|First Lady of the United States|
April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797
|Preceded by||Position established|
|Succeeded by||Abigail Adams|
June 2, 1731
Chestnut Grove, Virginia, British America
|Died||May 22, 1802 (aged 70)|
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
|Resting place||Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.|
(m. 1750; died 1757)
(m. 1759; died 1799)
Frances Jones|Frances Dandridge
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 served as the inaugural first lady of the United States. During her lifetime, she was often referred to as "Lady Washington".
Martha Dandridge first married Daniel Parke Custis. They had four children, two of whom survived to young adulthood. Daniel's death made Martha a widow at age 26. She brought her vast wealth to her marriage to Washington, which enabled him to buy land to add to his personal estate. She also brought with her 84 dower slaves from Daniel Custis' estate for use during her lifetime. They and their descendants reverted to Custis' estate at her death and were inherited by his heirs. The Washingtons did not have children together, but they did rear her two surviving children, John and Martha. They also helped both of their extended families.
Family and background
Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731, on her parents' plantation Chestnut Grove in the Colony of Virginia. She was the oldest daughter of John Dandridge (1700–1756), a Virginia planter and immigrant from England, by his wife Frances Jones (1710–1785), who was of American birth and English, Welsh, and French descent. Martha had three brothers and four sisters: John (1733–1749), William (1734–1776), Bartholomew (1737–1785), Anna Maria "Fanny" Bassett (1739–1777), Frances Dandridge (1744–1757), Elizabeth Aylett Henley (1749–1800), and Mary Dandridge (1756–1763).
Dandridge 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 of African and Cherokee descent, and her father was believed to be John Dandridge. She may have also had an illegitimate half-brother named Ralph Dandridge (years of birth and death unknown), who was probably white.
On May 15, 1750, at age 18, Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis, a rich planter two decades her senior, and moved to his residence, White House Plantation, located on the south shore of the Pamunkey River, a few miles upriver from Chestnut Grove. They had four children together: Daniel, Frances, John, and Martha. Daniel (November 19, 1751 – February 19, 1754) and Frances (April 12, 1753 – April 1, 1757) died in childhood. The other two children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis (November 27, 1754 – November 5, 1781) and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis (1756 – June 19, 1773), survived to young adulthood.
Daniel Parke Custis's death in 1757 left Martha a rich young widow at age 26, with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime, and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children. In all, she was left in custody of some 17,500 acres of land and 300 slaves, apart from other investments and cash. According to her biographer, "she capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices".
Martha Custis, age 27, and George Washington, age 26, 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 Daniel's death. During March 1758, he visited Martha Custis twice at the White House plantation; 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 planter Charles Carter, who was even wealthier than Washington.
The wedding was grand. George'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 displayed at Mount Vernon. The couple honeymooned at the Custis family's White House plantation for several weeks before setting up house at George's Mount Vernon estate. They appeared to have had a solid marriage. The Washingtons had no children together, but they raised Martha's two surviving children. In 1773, her daughter Patsy died when she was 16 during an epileptic seizure. John Parke "Jacky" Custis left King's College that fall and married Eleanor Calvert in February 1774.
John was serving as a civilian aide to George Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War when he died of "camp fever" (probably epidemic typhus). After John Parke Custis' death, the Washingtons raised the youngest two of his four children, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 – July 15, 1852) and George Washington Parke (Washy) Custis (April 30, 1781 – October 10, 1857). The two older girls remained with their mother. The Washingtons also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews, and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.
Mostly content to live a private life at Mount Vernon and her homes from the Custis estate, Martha Washington did follow Washington to his winter encampments for each of eight years. She helped keep up morale among the officers.
At the 1777–1778 Valley Forge encampment
According to tradition, Martha Washington was described as having spent her days at the Revolutionary War winter encampments visiting the common soldiers in their huts. However, Nancy Loane, author of Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, says there is no evidence that Washington visited the common soldiers.[page needed] Loane also notes that Martha Washington was fashionably dressed, assertive, and a woman of great wealth and independent means. She 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. General Lafayette observed that 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, Washington traveled 10 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 the General to release their husbands from jail; the men, all Quakers, had refused to swear a loyalty oath to the American revolutionaries. Because the commander was not available at first, the women visited with Martha. She was regarded as a matriarch in the camps she visited. 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 15 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. No card-playing occurred during these Valley Forge social gatherings, games of chance having been forbidden by General Washington.
Charles Willson Peale painted a miniature of George 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.
Martha Washington took part in the camp's May 6 celebration of the formal announcement of the Franco-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, 1778, the Washingtons attended the camp production of Joseph Addison's play Cato, a favorite of the General's. The play 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."
First Lady 1789–1797
After the war, Washington was not fully supportive of her husband's agreeing to be President of the newly formed United States. Once he assumed office, as the First Lady (a term that was only used later) she hosted many affairs of state at New York City and Philadelphia during their years as temporary capitals. The socializing became known as the Republican Court. Martha Washington presented an image of herself as an amiable wife, but privately complained about the restrictions placed on her life.
Dower slaves, estate, death, and interment
While Martha Washington's father had owned 15 to 20 slaves, her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, owned nearly 300, making him one of the largest slaveowners and wealthiest men in the Virginia colony. 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.
Daniel Parke Custis' death in 1757 without a will meant that, according to law, his eldest son John would inherit two-thirds of the Custis estate when he reached adulthood, together with the estate's slaves and the children of those slaves. As Daniel's widow, Martha received a "dower share", the lifetime use of (and income from) the remaining one-third of the estate and its slaves. After her death, the dower slaves and their progeny were to be distributed among the surviving Custis heirs.
Upon his 1759 marriage to Martha, George Washington became the legal manager of the Custis estate, under court oversight. At the time of her marriage, Martha's dower share included more than 80 slaves. She also would control any children they had, as they would become part of the dower. 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 of the income went to a trust held for John Parke Custis until he reached maturity at age 21.
George 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. By law, neither of the Washingtons could sell Custis lands or slaves, which Martha's dower and the trust owned. After John died during the Revolutionary War, his slaves passed to his son, George Washington Parke Custis, who at the time was a minor. If John's trust or Martha's dower owned a slave's mother, her children were included in that holding. Some slaves owned by the Washingtons and the trust married each other, forming linked families. This created complex inheritance issues.
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 nonresidents were allowed to hold slaves in the state for up to six months; after that date, they could claim freedom. Because the president would have been liable for compensating the Custis estate for any dower slaves freed under this law, he surreptitiously rotated his President's House slaves in and out of the state before the six-month deadline to prevent their establishing residency (and legally qualifying for manumission).
Martha Washington promised her lady's maid Oney Judge, a "dower" slave, to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis as a wedding gift. To prevent being sent back to Virginia, Judge escaped in 1796 from the Philadelphia household during President Washington's second term. According to interviews with Judge in the 1840s, the young woman had enjoyed being in Philadelphia and feared she would never gain freedom if taken to Virginia. 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.
After Oney Judge's escape, Martha Washington gave Oney's younger enslaved sister Delphy (also known as Philadelphia) to Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Law as a wedding gift.
George Washington's slave Hercules, who had worked as his chief cook at the President's House 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.
In his July 1790 will, written a year after he became President of the United States in April 1789 and nine years before his death in December 1799, George Washington left directions for the emancipation, after Martha Washington's death, of all the slaves that he owned. Of the 318 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, fewer than half, 123 individuals, belonged to George. His will stipulated that his slaves were not to be freed until Martha's death because of his desire to preserve the families of those who had intermarried with Martha's dower slaves.
In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were too poor or indifferent to see to their education, were to be bound out to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of 25.
In December 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for her deceased husband's slaves, a transaction that was entered into the records of Fairfax County, Virginia. The document was lost during the American Civil War. The slaves received their freedom on January 1, 1801, a little over a year after George's death.
Just a few weeks earlier in December, Abigail Adams, wife of the second president John Adams, 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 Washington to have freed her husband'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; December 21, 1800
Following her death, Martha Washington's body was interred in the original Washington family tomb vault at Mount Vernon. In 1831, the surviving executors of George's estate removed the bodies of George and Martha Washington and those of other members of the family from the old vault to a similar structure within the present enclosure at Mount Vernon.
Washington did not emancipate any of her own slaves during her lifetime. Her will bequeathed Elisha, a slave whom she owned outright at the time of her death, to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Upon her death, her dower slaves reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her four grandchildren. The division split up families, divided husbands from wives, and sent children away from their parents.
An 1878 portrait by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews
She is one of a couple of women—like Catharine Flood McCall and Annie Henry Christian—who oversaw significant business operations that relied on slave labor in the late 18th century and early 19th century.
USS Lady Washington
Washington had a row galley named in her honor, USS Lady Washington in 1776. It holds the distinction of being the first U.S. military ship to be named in honor of a woman and the first named for a person who was still alive (see also List of U.S. military vessels named after living Americans). It has a number of other distinctions, as well, such 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
USS Martha Washington was a transport for the United States Navy during World War I. She was originally the 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
The first U.S. postage stamp honoring an American woman honored Martha Washington, and was issued as part of the 1902 stamp series. An 8-cent stamp, it was printed in violet-black ink. The second stamp issued in her honor, a 4-cent definitive stamp printed in orange-brown ink, was released in 1923. The third stamp to honor Washington was issued in 1938, as part of the Presidential Issue series. A 1+1⁄2-cent stamp, it was printed in yellow-brown ink.
U.S. paper currency
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. She and her husband George are depicted together on the reverse of the $1 silver certificate of 1896.
$1 silver certificate, issue 1886
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 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.
To prevent confusion with existing coinage, pattern coins testing new metals have been produced by the U.S. mint, or a company contracted to it, with Martha Washington on the obverse. Not intended for public release, they are quite rare.
|"First Lady Martha Washington", First Ladies: Influence & Image, C-SPAN|
The Martha Washington College for Women was founded in Abingdon, Virginia in 1860. In 1918, its administration was merged with Emory & Henry College 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. There was also Martha Washington Seminary, a finishing school for young women in Washington, DC, that was founded in 1905 and ceased operations in 1949.
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and from this time the drawing-rooms of the presidential residence were opened from eight till ten o'clock every Friday evening for visits to Mrs. Washington
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Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire, that all the slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the Dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy or the same Proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them.
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I give to my grandson George Washington Parke Custis my mulato man Elish – that I bought of Mr Butler Washington to him and his heir for ever –
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I give to my grandson George Washington Parke Custis my mulato man Elish – that I bought of Mr Butler Washington to him and his heir for ever –
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- Martha Washington letters. A collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media.
- Martha Washington at the White House (biography)
- Martha Washington at the National First Ladies Library (biography)
- Martha Washington (George Washington's Mount Vernon)
- Martha Washington at C-SPAN's First Ladies: Influence & Image