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History >> United States:
General History and Description
to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861
Period, 1789-1809 >> George Washington's
wife of George Washington
Martha Dandridge was born at Chestnut Grove plantation, about 35 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia, on June 2, 1731; she was the first of eight children for John and Frances Jones Dandridge. Her father was a wealthy landowner, and Martha enjoyed many of the perks available to women in the upper classes of Virginia. Unlike most women of her day, Martha was taught to read and write, most likely by her mother.
On May 15, 1750, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy landowner who was 21 years her senior. Despite the dramatic age difference, the marriage was by all accounts a happy and loving one. Four children were born to the union -- Daniel Parke (September 19, 1751-1754), Frances Parke (April 1753-1757), John Parke "Jacky" (1754-November 5, 1781), and Martha Parke "Patsy" (1756- June 19, 1773). Martha was a very loving and doting mother and truly enjoyed her life with Daniel. Her happiness was shattered, however, when Daniel died on July 8, 1757.
In the eighteenth century, men of wealth usually had a will naming one of their male relatives as executor of their estate, but Daniel died before drafting such a document. The lack of a will meant that Martha automatically inherited her husband's entire estate, which amounted to over 17,500 acres of land and almost 300 slaves, as well as all of the estate's debts and responsibilities. Though grief-stricken, Martha faced her responsibilities head-on, getting help from her husband's former business manager and lawyers when necessary.
In 1758, Martha was attending a cotillion in Williamsburg when she met George Washington, who was then a Colonel in the Virginia Militia. The two began dating soon after, and were married at her home in New Kent County, Virginia, on January 6, 1759. Later that same year, Washington took his new bride and her two surviving children to his Mount Vernon estate. George and Martha never had children between them, but George raised "Jacky" and "Patsy" as if they were his biological children.
Martha's life was again interruped by grief when Patsy died on June 19, 1773, probably of complications from epilepsy. That grief was relieved when Jacky married Eleanor "Nelly" Calvert on February 3, 1774. The couple initially lived near Nelly's family, but moved back to Mount Vernon after George Washington left to lead the Continental Army.
Martha spent most of the Revolutionary War years tending to daily affairs at Mount Vernon and enjoying her grandchildren (Jacky and Nelly ultimately had four surviving children), but did try to visit her husband whenever possible. She spent the winter of 1775-76 with him at Cambridge, Massachusetts; enjoyed a brief visit at Morristown, New Jersey, in March 1777; and endured the harsh winter of 1777-78 with her husband and his men at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Jacky died of "camp fever" on November 5, 1781, a few days after enlisting in the Army, and Martha and George took over the rearing of his and Nelly's children. Nelly subsequently remarried and moved away, but two of the children remained at Mount Vernon, where they were spoiled by their grandparents in even grander manner than their father had been.
George Washington became the nation's first President in 1789. Although she did not enjoy being First Lady, Martha Washington managed the President's home (first in New York City and then in Philadelphia) with dignity and grace. She was often criticized for hosting elaborate balls and parties that "smacked of monarchism," but that criticism was tempered by her hosting of weekly receptions that were open to anyone who wished to attend. Although she undoubtedly enjoyed the prestige that came with her husband's position, she was very happy when George declined a third term and the couple moved back to Mount Vernon.
George Washington died on December 14, 1799. Martha continued to live at and manage Mount Vernon until her own death, on May 22, 1802. She was buried next to her husband at Mount Vernon.
The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Constitutional Period, 1789-1809 >> George Washington's Administration, 1789-1797
This page was last updated on January 31, 2017.