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MARTHA WASHINGTON

Her Legacy

Known for her marriage to her second husband, George Washington, Mary Washington was an affable, determined, and practical wife, traveling with her husband wherever the Continental Army was camped for about half of the Revolutionary War. As the nation’s first First Lady, Martha Washington was an active hostess in New York and Philadelphia.

BORN CONNECTED

Martha Dandridge (and future Mrs. Washington) (1731-1802) was born at Chestnut Grove, a 500-acre plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, 30 miles or so west of Williamsburg. She was the eldest child of John and Frances Dandridge. She had plenty of connections to Williamsburg on her mother’s side. Her great grandfather was the first rector of the Bruton Parish Church from 1674 to 1688. Her grandfather served as a burgess, and after he died, her grandmother lived in Williamsburg with her second husband, watchmaker John Flournoy.

MARRIED ONCE

Martha probably spent more time in the capital after her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis in 1750. They would have visited the city to purchase necessities and participate in the social life of the colonial capital. Daniel and Martha had four children, though only Jacky and Patsy survived into adolescence. They lived at White House on the Pamunkey River, but they also spent time at the Custis home in Williamsburg, a six-chimney home on Francis Street not far from Bruton Parish. (The building does not survive.)

MARRIED TWICE

About 18 months after Daniel’s sudden death, on Twelfth Night 1759, Martha married George Washington in a yellow brocade gown and purple satin shoes. George was more than a foot taller than Martha, but he was about eight months younger. In addition to elevated social standing, Martha brought substantial wealth to the marriage, with thousands of acres of land and about 300 slaves. At Mount Vernon she welcomed a number of young relatives into the household, including two grandchildren after her son Jacky died at the age of 26 after falling ill during the siege at Yorktown in 1781.

THE FIRST FIRST LADY

Although Martha remained at Mount Vernon when George went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, she often accompanied him to his headquarters during the war years, including the desperate winter at Valley Forge. After George was elected president, Martha hosted Friday evening social gatherings in the temporary capitals of New York, and then Philadelphia.

After George died in 1799, Martha burned their personal correspondences. In 1801 she freed the enslaved African Americans owned by George, an act incentivized by the fact that by the terms of his will they were to be freed after her death. Martha died at Mount Vernon at the age of 70 on May 22, 1802.

In Her Words

“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”

 

MEET MARTHA WASHINGTON

 

AN AMERICAN STORY: MARTHA WASHINGTON

Martha Washington

Meet Martha Washington, the woman who married a farmer and ended up helping to shape a nation. Come discuss issues and topics important to her as she navigates a constantly changing country. Hear what it means to her as she helps define what it means to be an American woman.