Martha Washington

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For the comic book character from Frank Miller's Give Me Liberty, see Martha Washington (comics).
Martha Washington
Martha Washington.png
Tinted engraving by John Chester Buttre (1821–1893), after the portrait by Gilbert Stuart
First Lady of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797
Succeeded by Abigail Adams
Personal details
Born Martha Dandridge
(1731-06-02)June 2, 1731
Chestnut Grove Plantation, New Kent County, Virginia, British America
Died May 22, 1802(1802-05-22) (aged 70)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Spouse(s) Daniel Parke Custis (m. 1750; died 1757)
George Washington (m. 1759; died 1799)
Children Daniel Parke Custis, Jr.
Frances Custis
John Parke "Jacky" Custis
Martha Parke "Patsy" Custis
Parents John Dandridge and Frances Jones
Religion Episcopalian

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (June 13 [O.S. 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 often referred to as "Lady Washington".[1]

Widowed at 25, she had four children with her first husband Daniel Parke Custis, two of her children by Custis survived to young adulthood. She brought great wealth to her marriage to Washington, which enabled him to buy land and many slaves to add to his personal estate. She also brought nearly 100 dower slaves for her use during her lifetime; they and their descendants reverted to her late husband's estate at her death and were inherited by his heirs.[2] She and Washington did not have children together but they did rear her two children by Daniel Parke Custis, including son John "Jackey" Custis, as well as helping both of their extended families.

Early life and marriages[edit]

Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731[3] 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.[4] 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).

Martha Washington as a young woman

She may have had an illegitimate half-sister, Ann Dandridge Costin (years of birth and death unknown), who was born into slavery; Costin's enslaved mother was African and Cherokee and her father was believed to be John Dandridge.[5] John Dandridge may also have fathered an out-of-wedlock half-brother of Costin's named Ralph Dandridge (years of birth and death unknown), who was probably white.[5]

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."[6]

Martha Dandridge Custis in 1757: mezzotint by John Folwell (1863) after a portrait by John Wollaston

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 Daniel Parke Custis for some time before his death. During March 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.[6]

The wedding was grand. Washington's suit was of blue and silver cloth with red trimming and gold knee buckles.[7] The bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles, which are occasionally displayed at Mount Vernon.[6] 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.[6][7] 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 Parke "Jacky" 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 on April 30, 1789. Once he assumed office, as the First Lady, Martha 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).

Martha Washington at the 1777–78 Valley Forge encampment[edit]

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.,[8] noting that Martha Washington was fashionably dressed, assertive, and a woman of great wealth and independent means. Mrs. Washington joined her husband during the Revolution for all the Continental Army's winter encampments. Before the revolution began, she had kept close to home; during it, she traveled thousands of miles to be with her husband,[9] as General Lafayette observing that she loved "her husband madly").[10]

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.[11] Primary documents of the Revolutionary period refer to Lady Washington's activities at the site.

Martha Washington by Rembrandt Peale, circa 1856, based on a portrait by his father, Charles Willson Peale.

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.”[12] 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.”[12]

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,[13] but there was no card-playing during these Valley Forge social gatherings, games of chance having been forbidden by General Washington.[14]

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.[15] He also painted 50 other officers and their wives that winter.[16]

Lady Washington took part in the camp’s May 6 celebration of the formal announcement of the French-American alliance.[17] 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.”[18]

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.[19] One officer wrote that he found the performance “admirable” and the scenery “in Taste.”[19]

Dower slaves, estate and death[edit]

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.[citation needed] 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 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).[2] Washington reasoned that should the "dowers" attain their freedom due to his negligence, he might be liable to the Custis estate for their value.[citation needed]

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.[20] 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."[21]

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.[22] He was known to have traveled to Philadelphia and by December 1801 was living in New York City.[23][24] His six-year-old daughter, still enslaved at Mount Vernon, told a visitor that she was glad her father was free.[25]

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[26] stipulated that his own slaves were to be set free after his wife's death so that intermarried families would not be broken up.

In January 1801 Martha freed her husband's slaves, just over a year after his death.[27] Just a few weeks earlier in December, Abigail Adams, wife of the second President, had visited Mount Vernon 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)[28]

While she lived, Martha emancipated none of her own slaves and when she died, on May 22, 1802 at the age of 70, all of her human property went to her inheritors.[2] Martha's four grandchildren, the children of the late John (Jacky) Custis inherited her "dower" slaves. Elisha, the one slave she owned outright, was bequeathed to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis.[citation needed]

Martha Washington
An 1878 portrait by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews 
Martha's coffin (left) in the tomb at Mount Vernon 
"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 


USS Lady Washington[edit]

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).

USS Martha Washington[edit]

The USS Martha Washington (ID-3019) was a transport for the United States Navy during World War I. She was originally ocean liner SS Martha Washington for the Austro-American Line before the war. Before and after her Navy service she was the United States Army transport USAT Martha Washington. The liner was sold to the Italian Cosulich Line in 1922. In 1932, when Cosulich was absorbed into Italia Flotte Riunite (English: United Fleets Italy), the ship was renamed SS Tel Aviv. The ship was scrapped in 1934.

Martha Washington on U.S. postage[edit]

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.

Martha Washington on U.S. postage
The first Martha Washington postage stamp, issue 1902. 

U.S. paper currency[edit]

Martha Washington is the only woman (other than allegories of Justice, Liberty, etc.) depicted on the face of a United States Banknote. Her engraved portrait bust was used on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891. Both Martha and George Washington are depicted together on the reverse of the $1 silver certificate of 1896.

U.S. coins[edit]

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[29] to honor the first spouses of the United States.The Martha Washington coin was released on June 19, 2007, and was sold out in hours.

Educational institutions[edit]

External video
Martha washington.jpg
"First Lady Martha Washington", First Ladies: Influence & Image, C‑SPAN[30]

The Martha Washington College for Women was founded in Abingdon, Virginia in 1860.[31] In 1918, its administration was merged with Emory & Henry College[32] and in 1931 Martha Washington ceased to function as a separate entity, merging completely with Emory & Henry. The main original building of Martha Washington College is now known and operated as the Martha Washington Inn.[33] There was also Martha Washington Seminary, a finishing school for young women in Washington, DC,[34] was founded in 1905[35] and ceased operations in 1949.[36]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Figueroa, Acton (1 January 2003). Washington,. World Almanac Library. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8368-5162-5. 
  2. ^ a b c Dunbar, Erica Armstrong (February 16, 2015). "George Washington, Slave Catcher". New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 
  3. ^ "Martha Washington - Early Life: Birth and Family of Origin". MarthaWashington.US(Center for History and New Media/The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association). Retrieved June 2, 2012. 
  4. ^ First Lady Biography: Martha Washington
  5. ^ a b Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington, First Lady of Liberty. Wiley, 2002. ISBN 978-0-471-15892-9. Pages 2627. Retrieved from Google Books on February 27, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d Brigid Schulte, "Fresh Look at Martha Washington: Less First Frump, More Foxy Lady", Washington Post, 1 February 2009, accessed 1 April 2012
  7. ^ a b The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents [ISBN 0-517-18353-6]
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Thompson, Mary. "Martha Washington". Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Retrieved February 17, 2015. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, ed. Elaine Foreman Crane (Boston: Northeastern University press, 1991), page 297
  13. ^ "Autobiographical Letters of Peter S. DuPonceau," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XL (1916): 181.
  14. ^ Trevelyan, Sir George Otto (1922). The American Revolution, Volume 4. Longmans, Green. p. 337. Retrieved February 17, 2015. 
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Mark E. Lender and James Kirby Martin, Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield(Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982), 134.
  18. ^ John F. Reed, Valley Forge: Crucible of Victory (Monmouth Beach: Peter Freneau Press, 1969), 56.
  19. ^ a b 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.
  20. ^ Two 1840s interviews with Oney Judge
  21. ^ Brady, Patricia (2005). Martha Washington: An American Life. New York, New York: Viking/Penguin Group. p. 209. ISBN 0-670-03430-4. 
  22. ^ "A birthday shock from Washington's chef", Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 February 2010
  23. ^ Frederick Kitt to George Washington, 15 January 1798. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, p. 25.
  24. ^ Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. "Worthy Partner:" The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.
  25. ^ Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
  26. ^ "Last Will and Testament of George Washington", George Washington, PBS
  27. ^ Chadwick, Bruce (2007). General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution. Sourcebooks, Inc. p. 331. Retrieved February 17, 2015. 
  28. ^ Hirschfeld, Fritz (1997). George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal. University of Missouri Press. p. 214. Retrieved February 17, 2015. 
  29. ^ 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."
  30. ^ "First Lady Martha Washington". C‑SPAN. February 25, 2013. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  31. ^ Tennis, Joe (2004). Southwest Virginia Crossroads: An Almanac of Place Names and Places to See. The Overmountain Press. p. 76. Retrieved July 31, 2012. 
  32. ^ "A Brief History of Emory & Henry College". Emory & Henry College. Retrieved July 31, 2012. 
  33. ^ "Martha Washington College". Waymarking.Com. Retrieved July 31, 2012. 
  34. ^ "Martha Washington Seminary". The Independent. Jul 6, 1914. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  35. ^ Washington, City and Capital. United States Government Printing Office. 1937. p. 673. 
  36. ^ Cherkasky, Mara (2007). Mount Pleasant. Arcadia Publishing. p. 62. Retrieved July 31, 2012. 
  37. ^ "The Courtship of George Washington and Martha Custis". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved November 26, 2012. 

External links[edit]

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