Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 on her parents’ plantation Chestnut Grove in the British colony, Province of Virginia. She was the oldest daughter of John Dandridge (1700–1756), a Virginia planter and English immigrant, and Frances Jones (1710–1785) of English, Welsh, and French descent. Martha had three brothers and four sisters: John (1733–1749), William (1734–1776), Bartholomew (1737–1785), Anna Marie “Fanny” Dandridge Bassett (1739–1777), Frances (1744–1757), Elizabeth Dandridge Aylet Henley (1749–1800), and Mary Dandridge (1756–1763).
She may have had an illegitimate half-sister, Ann Dandridge Costin (years of birth and death unknown), who was born into slavery; Ms. Costin’s enslaved mother was African and Cherokee and her father was believed to be John Dandridge. Mr. Dandridge may also have fathered an out-of-wedlock half-brother of Ms. Costin’s named Ralph Dandridge (years of birth and death unknown), who was probably white.
On May 15, 1750, at age 18, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis, a rich planter two decades her senior. They lived at White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River, a few miles upriver from Chestnut Grove. She had four children with him: Daniel, Frances, John, and Martha. Daniel (1751–1754) and Frances (1753–1757), died in childhood. Their two other children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754–1781) and Martha (“Patsy”) Parke Custis (1756–1773), survived to young adulthood. Martha’s husband’s death in 1757 left Martha a rich young widow at age 25, with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime, including properties, slaves, and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children. “She capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices.”
Martha Dandridge Custis, age 27, and George Washington, age nearly 27, married on January 6, 1759, at the White House plantation. As a man who lived and owned property in the area, Washington likely knew both Martha and her late husband for some time before his death. During March of 1758 he visited her twice at White House; the second time he came away with either an engagement of marriage or at least her promise to think about his proposal. At the time, she was also being courted by the planter Charles Carter, who was even wealthier than Washington.
The wedding was grand. Washington’s suit was of blue and silver cloth with red trimming and gold knee buckles. The bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles, which are occasionally displayed at Mount Vernon. The couple honeymooned at White House for several weeks before setting up house at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. They appeared to have had a solid marriage. Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha’s two surviving children. Her daughter, nicknamed Patsy, died as a teenager during an epileptic seizure, classed as SUDEP. John (Jackie) Custis returned from college to comfort his mother.
Custis later married and had children; he served as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War. He died of “camp fever” (probably epidemic typhus). After his death, the Washingtons raised two of John’s four children, Eleanor Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 – July 15, 1852), and George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 – October 10, 1857). They also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.
Content to live a private life at Mount Vernon and her homes from the Custis estate, Martha Washington followed Washington to his winter encampments for each of eight years. She helped keep up morale among the officers. After the war, she opposed his agreeing to be President of the newly formed United States of America, and refused to attend his inauguration (April 30, 1789). Once he came to office, as the First Lady, Mrs. Washington hosted many affairs of state at New York and Philadelphia during their years as temporary capitals. (The capital was moved to Washington D. C. in 1800 under the Adams administration, following construction of the Capitol and White House).
Washington has traditionally been seen as a small, frumpy woman, who spent her days at the Revolutionary War winter encampments visiting with the common soldiers in their huts. But Nancy Loane, author of Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, says there is no evidence that Washington visited with the common soldiers. She notes that Washington was fashionably dressed, assertive, and a woman of great wealth and independent means. She joined her husband for eight years during the Revolution for the winter encampment of the Continental Army. Before the revolution began, she had kept close to home; during it, she traveled thousands of miles to be with her husband. (Martha Washington journeyed to the General because she supported the cause of freedom and also because, as General Lafayette once observed, she loved “her husband madly”).
The Continental Army settled in Valley Forge, the third of the eight winter encampments of the Revolution, on December 19, 1777. Martha Washington traveled ten days and hundreds of miles to join her husband in Pennsylvania. Primary documents of the Revolutionary period refer to Lady Washington’s activities at the site.
Martha Washington took her familiar role as her husband’s hostess at camp. On April 6, Elizabeth Drinker and three friends arrived at Valley Forge to plead with General Washington to release their husbands from jail; the men, all Quakers, had refused to swear a loyalty oath to the United States. Because the commander was not available at first, the women visited with Mrs. Washington. Drinker described her later in her diary as “a sociable pretty kind of Woman.” Although unable to satisfy the women’s demands, General Washington invited them to dine at headquarters that day. Drinker said the dinner with General and Mrs. Washington and fifteen officers was “elegant” but “soon over.”
Martha Washington also socialized with the wives of the senior officers at Valley Forge. Years later, Pierre DuPonceau, an aide to Baron von Steuben, recalled that in the evenings the ladies and officers at camp would meet at each other’s quarters for conversation. During these social evenings each lady and gentleman present was “called upon in turn for a song” as they sipped tea or coffee. With the enemy camped nearby in Philadelphia, Washington prohibited dancing and card-playing at Valley Forge. Charles Willson Peale painted a miniature of Washington—for which he charged his usual “56 Dollars”—and presented it to Martha, along with painting other miniatures of Washington. He also painted 50 other officers and their wives that winter.
Lady Washington took part in the camp’s May 6 celebration of the formal announcement of the French-American alliance. Soon after the thunderous feu de joie, when thousands of soldiers fired off their muskets, General Washington and his wife received other officers under a large marquee fashioned from dozens of officers’ tents. General Washington was said to have worn “a countenance of uncommon delight and complacence.” Five days later, on May 11, Martha Washington and the commander attended the camp production of Cato, a favorite of the General’s. The Joseph Addison tragedy was performed by the staff officers for a “very numerous and splendid audience,” including many officers and several of their wives. One officer wrote that he found the performance “admirable” and the scenery “in Taste.”
Following the 1757 death of Martha’s first husband, the widow received a “dower share,” the lifetime use of (and income from) one-third of his estate, with the other two-thirds held in trust for their minor children. The full Custis estate contained plantations and farms totaling about 27 square miles (70 km2), and 285 enslaved men, women, and children attached to those holdings. In 1759, Martha’s dower share included at least 85 slaves; she also would control any children they had, who became part of the dower.
Upon his 1759 marriage to Martha, George Washington became the legal manager of the Custis estate, under court oversight. Estate records indicate that Martha Washington continued to purchase supplies, manage paid staff, and make many other decisions. Although the Washingtons wielded managerial control over the whole estate, they received income only from Martha’s “dower” third. The remainder went to the trust.
Washington used his wife’s great wealth to buy land and slaves; he more than tripled the size of Mount Vernon (2,650 acres (10.7 km2) in 1757; 8,251 acres (33.39 km2) in 1787). For more than 40 years, her “dower” slaves farmed the plantation alongside her husband’s. The Washingtons could not sell Custis land or slaves, which were held in trust first for Martha’s only surviving child John Custis, who died during the Revolution, and then his heirs. Some of slaves owned by the Washingtons married, forming linked families. If the slave mother was part of the dower group of slaves, so too were her children.
Seven of the nine slaves whom President Washington brought to Philadelphia (the national capital, 1790–1800) to work in the President’s House were “dowers.” Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, under which non-residents were allowed to hold slaves in the state for up to 6 months; after that date, they could claim freedom. The Washingtons rotated their President’s House slaves in and out of the state before the 6-month deadline to prevent their establishing residency (and legally qualifying for manumission). Washington reasoned that should the “dowers” attain their freedom due to his negligence, he might be liable to the Custis estate for their value.
Martha Washington was upset when her lady’s maid Oney Judge, a “dower” slave, escaped in 1796 from the Philadelphia household during Washington’s second term. According to interviews with Judge in the 1840s, the First Lady had promised the young woman as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis in Virginia and Judge feared she would never gain freedom. She hid with free black friends in the city, who helped arrange her travel by ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There she married and had three children. Patricia Brady, in her 2005 biography of Martha Washington, writes:
“Martha felt a responsibility for the unsophisticated girl under her care, especially since her mother and sister were expecting to see her back at Mount Vernon. What she could never understand was that [Oney had…] a simple desire to be free. Ona, as she preferred to call herself, wanted to live where she pleased, do what work she pleased, and learn to read and write […] Ona Judge professed a great regard for Martha and the way she had been treated, but she couldn’t face a future as a slave for herself and her children.”
Washington’s slave Hercules, who had worked as his chief cook at the President’s House (Philadelphia) before being returned to Mount Vernon in 1796, escaped from there on February 22, 1797. He was known to have traveled to Philadelphia and by December 1801 was living in New York City. His six-year-old daughter, still enslaved at Mount Vernon, told a visitor that she was glad her father was free. By 1799 the number of Martha Washington’s “dower” slaves had grown to 153; George Washington owned 124 people, and at least a dozen Washington-owned slaves intermarried. Washington’s will stipulated that his own slaves were to be set free after his wife’s death so that intermarried families would not be broken up.
Martha freed Washington’s slaves on January 1, 1801, just over a year after his death. Abigail Adams, wife of the second President, had visited Mount Vernon two weeks earlier, and wrote: “Many of those who are liberated have married with what are called the dower Negroes, so that they all quit their [family] connections, yet what could she do?” Mrs. Adams suggested a motive for Martha to have freed Washington’s slaves early: “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death, she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her–She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.–” (A. A. to Mary Cranch, 21 December 1800) Following Martha’s death on May 22, 1802 at the age of 70, her four grandchildren, the children of the late John (Jacky) Custis inherited Martha’s “dower” slaves. She bequeathed Elisha, the one slave she owned outright, to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis.
- June, 02, 1731
- New Kent County, Virginia
- May, 22, 1802
- Mount Vernon, Virginia
- Mount Vernon Estate
- Mount Vernon, Virginia