Martha Washington

A portrait based on descriptions of Martha.

A portrait based on descriptions of Martha.

Martha Dandridge was born on 2nd June 1731, the oldest child of John Dandridge and Frances Jones, on Chestnut Grove Plantation, Virginia. Her birth was followed by her three brothers and four sisters. It is claimed John also had two illegitimate children, Ann Dandridge Costin, born to a slave of African descent, and Ralph Dandridge, who was thought to be white. Although considered to be of the minor local gentry, John Dandridge owned 500 acres of land and around twenty slaves. Frances raised Martha to be a good housewife and mother, learning all the domestic skills required of a lady of a household, and as a bonus, Martha could also read and write.

At the age of around eighteen, Martha caught the eye of a local plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis, whose father John Custis IV was one of the richest men in the area, owning a separate plantation of over 5000 acres, with more than 300 slaves. Serving on the Virginia Government board, Custis initially disapproved his son’s match with Martha, considering her socially beneath them, and threatened to disinherit Daniel if he proceeded, a tactic he had employed on prior occasions. However, friends intervened, and Martha engineered a meeting with Custis where she charmed into changing his mind.

Daniel, and Martha married on May 15th 1750 shortly before she turned 19. Daniel was twenty years older. Over the course of the next seven years they had four children, each given the middle name of Parke, as a condition of inheritance stipulated some years previously by Daniel’s great grandfather, Daniel born 1751, Frances born 1753, John (Jacky) born 1754 and Martha (Patsy) born 1756. Sadly Daniel and Frances both died aged around three years old. Patsy died aged 17 and Jacky died in 1781 following the siege of Yorktown.

In 1757, Daniel Custis died suddenly, leaving Martha a widow of 26 with two small children, and extremely wealthy. As a result of his inheritance from his father’s death combined with his own property, Martha had control of around 350 slaves, land on various plantations, totalling about 26 square miles, and a large cash sum. Some claim that Daniel died without a will, however it is said that the two thirds of the land income was to be held in trust for the two surviving children, along with the land itself as an asset, one third was left to Martha. She also had use of the slaves, until her death when they would return to the children, 100 slaves were left to Martha.

In January 1759, Martha married George Washington, who lived nearby and was probably known to her. As a result of her immense wealth, we can consider this second marriage a love match. Something Martha was to prove in the coming years when she insisted on journeying hundreds of miles to accompany her husband on camp during the Revolutionary Wars, during which he served as commander in chief. They were to have no children of their own, however George helped raise her two surviving children, and following their deaths, particularly that of Jacky, they took on the task of raising his two youngest children who were but babies, and assisting his widow with the others.

Following the war, George was unanimously proposed as the first President of the new independent United States of America. Martha allegedly wasn’t happy about this and some say refused to attend his inauguration. Other sources state she was simply unable to travel to the ceremony. But that’s another story……..

Phoebe