Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
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Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
(Born 1731, died 1802)

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was born at Chestnut Grove in New Kent County, Virginia, on June 2, 1731. Her father, John Dandridge (1700/1701-1756), had emigrated to Virginia from England with his older brother William when John was either 13 or 14 years old. He had settled in New Kent County and had become clerk of the county in 1730, the year he married Martha's mother, Frances Jones (1710-1785) of York County. Frances had some Williamsburg connections; her widowed mother had lived in Williamsburg with her second husband, watchmaker John Flournoy, and her grandfather Rowland Jones (Martha's great-grandfather) had been the first rector of the newly formed Bruton Parish Church from 1674 until his death in 1688.

Martha was the eldest of three brothers and five sisters, the youngest of whom was born when Martha was 25 and had already had four children of her own. Martha married Colonel Daniel Parke Custis in 1750 and lived in his Pumunkey River mansion called White House. Custis managed the large New Kent County plantation of his father, Councillor John Custis, who lived at the brick house known as Custis Square in Williamsburg.

Martha and Daniel Custis had four children: Daniel, born in 1751; Frances, born in 1753; John (Jacky) born in 1755; and Martha (Patsy), born in 1756 or 1757. Unfortunately, Daniel only lived three years and Frances four. On July 26, 1757, when Martha Custis was only 26 years old, her husband died suddenly.

Martha married Colonel George Washington (1732-1799) on January 6, 1759. Washington had been commander of the First Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War and had been elected a burgess representing Frederick County in 1758. He had acquired Mount Vernon by lease from the widow of his half-brother Lawrence in 1754. (He inherited the plantation upon her death in 1761.) Before his marriage, Washington had increased the size of Mount Vernon from the original one and one-half story dwelling to a two and one-half story home. George and Martha Washington and her children Jacky and Patsy moved to Mount Vernon in April 1759.

Mount Vernon remained George and Martha's home until their respective deaths, although they spent much time elsewhere during the war and presidential years. On June 19, 1773, daughter Patsy died at Mount Vernon. The next year, Martha's son John Parke Custis married Eleanor Calvert at her home, Mount Airy in Prince George's County, Maryland. George Washington attended the wedding, but Martha did not travel because of her grief over Patsy's death. Before John's death in 1781, he and Eleanor had five children.

Although Martha remained at Mount Vernon when George went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, she often accompanied him to his headquarters during the war years. She spent the winter of 1775 at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the spring of 1776 she followed him to New York. In the spring of 1777 she arrived at his headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, but she returned to Mount Vernon for the summer. The next winter she joined her husband at Valley Forge, and later she stayed with him during campaigns in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Martha and George Washington raised two of their grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis (called Wash or Tub) at Mount Vernon. Martha's son John Parke Custis died of "camp fever" (probably typhoid fever) on November 5, 1781. When his widow remarried Dr. David Stuart in 1783, she and her two eldest daughters lived at the Stuart home in Abingdon, while the two youngest children continued to live at Mount Vernon. In 1784, Martha's niece Frances Basset, age 15, came to live at Mount Vernon. She married George's nephew, Major George Augustine Washington, in 1785.

George Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789. As the wife of the president, Martha lived with her husband and grandchildren Nelly and Wash in Philadelphia until they returned to Mount Vernon on March 15, 1797. George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. Martha was widowed for two and one-half years until she, too, died on May 22, 1802.

At the age of eighteen, Martha was married to Daniel Parke Custis. He was wealthy, handsome and twenty years older than her. Martha set up housekeeping on the Custis plantation, while her husband managed the estate which encompassed over 17,000 acres. Her husband adored his young, pretty bride and pampered her with the finest clothes and gifts imported from England. They had four children, two died in infancy. John Parke, called "Jacky" and Martha, called "Patsy" were their two surviving children. In 1757, when Martha was twenty-six, Daniel Parke Custis died after a brief illness. Jacky was three and Patsy was less than a year old.

Passing on without a will, Martha was left with the duties of running the household, the estate and raising her children. (Fatherless children were usually "raised" under the auspices of a guardian, even if the mother survived — which meant that another male, primarily a relative, took care of the estates of the children). Her early education proved quite helpful in the task. Her husbands former business manager stayed on to help with the operation of the plantation and she consulted with lawyers when she felt it was necessary.

Sometime later, Martha met a young colonel (several months younger than her) in the Virginia Militia at a cotillion in Williamsburg. This young colonel fought for the British in the French and Indian War. His desire was to become a commissioned officer in the Royal Army, but the British never considered it. His name was George Washington.

Martha fell in love and George found her quite attractive. (That she had a good disposition and inherited wealth were an added bonus to the relationship). He had had a crush on a pretty neighbor, Sally Fairfax, but when she married another, he knew he must find a suitable wife for himself.

Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from an ordinary planter to a substantially wealthy landowner. He had resigned his commission in the militia and so, George, Martha, Jacky (4), and Patsy (2) moved into the enlarged and remodeled Mt. Vernon. Martha was careful and conscientious in running her home, although she and her husband did not pinch pennies when it came to caring for their home. Her children were denied nothing. She pampered and lavished attention and expensive gifts on them.

They lived well at first, but subsequent bad crop returns over a number of years began to take their toll on their finances. They continued their style of living, however, and the constant stream of visitors to entertain did not help their sagging bank account.

When the children were eight and six years of age, a Mr. Walter Magowen was hired as their tutor. At the age of twelve, Patsy had an epileptic seizure and as her condition worsened, she could no longer study. Mr. Magowen left for England soon after Patsy became ill and Jacky was sent to Boucher School in Caroline County (Boucher was moved to Annapolis in 1770). He was an indifferent student, interested more in having fun than being studious. A proposed trip for Jacky was refused by his stepfather because he felt Jacky was too immature, and their finances couldn't handle the expense. He was sent to King's College in New York instead. While there, he met Eleanor "Nelly" Calvert and they got engaged. Soon after he had left for New York, Patsy died at the age of 17. Martha was devastated, but told Jacky to remain in school. By December, Jacky wanted to return to Mt. Vernon, and on the way, on February 3, 1774, Jacky and Nelly were wed at Nelly's home Mt. Airy in Maryland, before heading further south.

Around the same time, the political unrest in the colonies was becoming more vocal. The colonists were being burdened with an inordinate amount of taxes and levies. Some of the friends and acquaintances of Martha and George, people who were visitors to their home, were soon to become the Founding Fathers. Martha herself was considerably torn. Her friends and family were split on both sides. Her son's in-laws were loyalists as well as some of their neighbors. George, however, felt it was his duty to assume some role of leadership at the urging of some of his fellow patriots. He began by working on recruiting and training an armed force. Militia were organized by state. Realizing he would have to be away from home, he asked Jacky and Nelly to stay at Mt. Vernon with Martha, which they did.

George Washington soon became the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and he took charge of his army at Cambridge, Massachusetts in the winter of 1775. Martha, Jacky, Nelly, and some friends traveled two weeks to be with him there for Christmas. Martha stayed with him until June of 1776, but the others returned home soon after Christmas. She wouldn't see him again until March of 1777, where the army was encamped at Morristown for the winter. The General was feeling ill and his wife was there to nurse him. He sent her home when the fighting got closer.

At Mt. Vernon, Martha gathered her family to get the smallpox iffy project because you could contract the disease and die anyway. Martha would not rejoin her husband until February of 1778, where she joined him at Valley Forge. There she entertained some of the officers and the other wives who shared winter quarters there.

Jacky was becoming restless at home, and volunteered to become an aide to his stepfather. He was enlisted only a few days when he died on November 5, 1781 of "camp fever." Jacky was the last of Martha's children and she was quite distraught. George told her to stay at Mt. Vernon instead of being with him that winter. By this time, Jacky and Nelly had six children: Eliza Parke Custis, Martha Parke Custis, Eleanor Parke Custis, a set of twins who died and George Washington Parke Custis. Nelly was in poor health after the birth of her own Nelly and as a result, the young baby was sent to Mt. Vernon to be nursed. With the birth and death of the twins and the subsequent birth of George Washington Parke Custis, he joined his sister at Mt. Vernon.

The war ended on November 25, 1783, when the British left their last stronghold. Washington said farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York, shopped for gifts for his grandchildren in Philadelphia and resigned his commission in Annapolis (temporary home of Congress). On Christmas Eve, he rode into Mt. Vernon.

Martha's daughter-in-law soon remarried a widower, Dr. Stuart, who had set up practice in Alexandria. Young Nelly and Wash would imminently be leaving Mt. Vernon to live with their mother. Due to some confusion in guardianship and Martha's own distress at losing her grandchildren, the children ended up staying at Mt. Vernon.

Martha resumed her housekeeping career, as well as entertaining and caring for her grandchildren. Guests were constantly streaming in and out of their home. She became ill in 1785, the same year her mother and brother died. George hired several tutors until Tobias Lear was hired as tutor for the children and as secretary to George Washington, which lessened some of Martha's duties.

The Constitutional Convention was convening and George traveled to take part. He was named president of the convention and before ratification of the new Constitution, he was being urged to accept the role of the President of the United States. He returned to Mt. Vernon. Both he and Martha realized that he would be President by the beginning of 1789. In April, he was elected unanimously by the Electoral College.

George and Martha had to apply for a loan to pay for the move to New York — the temporary capital. George arrived first and his inaugural ball was held before Martha could be with him. Martha and her grandchildren were hailed with fanfare all the way to New York. It was all a bit overwhelming for her. Her duties included not only the operation of her own house, but planning and arranging formal dinners, parties and receptions.

They fell into a pattern of routine with the President holding open receptions to any clean respectable males on Tuesday afternoons. Martha had her own receptions on Fridays open to both men and women. Sundays were family days, first going to church at St. Paul's and various outings with the grandchildren in the afternoons.

The first year they moved twice. Once to a larger home in New York on Broadway and the second time, in November, to Philadelphia, to await the completion of the new capital on the Potomac River. Martha loved Philadelphia, as did her grandchildren. She had a number of old friends and acquaintances there with whom she could attend parties and the theater with.

Nelly and Wash were raised much like Patsy and Jacky had been, and were similar in temperament to their father and aunt. Wash, in fact, hated school as much as his father had. Nelly was very pretty, popular and was very close to her grandmother and step-grandfather.

George Washington was elected to a second term which was somewhat difficult for him when war broke out between France and England. His desire was for the United States to remain neutral and others in the government felt aid should be given to France. As a result, Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton threatened to submit his resignation. By August, a severe epidemic of Yellow Fever spread over Philadelphia. The First Family traveled to Mt. Vernon until cold weather hit the city and ended the disease.

March 4, 1797 was the day that George Washington gave his farewell to Congress and the Washingtons soon returned home to Mt. Vernon. They celebrated George's sixty-seventh birthday with a wedding ceremony. Young Nelly married his nephew, Lawrence Lewis. They lived at Mt. Vernon until they were given a portion of land of Mt. Vernon and their home, Woodlawn.

After riding the grounds of Mt. Vernon one day, George returned home with a severe cold. He died December 14, 1799. Martha was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral. Upon his death, she closed the door to their bed chamber and moved herself to a tiny, plain garret chamber on the third floor of the mansion, directly over Nelly's bedroom. Twenty days before her beloved grandfathers death, Nelly gave birth to her first child, Frances Parke Lewis. She was unable to be with him in his final hours. The baby was a joy to Martha, and lessened the pain, somewhat, of her grief.

The will of George Washington ordered the freedom of half of his slaves, leaving the old and the young to remain. Martha freed them all in 1800. Her own health was deteriorating and in March of 1802, sensing her death, she made a will. She then burned all her letters she and her husband had written to one another over the years, except for two.

May 22, 1802, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington breathed her last with her beloved granddaughter Nelly nearby. She was entombed next to her husband at Mt. Vernon.

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

"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..." So in one of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded that "many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her place; she would "much rather be at home."

But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.

Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household and how to keep a family contented.

As a girl of 18--about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner--she married the wealthy Daniel Park Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.

From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband's; but, as 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." As for herself, "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."

At the President's House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha's warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in "formal compliments and empty ceremonies" and declared that "I am fond of only what comes from the heart." Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as "one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem."

In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. Martha's daughter Patsy had died, her son Jack at 26, but Jack's children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of "severe fever" on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Martha Washington's Gown

Martha Washington's gown, 1780s
Made of salmon pink faille, Mrs. Washington's dress features a handpainted pattern of flowers and insects. It was first displayed in the original First Ladies Hall, which opened in the Arts and Industries Building in 1914. On loan for many years, the dress became part of the permanent collections in 1929 and remains on view today in the current first ladies exhibition.

Smithsonian Legacies

Martha Washington

Martha Washington / published by L. Prang.

Fabronius, Dominique C., lithographer.

Boston : published by L. Prang & Co., c1864.

Martha Washington, bust portrait, facing slightly right.

Copyright by L. Prang & Co.

After a painting by Gilbert Stuart.

Washington and his Family

Washington and his Family
By Thomas Sully.
Washington is shown leaving his home. Martha Washington and her two grandchildren (Eleanor Parke Curtis and George Washington Parke Curtis) are bidding him good-bye. Two servants, one holding Washington's hat and coat and the other bringing up his horse, are seen in the background.
Oil on canvas. L 91.4, 73.7 cm
Morristown National Historical Park, MORR 3238