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Martha Washington: The first, First Lady of our Nation
Martha started life as the first child of John Dandridge — an English immigrant, and later, a planter and clerk of New Kent County, Virginia — and Frances Jones, of Virginia, on 2 June, 1731. Three sons and five daughters would follow for Mr. and Mrs. Dandridge.
Most women of this era were not schooled and therefore were illiterate. Martha was not one of them. She was privileged to learn to read and write as a young girl. She enjoyed reading and took comfort in it. She would read novels and magazines for amusement and instruction as well as the Bible and other religious literature to improve her intellect.
She was known to be an avid letter writer and many of her letters are still in existence. Sadly, there are not many letters between her and her second husband, George Washington left in existence. It is said that Martha burned nearly all correspondence letters she had exchanged with George a short time before her death. There are a few remaining letters housed in the collections of the Mount Vernon library.
Along with reading and writing, Martha was prepared for management of a plantation, household and family, was taught in the skills of preparing medicinal herbs and folk remedies for common illnesses, and traditional ‘female appropriate activities’ of that era; needlework, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing and etiquette.
Throughout her life, Martha was viewed as an attractive woman. She was said to be strong-willed, yet lovely, charming and quite social. This would prove helpful as her role as the nation’s first lady.
Before she became Mrs. Martha Washington, wife of the first President of the United States of America, she would become Mrs. Martha Dandridge Custis, wife of a plantation manager. Daniel and Martha met at church and later married in 1750 after Daniel’s domineering father John Custis IV finally approved of his marriage choice. Previous bridal choices, and initially, even Martha, were not approved due to insufficient wealth or status on the potential bride’s part and were not permitted to marry into the Custis family. John Custis IV even threatened to disinherit his son if such a marriage were to take place. By waiting to find a wife of whom is father approved, Daniel Parke Custis guaranteed his financial future, the financial future of his heirs and that of his new bride Martha Dandridge.
Martha bore four children, Daniel Parke Custis (1751–1754), Frances Parke Custis (1753–1757), John Parke “Jacky” Custis (1754–1781), Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis (1756–1773). “The children’s great-grandfather had imposed a strict condition on inheritance: only children bearing the name “Parke” as part of their given name would receive a portion of the family estate.” Martha would go on to outlive her husband who died just seven years after their marriage possibly due to him being nearly twenty years her senior.
At age twenty-six, Martha Dandridge Custis had considerable power and prestige and was an attractive, wealthy single mother with two of her surviving children. By way of her own financial security before her marriage to Daniel Custis, and her furthered financial and social status after her husband’s death owning nearly three hundred slaves and more than 17, 500 acres of land, she became quite an attractive mate to many suitors including tall, handsome, powerful military leader, George Washington.
Only a short ten months of courting, less than eighteen months after the death of her first husband, Daniel; Martha and George were married at her New Kent County home. They stayed at Martha’s home for a few months but eventually moved north to George’s home at Mount Vernon. A home he had recently inherited from his elder half-brother, a few years after his brother’s death. George took over role as father to Martha’s two surviving children delighting in doting on them and also taking over the manly duties of the home; finances, overall decisions and such.
Appointed the General of the American Army by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, George Washington traveled much during his marriage to Martha. For the six years of the war, Martha would travel the long distances and when the fighting was at a standstill to be with her husband at his request. During her travels, she was treated very well. Often times, there would be parades to greet her and gifts given to her. She was invited to people’s homes and treated as a special guest. She used her influence to help the troops still fighting. The war was long and through the winter months simply awful. Martha Washington rallied other colonial governors’ wives to encourage homemakers in their colonies to make clothing, socks and blankets for the soldiers. When she traveled to visit her husband, she would deliver these much needed supplies as well as donated food and financial aid. She often comforted and nursed ill or dying soldiers. Her commitment and dedication was very appreciated amongst veterans. Many of them referred to her as Lady Washington.
Travel had become less of a burden to her after her daughter Patsy passed away from a massive epileptic seizure about two years before the war ended and while her son Jacky was away at boarding school.
During the war, Jacky had met a young lady at school. They later married and went on to have four children. Jacky wished to be more involved in the war efforts and through frequent pleas to his Mother and George Washington, was later permitted to be George’s civilian aide. It was during this time that he contracted an illness called camp fever, which he did not recover from. He passed away in 1781, at the age of 26 leaving a wife and four small children. Jacky’s widow and children lived with Martha until she re-married in 1783. The two younger children stayed with Martha and were raised as her own.
Life for Martha and George did not slow down after the end of the American Revolution. George Washington was unanimously named as President of the newly formed United States of America. Upon moving to the temporary national capital for the new government, in New York, Martha ‘First Lady’ Washington was now expected to manage the presidential household, continue supervising domestic affairs in Mount Vernon, rise up to the demands of social life in New York, throw parties, host guests, always look her formal best, maintain her sweet dignified disposition and never falter. The Washingtons needed to be at their best always. They represented the new United States after all. She would be the one to set the example of how the President’s wife should conduct herself.
For eight long years, Martha served as first lady. She longed for the days of calm relaxation. Although she was surrounded by people all the time, she was very lonely. She had left all of her friends and family behind in Virginia. Even after her husband’s presidency ended in 1797, there was not much solitude upon their return to Mount Vernon. Hundreds of American citizens in addition to visiting foreign dignitaries were frequent visitors at Mount Vernon visiting the former president. Often expecting to be entertained and hosted as overnight guests. Unfortunately former President Washington and the first lady did not get much time to enjoy retirement or each other’s company. George Washington passed away on 14 December, 1799.
George and Martha owned hundreds of slaves between the two of them. In accordance to Mr. Washington’s will, all of his 123 slaves were to be set free after Martha’s death. Martha chose instead to free them before her death partly in fear that they may band together and kill her to gain their freedom sooner. George Washington’s slaves gained their freedom on 1 January, 1801.
First Lady Martha Washington’s health declined rapidly after the death of her husband, passing away on 22 May, 1802. None of her children were still alive to receive the substantial inheritance. The Custis land, money and slaves were given to the surviving heirs, Martha’s grandchildren.
Martha’s legacy lived on. Music was composed in her honor, a military ship was baptized the USS Martha Washington. She was the first woman to appear on U.S. currency and on a U.S. postage stamp. Social reform groups named their societies after her.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington is buried alongside her husband, George Washington, at Mount Vernon.