his throat had been badly infected. Martha, devastated beyond repair, refused to live in her and Washington’s bedroom because of the pain. She made her quarters in a much smaller room on a different floor.
So Martha spent as much time as possible with her grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. She tried to make her life as happy as she could after losing so many of her loved ones.
George Washington’s slaves were to be freed once Martha died, however. The slaves, anxiously awaiting freedom, were rumored to have attempted to attempted setting the estate on fire. Martha was now fearful for her safety and had them all released immediately.
On May 22, 1802, Martha Washington passed away only shortly before reaching the age of 71. She was at the estate when she passed. Her health had been declining more and more after her husband’s death, perhaps because of all the grief and heartbreak she had lived through.