Born on June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, Martha Dandridge was the daughter of John Dandridge and Frances Jones. John was about 13 when he emigrated from England to Virginia with his older brother. They settled in New Kent County where he became the county clerk in 1730, the year he married Frances Jones.
The eldest of nine, Martha had five sisters and three brothers. The youngest of these siblings was born when Martha was 25 and had borne four children of her own.
In 1750, she married Colonel Daniel Parke Custis. Martha was 18 at the time, sporting dark hair on top of her five-foot stature and gentle manner. They made their home in his Pumunkey River mansion, affectionately known as ‘White House’ on the plantation owned by his father, who had previously moved into the family’s home in Williamsburg. Four children – two daughters and two sons, were born to the couple, two of which died before they were five. On July 26, 1757, Daniel died suddenly, leaving Martha a young widow.
On January 6, 1759, Martha became the bride of a handsome young colonel named George Washington. In April of that year, George, Martha and her two children moved into Mount Vernon. Washington had leased the home from his half-brother’s widow since 1754 and inherited the plantation outright from her estate when she died in 1761. This would be their permanent home for the rest of their lives, though they spent a good deal of time away from it during the years of the Revolutionary War and Washington’s presidency.
While Washington was in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress, Martha remained at Mount Vernon. During the war years however, she frequently resided with her husband at his headquarters. She was with him in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the winter of 1775 and New York in the spring of 1776. Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey enjoyed her presence in the spring of 1777, but she spent the summer at Mt. Vernon. Though she and her husband enjoyed their private life, she shared with her friend, Mercy Otis Warren, “I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country.”
In addition to accompanying her husband, Martha had responsibilities directing the large staff of servants and slaves residing on the land she inherited from the Custis estate, as well as Mount Vernon. George oversaw the plantation’s financial transactions while Martha directed the planting and harvesting of vegetables, herbs and fruits, as well as running the household.
When grandchildren joined the Washington family, two of them grew up at Mount Vernon. In addition, George and Martha’s families became linked with the marriage of her niece, Frances Basset to George’s nephew, Major George Augustine Washington in 1785.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the country’s first president. Having been unanimously named to the office, no election was held. Martha was unable to attend his first inauguration (though she was in attendance at the second), but followed him a month later. Honored as ‘Lady Washington’, she was looked upon as a public figure in her own right and garnered the attention of local citizen groups and the national newspapers.
As the new First Lady, Martha brought a discretion and tact to her role which had been honed during the 58 years she spent in Tidewater Virginia society. She entertained formally as hostess at the President’s House in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. Her intention was to emphasize the new country’s desire to be accepted as equal to the established governments of Europe. Her warm manner put strangers at ease and helped her guests to feel at home. Abigail Adams, who sat on her right at parties and other functions, referred to Martha as ‘one of those unassuming characters which create love and esteem.’
Greatly relieved her husband’s administration had come to an end in 1797, Martha returned to Mount Vernon with George following his farewell address. Their final years together were spent surrounded by friends, kinfolk and guests. When George died in 1799, his remains were originally interned at the US Capitol Building. Martha later wrote to President John Adams, citing the immense personal sacrifice the federal government imposed on her with the request George be buried in the Federal City (later named Washington D.C.) rather than at Mount Vernon.
Following George’s death, Martha burned the letters they had exchanged to ensure a final privacy between them. She many times expressed her loneliness for George and how she wished to follow him soon. Receiving innumerable condolence letters in the wake of George’s death, Martha was the first presidential widow to be granted free postage ‘franking’ by Congress due to the overwhelming cost to respond.
Martha died on May 22, 1802. After her death, the slaves the Washingtons owned became freed individuals per George’s promise.
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” Martha Dandridge Curtis Washington