Martha Washington

by Pamela Kline

"I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition," remarked Lady Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.

As many Americans and non-Americans alike know, Martha Washington was the first "first lady," dutifully serving this country beside her husband George Washington. Together they served the country faithfully.

Martha Washington as a young ladyAll images of Martha Washington on this page are public domain

Martha Washington had a hard childhood and as a young woman faced many disappointments. Even though George Washington was a devout believer in God, it is unknown if Martha shared his beliefs. In a letter from a relative on Martha Washington's side of the family, it is stated that they were so happy together that it is perceived that they were both Christians.

Martha had a wonderful, rich life with George Washington until her death on May 22nd, 1802.


Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was born into a family of nine children on June 2, 1731. Her father and his brothers were immigrants from England to Virginia.

John Dandridge, Martha Washington's father, was a wealthy plantation owner in Virginia. Martha was taught many lady-like duties to do as a young woman by her mother, but she found most of her childhood joys in riding horses, climbing trees, playing the spinet, dancing, gardening, and sewing.

First Marriage

She matured, grew and married Mr. Daniel Parke Custis at the age of 18. He was a very handsome, wealthy man and loved to pamper his lovely bride with gifts and treasures from England. Together, the couple had four children, though two died in infancy. Their surviving children were named Jacky and Patsy.

When Daniel Custis died suddenly from a brief illness, Martha was left to take care of her growing children and the estate that her husband had owned.

Due to his death, the government put her under the auspices of a relative to be better taken care of.  She was only twenty-six at his passing and her children were only infants at the time.

George and Martha Washington

Martha Custis soon found herself falling in love with George Washington. She knew George Washington as a courageous colonel who helped fight in the French-Indian war. He found her very attractive yet wanted to marry Martha's neighbor, Sally Fairfax.

When Sally married another man, George turned to Martha.  On January 6th, 1759, she married a second time.

Jacky and Patsy were only two and four at the time of their mother's second marriage.

Martha and George's marriage changed George from an ordinary man to a wealthy landowner. They moved to Mount Vernon where they bought a house, which they enlarged and remodeled.

Since the couple was very wealthy and popular, they had many parties. Martha pampered and showered her children with expensive treats and things from England. Their hasty frivolity in their fortune almost drove them into bankruptcy.

Martha Dandridge Custis WashingtonMartha Dandridge Custis Washington

Jacky and Patsy Washington

As the children grew up, Martha found that she needed more help than ever. She hired a tutor to teach Jacky and Patsy (now eight and six years old). When Patsy turned 12, she began experiencing epileptic seizures, which led to her eventually having to quit the lessons.

Patsy Washington's condition only worsened, and finally she died at the age of 17.

Jacky went on to go to the King's College where he met his future bride, Eleanor "Nellie" Calvert. Martha, still horror-stricken at her daughter's death, pleaded with her son to stay in school. He gave in and stayed in college until he was married to Eleanor on February 3rd, 1774 in Maryland.

After their marriage, the two journeyed south.

The War for Independence

Not long after Jacky's marriage, the political unrest amongst the colonies grew steadily into a thundering voice. Martha Washington was torn in two by the loyalist and patriot parties. She had relatives and neighbors, who were adamant loyalists, and yet her heart was troubled until she realized that her heart was with the patriots.

George Washington was beginning to encourage his fellow supporters in the patriot cause. Soon, he was forced to leave Martha on the urgent business of independence.

He wrote Jacky and Eleanor and asked them to stay with Martha while he was gone fighting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They did so without hesitation.

In the winter of 1775, Martha Washington traveled to Cambridge to be with her husband. She continued visiting him as the patriots fought for America's independence.

Martha Washington fought smallpox, when it was getting a grip on the young American lives. She even survived an inoculation.

Smallpox inoculations in the 1700's were not what they are now. A small amount of pus from a smallpox victim would be put under the skin of a healthy person, resulting in a real but greatly diminished case of smallpox.

Smallpox inoculations killed about 1 in 100 patients, but the disease was far worse, killing 17% of its victims and badly scarring most of the rest.

George Washington himself, a victim of a mild case at age 19, eventually required inoculations for all new recruits during the Revolutionary War.

Because of the tension in the war and the spread of smallpox in the army, Martha did not get to see her husband for another five months.

Only afterwards did she stay at Valley Forge with him, entertaining the officers and their wives.

More Disappointments

Not everything was going smoothly, though.  Jacky Custis was getting restless at home and finally decided to join his stepfather in the war. He died of "camp fever" on November 5th, 1781.

Her last child dead, Martha was in anguish.

In the meantime, however, Eleanor Custis had given birth to six beautiful children.

Eleanor's devastation when her husband died doubled when her set of twins died shortly afterwards.

When Eleanor was in labor with her seventh child, whom she named Nelly as well, she was very weak and in poor health. As a result, she had to be transferred to Mount Vernon where her baby was nursed for her there. Martha's brother stayed with her during the hard times without George Washington.

After the War

On November 25th, 1783, George Washington finally said goodbye to the battlefield.

He returned to his wife and grandchildren on Christmas Eve, arriving just in time to find that Eleanor had married for the second time to Dr. Stuart and wanted her children to move to Alexandria, which is where the new couple was at.

First Lady Martha WashingtonFirst Lady Martha Washington

During Martha Washington's care for her grandchildren, she had gotten ill. George hired many tutors until he found Tobias Lear to take up not only the children's education, but be his secretary at the same time.

First Lady Martha Washington

After George Washington was named president of the Constitutional Convention, he was encouraged to take on the role of president of the United States of America.

However, rather than campaign, he returned to Martha, both knowing that he would be elected anyway. Indeed he was elected by the first Electoral College.

This began yet another part of life for Martha as housekeeper and First Lady of the House.

As lady of the White House, Martha Washington took up many responsibilities and even opened a convention for women and men to speak at.

Her grandchildren continued visiting her and George while he was in office. They moved twice within the same year as George was elected for office again.

Troubles for President George Washington

His second year in office almost ended in a disaster since he was president during a war between France and England. Speaking to the French, he made clear that he wanted to remain neutral in regard to the war. (The French were the colonists' greatest supporters during the revolution.)

Others in the government felt that aid to France would be most necessary. Since George did not want to provide it, Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton threatened to submit his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury if he did provide it.

Then, in August, a severe case of yellow fever spread throughout Philadelphia. The Washingtons moved for the last time back to Mount Vernon and the cold weather that followed after abruptly ended the disease.

Statue of George Washington in Buffalo, NYStatue of George Washington in Buffalo, NY. George was a Mason; the inscription said he was a member of the Alexandria, VA lodge. | Photo by Paul Pavao

The Washington's at Mt. Vernon

In Mt. Vernon, Martha and George Washington celebrated George's 67th birthday with a wedding.

Their granddaughter Nelly was married to George Washington's cousin named Lawrence Lewis. They stayed with George and Martha until they finally were able to buy a piece of land near Mt. Vernon called Woodlawn.

George Washington's Death

George loved to ride his horse around the grounds. One day, after a nice ride in the cold air, he had a severe cold. He died on December 14, 1799.

Martha Washington was so deep in her grief that she could not attend the funeral. Instead, she went into their old bedroom and stayed there.

Nelly Lewis had her first child 20 days previous to George Washington's death. The joyous birth somewhat healed Martha's broken heart after her husband died.

On George Washington's death, his will stated that half of his slaves be set free. The young and old slaves remained with Martha.

$10 dollar, 1/2-oz. gold coin with Martha Washington's visage$10 dollar, 1/2-oz. gold coin with Martha Washington's visage

Martha Washington's Death

Martha Washington soon sensed that her end was near when her own health began failing.

The last thing she did before she died was burn all the letters she and her husband had shared but two. On March 22, 1802 Martha died with her granddaughter Nelly at her side. She was buried near her courageous husband in Mount Vernon.

Martha Washington's Legacy

Entitled 'Martha Dandridge Custis Washington' and painted by Eliphalet Frazer AndrewsEntitled 'Martha Dandridge Custis Washington' and painted by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews

Martha Washington's story is particularly interesting because she had so many loved ones leave her through death. Her mother and brother died shortly before George was elected president of the Constitutional Convention.

Now that she is gone as well, she must feel better knowing that death cannot keep her from her family or the love of God.  She is a good example to many who have let sorrow shape them until they become something truly beautiful.

It is said that portraits painted of her make her look like a grouchy old woman, but it would be more rightly said that she was shaped by grief and sorrow. She is truly a beautiful woman, inside and out.

Abigail Adams was one of the country's greatest silent heroes.

Abigail Adams

Betsy Ross is known for making the American flag, though her daughter designed it. In her childhood she was from a Quaker family of 19!

Betsy Ross

Return to Revolutionary War Women


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