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Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Martha Washington

Image courtesy of FCIT

  • Born 1731 in New Kent County, Virginia
  • Eldest of eight children
  • Married Colonel Daniel Parke Custis 1750
  • Two of four children died young
  • Widowed suddenly at 26 in 1757
  • Married Colonel George Washington 1759
  • Died 1802

Early years

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was born at Chestnut Grove in New Kent County, Virginia, June 2, 1731. Her father, John Dandridge (1700/1701 — 1756), emigrated to Virginia from England with his older brother William when John was 13 or 14 years old. He settled in New Kent County and became county clerk in 1730, the year he married Martha's mother, Frances Jones (1710 — 1785) of York County.

Martha's grandfather, Orlando Jones was a member of the House of Burgess and kept a house on Duke of Gloucester street.  Her great-grandfather was Rowland Jones, the first rector of Bruton Parish Church from 1674 until his death in 1688.

Martha was the eldest of three brothers and four sisters, the youngest of whom was born when Martha was 25 and already had four children of her own. She married Colonel Daniel Parke Custis in 1750 and lived in his Pamunkey River mansion, White House.

Mother of four widowed young

Martha and Daniel Custis had four children: Daniel, born in 1751; Frances, born in 1753; John (Jacky) born in 1754; and Martha (Patsy), born in 1756 or 1757. Daniel died at the age of three, and Frances died at four years of age. July 8, 1757, when Martha Custis was only 26 years old, her husband died suddenly. Martha was named the administratrix of the entire Custis estate comprising of over 17,500 acres spread over 6 counties. Under her management the estates thrived.

Married to George Washington

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. Throughout their 40-year marriage, Washington increased the extent of their Estate to twice its original size, funded in large part by Martha's third of the Custis estate.

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, Martha's teenage daughter Patsy died at Mount Vernon. The following year, Martha's son John Parke Custis married Eleanor Calvert at her home, Mount Airy, in Prince George County, Maryland. George Washington attended the wedding, but Martha was unable to make the trip. John and Eleanor had four surviving children before his death from "camp fever" (probably typhoid fever) November 5, 1781.

Frequently traveled with Washington during war years

Although Martha remained at Mount Vernon when George went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, she attended Washington at each and every one of the winter encampments throughout the war, spending over 5 years total by his side. She spent the winter of 1775 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.

Grandchildren lived at Mount Vernon

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. When Martha's son's widow Eleanor remarried Dr. David Stuart in 1783, she and her two eldest daughters lived at the Stuart home in Hope Park, while the two youngest children continued to live at Mount Vernon. In 1784, Martha's 15-year-old niece, Frances Basset, 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. Due to her popularity, Martha's route from Mount Vernon to New York to join Washington was marked by fireworks and parades. As the wife of the president, Martha lived with her husband and grandchildren Nelly and Wash in Philadelphia until they returned to Mount Vernon March 15, 1797. George Washington died at Mount Vernon December 14, 1799. Martha was widowed for two and one-half years until she, too, died at Mount Vernon May 22, 1802.

One of Martha's lasting legacies is her role as what we now call the First Lady of the United States.  Initially, during the war, the people of America gave Martha the title 'Lady Washington,' later during the presidency she was most often referred to as "the President's Wife" or his consort.  In 1838 she was first described as 'The first lady of the nation.'  It was a title that stuck, and it forged a designation that came to be applied to the spouse of the President from that time onward.

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