In 1633, the Reverend Rowland Jones came from England to the colony of Virginia. He had graduated from Oxford University and in Williamsburg had served as minister for fourteen years.
Two generations later Martha Dandridge, his great-granddaughter, was born on June 2, 1731 on a plantation near Williamsburg. She grew up in the Dandridge home, Chestnut Grove. She enjoyed riding horses, gardening, sewing, playing the “spinet” and dancing. Her father made sure that she got a fair education in basic math, reading and writing…something girls didn’t receive at the time. At the age of eighteen, Martha married to Daniel Parke Custis. He was wealthy, handsome and twenty years older than her. Martha set up housekeeping on his plantation, while her husband managed the estate, which covered over 17,000 acres. Her husband adored his young, pretty bride and pampered her with the finest clothes and gifts imported all the way from England. They had four children, two who died before their first birthday. Their two surviving children John Parke, called “Jacky” and Martha, called “Patsy”. In 1757, when Martha was twenty-six, Daniel Custis died after a brief illness. Jacky was three and Patsy was less than a year old.
Dying without a will, Martha was left with the duties of running the household, the estate and raising her children. (Fatherless children were usually “raised” under the care of a guardian, even if the mother survived–which meant that another male, primarily a relative, took care of the estates of the children). Her early education proved very helpful in the task. Her husband’s former business manager stayed to help with the operation of the plantation and she consulted with lawyers when she felt she needed it.
Sometime later, Martha met a young colonel (several months younger than her) in the Virginia Militia at a cotillion in Williamsburg. His name was George Washington. Martha fell in love and George found her quite attractive. (That she had a good disposition and inherited wealth was an added bonus to the relationship).
Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from an ordinary planter to a substantially wealthy landowner. He had resigned his commission in the militia and so, George, Martha, Jacky who was 4, and Patsy who was about 2 moved into the remodeled Mt. Vernon. Martha was careful in running her home, although she and her husband did not pinch pennies when it came to caring for their home. Her children were denied nothing. She pampered and lavished attention and expensive gifts on them.
They lived well at first, but subsequent bad crop returns over a number of years began to take their toll on their finances. When the children were eight years old and six years old, Mr. Walter Magowen was hired as their tutor. At the age of twelve, Patsy had an epileptic seizure, and as her condition worsened, she could no longer study. Then Mr. Magowen left for England soon after Patsy became ill and Jacky was sent to Boucher School in Caroline County (Boucher was moved to Annapolis in 1770). Jacky was an indifferent student, interested more in having fun than being studious. A proposed trip for Jacky was refused by his stepfather because he felt Jacky was too immature, and their finances couldn’t handle the expense. While there, he met Eleanor “Nelly” Calvert and they were engaged. Soon after he had left for New York, Patsy died at the age of 17. Martha was devastated, but told Jacky to remain in school. By December, Jacky wanted to come back to Mt. Vernon, and on the way, on February 3, 1774, Jacky and Nelly were married at Nelly’s home, Mt. Airy in Maryland, before heading further south.
About the same time, the political conflict in the colonies was becoming more spoken. The colonists were being weighed down with an excessive amount of taxes. Some of the friends of Martha and George, people who visited their home, were soon to become our Founding Fathers. Martha herself was considerably torn. Her friends and family were split on both sides. Her sons in-laws were loyalists as well as some of their neighbors. George, however, felt it was his duty to assume some role of leadership at the urging of some of his fellow patriots. He began by working on recruiting and training a small army. Realizing he would have to be away from home, he told Jacky and Nelly to stay at Mt. Vernon with Martha.
George Washington soon became the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and he took charge of his army at Cambridge, Massachusetts in the winter of 1775. Martha, For Christmas, Jacky, Nelly, and some friends traveled two weeks to be with him there. Martha stayed with him until June of 1776, but the others returned home soon after Christmas. When she got back to Mt. Vernon, Martha gathered her family to get the smallpox inoculation…a risky thing because you could get the disease and die anyway. Martha didn’t rejoin her husband until February of 1778, where she joined him at Valley Forge. There she entertained some of the officers and the other wives who shared winter quarters there. Jacky was becoming restless at home, so he volunteered to become an aide to his stepfather. He was enlisted only a few days when he died on November 5, 1781 of “camp fever.” Jacky was the last of Martha’s children and she was very upset. George told her to stay at Mt. Vernon instead of being with him that winter. By this time, Jacky and Nelly had six children: Eliza Parke Custis, Martha Parke Custis, Eleanor Parke Custis, a set of twins who died and George Washington Parke Custis. Nelly was in poor health after the birth of her own Nelly and as a result, the young baby was sent to Mt. Vernon to be nursed. With the birth and death of the twins and following birth of George Washington Parke Custis, he joined his sister at Mt. Vernon.
The war ended on November 25, 1783, when the British left their last stronghold. Washington said farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York, shopped for gifts for his grandchildren in Philadelphia and resigned his commission in Annapolis (temporary home of Congress), and on Christmas Eve, he rode into Mt. Vernon.
Martha’s daughter-in-law soon remarried a widower, Dr. Stuart, who had set up practice in Alexandria. Young Nelly and Wash would imminently be leaving Mt. Vernon to live with their mother. Due to some confusion in guardianship and Martha’s own distress at losing her grandchildren, the children ended up staying at Mt. Vernon.
Martha resumed her housekeeping job, as well as entertaining and caring for her grandchildren. Guests were constantly visiting their home. George hired several tutors until Tobias Lear was hired as tutor for the children and as secretary to George Washington, which lessened some of Martha’s duties.
The Constitutional Convention was assembling and George traveled to take part in it. He was named president of the convention and before ratification of the new Constitution; he was being urged to accept the role of the President of the United States. He returned to Mt. Vernon, and in April, the Electoral College elected him unanimously.
George and Martha had to apply for a loan to pay for the move to New York–the temporary capital. George arrived first and his inaugural ball was held before Martha could be with him. Martha and her grandchildren were hailed with fanfare all the way to New York. Martha had her own receptions on Fridays open to both men and women. Sundays were family days, first going to church at St. Paul’s and various outings with the grandchildren in the afternoons.
Martha loved Philadelphia, along with her grandchildren. She had a number of old friends there with whom she could go to parties with and to go to the theater with.
George Washington was elected to a second term, which was hard for him when war broke out between France and England. His desire was for the United States to stay neutral but others in the government felt that the help should be given to France. As a result, Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton threatened to also resign. By August, a severe epidemic of Yellow Fever spread over Philadelphia. The First Family traveled to Mt. Vernon until cold weather hit the city and ended the disease.
March 4, 1797 was the day that George Washington left Congress and the Washingtons soon returned home to Mt. Vernon. They celebrated George’s sixty-seventh birthday with a wedding ceremony. Young Nelly married his nephew, Lawrence Lewis. They lived at Mt. Vernon until they were given a piece of land of Mt. Vernon and their home, Woodlawn.
After riding the grounds of Mt. Vernon one day, George came back home with a bad cold. He died December 14, 1799. Martha was too depressed to attend the funeral. Upon his death, she closed the door to their bedroom and moved herself to a tiny, plain loft room on the third floor of the mansion, directly over Nelly’s bedroom. Twenty days before her grandfather died, Nelly had given birth to her first child, Frances Parke Lewis. The baby brought Martha a lot of happiness, and lessened her pain a little.
George Washington’s will ordered the freedom of half of his slaves, leaving the old and the young to remain. Martha freed the rest in 1800. Her own health was fading and in March of 1802, sensing her death, she made a will. May 22, 1802, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington breathed her last breath with her beloved granddaughter Nelly nearby. She was entombed next to her husband at Mt. Vernon.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was an amazing person. She was independent, intelligent, sociable and an overall good person. She influenced the modern day in many ways. She has inspired many women to become more independent. Just look at the way she handled the death of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. In her time of need after her husband died instead of giving up and marrying again or handing over the care of the estate, home and the children to someone else she managed it all on her own.
When her second husband, George Washington, was off at war, she made as many visits as she could that inspired him and brought up his moral. While she visited him, she entertained the other wives and families that were visiting also all on her own. These things were good examples of her kindness, sociability, and again of her independence. She was, and is a role model for people everywhere.