Martha Washington

Martha Washington
Martha Washington
First Lady of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797
Succeeded by Abigail Adams
Personal details
Born June 2, 1731(1731-06-02)
Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Virginia, U.S.
Died May 22, 1802(1802-05-22) (aged 70)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Spouse(s) Daniel Parke Custis (1750-1757)
George Washington (1759-1799)
Relations John Dandridge and Frances Jones
Children Daniel Parke Custis, Jr., Frances Custis, John Parke "Jacky" Custis, Martha Parke "Patsy" Custis
Occupation First Lady of the United States
Religion Episcopal
Martha Washington as she appears in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (June 2, 1731 – May 22, 1802) was the wife of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Although the title was not coined until after her death, Martha Washington is considered to be the first First Lady of the United States. During her lifetime, she was known as "Lady Washington".



Martha Dandridge was born at 10:35 a.m. on June 2, 1731 on her parents' plantation Chestnut Grove in the British colonial Province of Virginia. She was the oldest daughter of Virginia planter and immigrant from England John Dandridge (1700–1756) and Clara Jones (1710–1785) of English, Welsh and French descent.[1] Martha had three brothers and four sisters, the others being John Dandridge (1733–1749), William Dandridge (1734–1776), Bartholomew Dandridge (1737–1785), Anna Marie "Fanny" Dandridge Bassett (1739–1777), Frances Dandridge (1744–1757), Elizabeth Dandridge Aylet Henley (1749–1800), and Mary Dandridge (1756–1763). She may have had an illegitimate half-sister (date of birth unknown), who was a slave: Ann Dandridge Costin was one-quarter African, one-quarter Cherokee Indian, and half-white. There is further evidence of an illegitimate half-brother Ralph Dandridge (date of birth unrecovered), who was probably white.[2]

On May 15, 1750 at age 18 she 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 by Custis. A son and a daughter, Daniel (1751–1754) and Frances (1753–1757), died in childhood, but two other children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754–1781) and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis (1756–1773) survived to young adulthood. Daniel Custis' death in 1757 left Martha a rich widow, with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children.

Martha Dandridge Custis in 1757

Martha Dandridge Custis, aged 27, and George Washington, aged nearly 27, married on January 6, 1759 at the White House plantation. It seems likely that Washington had known Martha and her husband for some time. In March 1758 he visited her at White House twice; the second time he came away with either an engagement of marriage or at least her promise to think about his proposal. She was, at the time, also being courted by the wealthy planter Charles Carter.[3]

Their wedding was a grand affair. The groom appeared in a suit of blue and silver with red trimming and gold knee buckles; the bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles.[3] After the Reverend Peter Mossum pronounced them man and wife, the couple honeymooned at White House for several weeks before setting up housekeeping at Washington's Mount Vernon estate. Their marriage appears to have been a solid one, untroubled by infidelity or clash of temperament.

Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha's two surviving children. Her teenage daughter, named Patsy, died during an epileptic seizure, which led John (Jackie) to return home from college to comfort his mother. John later served as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781, and died during this military service, probably of typhus. After his death, the Washingtons raised two of John's 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 nevertheless followed Washington into the battlefield when he served as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. She spent the infamous winter at Valley Forge with the general, and was instrumental in maintaining some level of morale among officers and enlisted troops. She opposed his election as President of the newly formed United States of America, and refused to attend his inauguration (April 30, 1789). As the First Lady, Mrs. Washington hosted many affairs of state at New York and Philadelphia (the capital was moved to Washington D. C. in 1800 under the Adams administration).

Martha Washington at the 1777-78 Valley Forge Encampment

Some think of Martha Washington as a rather 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, writes that the truth about Lady Washington is far more interesting.[4] Martha Washington was a spiffy dresser, assertive, and definitely a woman of independent means. And she was a woman who followed her man. Each year of the revolution, once the Continental Army settled in for the winter, General Washington wrote for his wife to join him at military camp. Each year after receiving the request Martha Washington—although she delighted in being at Mount Vernon with her large, extended family, and was lonely and anxious when away from Virginia—dutifully packed up her bags, got into the carriage, and started north. Martha Washington, determined and diminutive at five feet tall, had kept close to home before the revolution began; once the hostilities started, 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").[5]

After George Washington accepted the position of commander in chief, the woman who loved hearth and home left both to join her husband at military encampments in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

The Continental Army marched into 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. Her carriage and entourage left Mount Vernon on January 26 and, according to Gen. Nathanael Greene, Martha arrived at headquarters the evening of February 5, 1778.[6] Primary documents of the Revolutionary period give us some idea of what Lady Washington did when she got there.

Martha’s main role, of course, was to care for General Washington. “Poor man,” Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote of his commander, “he appears oppressed with cares and wants some gentle hand free from deceit to soothe his cares.”[7] That soothing “gentle hand” belonged to Martha Washington. She also assumed her familiar role of hostess at camp. On April 6, Mrs. 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 when the ladies arrived from Philadelphia, they visited with Mrs. Washington who Mrs. Drinker thought to be a “a sociable pretty kind of Woman.” General Washington was unable to assist Mrs. Drinker and her friends, but he did invite them to dine at headquarters that day. Elizabeth Drinker found the 3:00 p.m. dinner with General and Mrs. Washington and about fifteen of the officers to be “elegant” but also “soon over,” and afterwards the four ladies then “went with ye General’s Wife up to her Chamber, and saw no more of him.”[8]

Mrs. 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.[9] The officers and their ladies could do little during these social evenings but talk and sing, for Washington, with the enemy camped nearby in Philadelphia, prohibited both dancing and card-playing at Valley Forge.

On February 16, 1778, Charles Willson Peale painted a miniature of Washington—for which he charged his usual “56 Dollars”—and presented it to Martha.[10] Peale made several other miniatures of Washington at camp; John Laurens, one of Washington’s aides, thought them “successful attempts to produce the General’s likeness.”[11] Peale’s brush was busy at Valley Forge, as he captured some fifty officers and their wives on canvas that winter.

Lady Washington happily participated in the camp’s joyous May 6 celebration of the formal announcement of the French-American alliance. The day began early for General and Mrs. Washington and they, along with several officers and their wives, first attended services with the New Jersey brigade. Revered Mr. Hunter preached the sermon, said to be a “suitable discourse.”[12] Soon after the thunderous feu de joie (thousands of soldiers fired off the muskets consecutively in a “fire of joy”), His Excellency and Lady Washington received in the center of a large marquee fashioned from dozens of officers’ tents. Although there is no record of Mrs. Washington’s attire on that august day, General Washington, usually so staid and proper, was said to have worn “a countenance of uncommon delight and complacence.”[13]

Five days later, on May 11, Martha Washington and the commander attended the camp production of Cato, a theatrical 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. The play was received with enthusiasm, and one officer wrote that he found the performance “admirable” and the scenery “in Taste.”[14] There is, however, no record of what either General or Mrs. Washington thought of the production.[citation needed]

But then on June 8, six days after celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at Valley Forge, Lady Washington got into her carriage and started out for Mount Vernon. She left camp with a hopeful heart,[citation needed] for the French had officially joined with America in the battle against the British. Surely, she thought, the war would soon be over and she would not be asked to endure any more army encampments. But five more times during the Revolution Martha Washington packed up her belongings, climbed into her carriage, and headed north from Mount Vernon to join with her husband in America’s fight for freedom.[citation needed]

Slave ownership

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 75 slaves.[citation needed]

Upon his 1759 marriage to Martha, George Washington became the legal manager of the Custis estate, under court oversight. In actuality, estate records[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Washington used his wife's great wealth to buy land, more than tripling 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 his own. The Washingtons could not sell Custis land or slaves, which were held in trust for Martha's only surviving child, John.[citation needed]

"Washington's Family" by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha, and an enslaved servant: probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels.

Seven of the 9 slaves that President Washington brought to Philadelphia (the national capital, 1790–1800) to work in the executive mansion were "dowers". Pennsylvania had begun an abolition of slavery in 1780, but non-residents were allowed to hold slaves in the state for up to 6 months. The Washingtons rotated the 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 the value of those slaves.

Martha Washington was personally upset when her lady's maid Oney Judge, a "dower" slave, fled the Philadelphia household during Washington's second term. According to interviews with Oney in the 1840s,[15] the First Lady had promised the young woman as a wedding gift to granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis. Oney hid with free-black friends in the city, and then traveled to the north. 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." (Brady, p. 209)

In March 1797, during the Washington family's last week in Philadelphia, their chief cook Hercules also fled slavery, leaving a daughter at Mount Vernon who told a visitor that she was glad her father was free.

By 1799 the number of "dower" slaves was 153, the number of Washington slaves was 124, and at least a dozen couples had intermarried. In Washington's will[16] he resolved to free his own slaves following his death, but his hope of purchasing the "dowers" from the Custis estate and freeing them too, or of setting up a system by which the "dowers" would be rented out and gradually work themselves out of slavery came to nought. To spare Martha the spectacle of witnessing slave families torn apart, Washington directed in his will that his slaves not be freed until after her death.

Martha freed Washington's slaves on January 1, 1801. Abigail Adams 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?" Adams cited a less philanthropic motive for Martha freeing 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 1802 death, the "dower" slaves were inherited by her four grandchildren (the children of Jacky Custis). She bequeathed the one slave she owned outright, Elisha, to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis.

An 1878 portrait by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews.

Author Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, argues that Martha Washington owned own a mulatto slave, Ann Dandridge, who was her half-sister. Dandridge had a child by Martha's son Jacky Dandridge. Wiencek bases his assertion on original documents he discovered in the files of Mount Vernon and the Virginia Historical Society, and argues that previous historians ignored the documentary evidence that this half-sister existed. Wiencek believes this relationship was among the factors that led George Washington to call slavery "repugnant," and probably influenced Washington's decision late in life to free all his slaves. The existence of a slave named Ann Dandridge is recognized in Helen Bryan's 2001 Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. Bryan relied upon Wiencek's research. Bryan stated that the "shadow sister" was close to Martha's age and had been with her since they were children.

Brady, in a brief bibliographical note at the end of her book (page 256), denies the existence of Martha Washington's half-sister and asserts that Wiencek and Bryan accepted "family mythology" and "lore" as fact. Brady does not offer a review of documents Wiencek used to allege a relationship between the two women. Ann Dandridge's manumission is recorded–Land Records, Liber H., #8, p. 382; Liber R, #17, p. 288. In assessing the documents that have survived on this question, Wiencek notes that Ann Dandridge was omitted from the Custis estate records and the records of slaves at Mt. Vernon. Having studied plantation families for many years, Wiencek observes that family ties between slaves and slave owners were often kept hidden.


USS Lady Washington

Mrs. Washington had a row galley named in her honor, the USS Lady Washington. It holds the distinction of being the first U.S. military ship to be named in honor of a woman and for a vessel named while the person was still alive (see also List of U.S. military vessels named after living Americans). It has a number of other distinctions as well, as the first ship named after a (future) First Lady and one of the few active vessels in the U.S. Navy named in honor of a woman (see also USS Hopper).

Martha Washington on US postage

The 1st Martha Washington postage stamp, issue of 1902.

In 1902, Martha Washington became the first American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp. This 8c issue was printed in black with Martha's portrait surrounded by an elaborate laurel wreath. In 1923, a second stamp was issued in her honor, a 4-cent definitive stamp. The third issue to honor Martha Washington was issued in 1938, a 1½¢ denomination stamp.

U.S. paper currency

Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on the face of a U.S. currency note. It appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896. An 1856 national banknote carried The baptism of Pocahontas on its reverse face.

U.S. coins

The First Spouse Program under the Presidential $1 Coin Act authorizes the United States Mint to issue 1/2 ounce $10 gold coins and bronze medal duplicates[17] to honor the first spouses of the United States.The Martha Washington coin was released on June 19, 2007, and was sold out in just hours.

See also

  • Samuel Osgood House (New York City) — First Presidential Mansion.
  • Alexander Macomb House (New York City) — Second Presidential Mansion.
  • President's House (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) — Third Presidential Mansion.


  1. ^ First Lady Biography: Martha Washington
  2. ^ Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington, First Lady of Liberty. Wiley, 2002. ISBN 978-0471158929. Pages 2627. Retrieved from Google Books on February 27, 2010.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Loane, Nancy K. Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment. Potomac Books, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2009. ISBN 978-1-59797-385-4.
  5. ^ Lafayette to Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, January 6, 1778, in Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Stanley J. Idzerda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 1: 225.
  6. ^ Nathanael Greene to Gen. Alexander McDougall, February 5, 1778, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 2:276.
  7. ^ Nathanael Greene to Catharine Greene. July 8, 1779, in Greene Papers, 4:212.
  8. ^ Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, ed. Elaine Foreman Crane (Boston: Northeastern University press, 1991), 1:297.
  9. ^ “Autobiographical Letters of Peter S. DuPonceau,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XL (1916): 181.
  10. ^ Charles Willson Peale, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Lillian B. Miller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 1: 266.
  11. ^ John Laurens to Henry Laurens, March 9, 1778, in The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the Years 1777-1778. (New York: The New York Times and the Arno Press, 1969), 139.
  12. ^ Mark E. Lender and James Kirby Martin, Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield. (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982), 134.
  13. ^ John F. Reed, Valley Forge: Crucible of Victory (Monmouth Beach: Peter Freneau Press, 1969), 56.
  14. ^ William Bradford, Jr. to Rachel Bradford, May 14, 1778, in Joseph Lee Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 2:125.
  15. ^ Two 1840s interviews with Oney Judge
  16. ^ Last Will and Testament of George Washington
  17. ^ U.S. Mint: First Spouse Program. Accessed 2008-06-27. "The United States Mint also produces and make available to the public bronze medal duplicates of the First Spouse Gold Coins."
  • Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. Viking/Penguin Group, New York, New York, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03430-4.
  • Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, hardbound edition 2003, paperback edition 2004. ISBN 0-374-52951-5.

External links

Honorary titles
New title First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Abigail Adams

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