First Lady: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Martha Dandridge, known as Patsy, was born on 2 June 1731 to John and Frances (Jones) Dandridge at the Dandridge home, Chestnut Grove in Virginia. Martha was the eldest of seven children. While the Dandridges were not as wealthy as the Virginia ‘aristocracy’ they lived comfortably.

Martha Dandridge (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On 15 May 1750, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy landowner and heir to a fortune. At first the marriage hadn’t been readily accepted. Daniel’s father, John Custis IV, an eccentric, cranky old man opposed the marriage so much that he threatened to disinherit Daniel. The Dandridges were below the Custis’ on the social ladder, he argued. Martha managed to meet with the strange character and through this meeting convinced John to allow the marriage. It worked. He gave his approval for the marriage, but by the time Martha and Daniel had married a short time later John had died. Daniel and Martha had four children, two of which died very young. John Parke “Jack” and Martha Parke “Patsy” were born 1754 and 1756, respectively, lived beyond childhood. The same year their daughter Frances died, Daniel and Jack fell gravely ill. Martha was forced to endure yet another death when Daniel died on July 8th. Jack recovered, but Martha would forever worry over her children’s health. Martha soon found herself the owner of immense wealth. She was tasked with the job of managing her large Virginia property holdings. One of her first uses for the money was to buy Daniel an expensive, marble tombstone from England. As a widow it was up to 26-year-old Martha to take the reins of business, which she did quite well.

After Daniel’s death, Martha received several suitors. Among them was Virginian George Washington, a military officer. Washington was not of Martha’s class-standing, but they took to each other. On 6 January 1759 Martha Custis married George Washington. They made an ‘odd-couple’. Over 6-feet tall, George towered over his much shorter wife. Sometimes Martha would pull on George’s coattails to get his attention when he didn’t hear her. Shortly after, the Washington family, Jack and Patsy included, moved to George’s home Mount Vernon.

Despite their happy lives, Martha found a new worry. Twelve-year-old Patsy was plagued with epilepsy. Her violent seizures couldn’t be treated by any of the doctors Martha called in or by Martha’s careful nursing. As for Jack, Martha had a difficult time keeping him interested in schoolwork. In 1773, George was preparing to ship Jack off to college. But Jack had other plans. He and Eleanor Calvert became secretly engaged, much to George chagrin. Martha, on the other hand, was ecstatic with the turn of events.But again death followed Martha’s happiness, as it would for most of her life. On 19 June 1773 Patsy went to her room to fetch a letter. While there she was suddenly overcome with a terrible seizure. She died in a matter of minutes, leaving Martha heartbroken.

Martha Washington (Courtesy Library of Congress)

When George became General of the Continental Army, Martha had to take up an unfamiliar lifestyle. Off and on throughout the years she would join George at his headquarters; then when the American and British resumed their battling, Martha returned to Mount Vernon. There she found company in her four small grandchildren, Jack and Eleanor Custis’ children. George joined the family very briefly, before returning to duty. As George had become a father figure to many of the young officers under him, so Martha served as a mother figure. Martha wasn’t during her stays. At Valley Forge Martha darned and knitted socks for the Continental soldiers and kept company with the officers’ wives. In 1780 Martha rallied support among the American ladies to gather finical aid for the troops.

British propaganda didn’t spare Martha. Rumors floated around that Martha was in fact a Tory. There wasn’t an ounce of truth to it, and for the most part everyone loved “Lady Washington”. Once when passing through Philadelphia Martha was received as a “very great somebody”. When Martha suffered a gallbladder attack in 1781, a British soldier’s widow learned of her condition (through intercepted letters) and sent the ailing Virginian a number of citrus fruits. The fruits were promptly sent back.

Left to right: Martha, Nelly, George, Wash (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Shortly after Lord Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Martha was dealt another blow. Jack, who had joined George at Yorktown, had caught ‘camp fever’. His health quickly spiraled. Martha and Eleanor rushed to his bedside, but nothing could be done to save Martha’s last surviving child. Jack succumbed to illness on 5 November 1781.

Three years after Yorktown, George returned to Mount Vernon. The Revolution was officially over and the Washingtons looked forward to resuming a normal life. When Eleanor remarried, George and Martha adopted Jack’s two youngest children, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke and George Washington “Wash” Parke. Without children of their own, the Custis children were a happy addition to the Washington family.

Much to Martha’s disappointment, “The Father of His Country” was needed once again. This time George took the role of President of the United States. This meant the Southerners would have to move to the North. Joy, joy. New York City (and later Philadelphia) was at this time the capital of the fledgling nation. As First Lady, Martha did much entertaining. Yet even her social gatherings had to be watched carefully, lest it appear she was playing favorites. But she need not have worried. Martha was by all accounts the perfect hostess. That is not to say she didn’t have enemies. Although not quite an enemy, Thomas Jefferson didn’t care much for Lady Washington. In addition to the many visitors, Martha also had Nelly and Wash to keep her company.

George and Martha’s Tomb (Courtesy Wikipedia)

In 1793 George accepted another presidency term. This would be his last, much to Martha’s relief. In 1797 the Washingtons packed their bags and returned to Mount Vernon. But Martha’s happiness was not to last long. Throughout the years Martha had lived through death after death of her family. The final blow came in 1799. On December 14th, George came down with a throat infection that quickly ended his life. There was nothing the doctors could do for him and Martha was once again a widow. George’s death left Martha grief-stricken. She closed their bedroom up and moved into a third-floor bedroom. She either wouldn’t or couldn’t attend George’s funeral. Before her death Martha destroyed hers and George’s papers. As a result much valuable information has been lost.

On 22 May 1801, after suffering illness, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington died. She had gone to join her “Old Man”, as she called George.

Source: Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life.

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44 thoughts on “First Lady: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

  1. Very interesting post! I had no idea how much sorrow she had to endure. Nobody should have to watch all of their children die before they do!! And how strange that they adopted Jack’s two children – how could Eleanor give them up? So sad :(.

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    • She and George both outlived all of their siblings. It’s shocking how Martha lost so many people that were dear to her.

      According to Patricia Brady, families adopting family members was common practice for the time. She also hints that Eleanor may have found managing Wash’s estates overwhelming. In any case, it worked out well for Martha. She had endured so much loss that the two children were indeed very much welcomed. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. I find it fascinating how physical strength and resilience played out in an era before modern surgery and antibiotics. The women who didn’t die in childbirth often ended up outliving their families. Psychologically, though, where would you like to be? The survivor is a hard role.

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    • The saying “The coward dies a thousand deaths” could be reworded and applied to Martha “A mother dies a thousand deaths”. You’re right about outliving family. I think Martha must’ve outlived nearly all of her loved-ones. Poor woman.

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  3. Poor Martha, I know it was often a sign of the times but to have to endure all that misery….can’t help but to draw a couple of parallels between her and Jackie Kennedy. Thank you for your wonderful stories xxx

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    • I don’t know that much about Jackie ( she was before my time, and I don’t usually read much beyond WWII), but you’ve aroused my curiosity. Will go and scout out her Wiki page. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Great post J.G. I was wondering if George’s bad teeth affected his health and maybe didn’t help when he got that final throat infection.

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    • I think there’s a good chance George’s bad teeth contributed to bad health. His two terms as president no doubt stressed Martha to max. Twice illness nearly killed him. Thanks for your comment!

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  5. Another well crafted tribute to an unusual woman who lived during an historic period, married to an American icon. I always wondered why she destroyed their correspondence!! We shall never really know…

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    • If I was in Martha’s position and destroyed the papers, it would be because I wouldn’t want future generations peaking into my personal life! But that’s just me. :) Thanks for your comment.

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  6. I thought I knew much of what’s known about Martha Washington, but I’d never heard about the citrus incident. So thanks for that new knowledge. Also, knowing that Thomas Jefferson didn’t care for her makes me love her even more.

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    • Yeah? I know, when compared to other Revolutionary War ladies, she didn’t do/ involved quite as much. When I go to read about her it seems many things ‘known’ about her is mere speculation.

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