15 Major Facts about Martha Washington, the first First Lady of the United States

Martha Washington

Martha Washington. Portrait by Rembrandt Peale, circa 1856, based on a portrait by his father, Charles Willson Peale

Martha Washington: Fast Facts

Born: Martha Dandridge

Birthday: June 2, 1731

Place of birth: Chestnut Grove, Virginia, British America

Died: May 22, 1802

Place of death: Mount Vernon, Virginia, United States

Cause of death: a severe fever

Buried at: Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.

Parents: John Dandridge and Frances Jones

Siblings: seven, including John, William, Bartholomew, and Frances

Spouses: Daniel Parke Custis (1750-1757), George Washington (1759-1799)

Children: Daniel, Frances, John, Martha

Most known for: First First Lady of the United States

Also known as: Lady Washington

Height and physical traits:  five feet tall and dark-haired

15 Major Martha Washington Facts

Martha Dandridge Custis

Martha Dandridge Custis in 1757 – mezzotint by John Folwell (1863) after a portrait by John Wollaston

  • She was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, British America. Martha was the daughter of lower gentry (or upper middle class) parents Frances Jones (1710-1785) and John Dandrige (1700-1756). Her father was an English immigrant who settled in colonial Virginia before starting as a clerk of the New Kent County. Her mother’s family had first arrived in the Americas around the mid-17th century.
  • The oldest of her parents’ children, Martha had a total of seven siblings – four sisters and three brothers. Her siblings were: John (1733–1749), William (1734–1776), Bartholomew (1737–1785), Anna Maria “Fanny” Bassett (1739–1777), Frances Dandridge (1744–1757), Elizabeth Aylett Henley (1749–1800), and Mary Dandridge (1756–1763).
  • As slavery was still a huge thing in the United States, Martha grew up in a slaveholding household. As matter of fact much of her wealth and her family’s wealth came from the sweat and labor of the several hundreds of slaves that her family owned. Historians like to point out that she never had questions in her mind about the institution of slavery or the plight of enslaved people in America.
  • Growing up, Martha was home schooled, learning how to read and write, as well as to play certain musical instruments, singing, and sewing. This kind of education was typical of a girl of her social stature in 18th-century colonial America. It is also likely that she received basic training in housekeeping and plantation management. That latter skill proved extremely useful when the time came for her to manage her husband George Washington’s vast plantation and estates.
  • At the age of 18, Martha, who was seen as pretty with a vibrant personality, got married (on May 15, 1750) to a 38-year-old man called Daniel Parke Custis, an affluent Virginia planter that lived close to the Dandridges.

    Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757)- Martha’s first husband

  • By Custis, Martha bore four children – Daniel (born in 1751; died in 1753), Frances (born in 1753; died in 1757), John (born 1754), and Patsy (born in 1756). Two of her children died in infancy. She also lost her husband, brother Frances Dandridge and father all in the 1750s.
  • Following the death of Martha’s first husband in 1757, many men began courting the 26-year-old widow Martha, including Charles Carter of Cleve, a man 23 years her senior who had been widowed twice and had many children.
  • On January 6, 1759, about two years after the death of her first husband, Martha tied the knot with her second husband George Washington. She and her two surviving children – John (also called Jackie) and Martha (also known as Patsy) – moved into Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in Virginia. She also brought close to hundred enslaved people, including an enslaved woman named Betty and her son Austin, from her first husband’s estate to her new marital home in Mount Vernon.

    Martha’s second husband George Washington – Commander of the Continental Army and later first President of the United States

  • Following her marriage to Washington, her private wealth, property and estates passed on to George Washington. This tremendously increased the wealth of George Washington, thus in addition to the fact that Washington’s sister-in-law’s death had left Mount Vernon out rightly to Washington. In that period, Martha used her wealth and persona to support her husband in developing not just his business fortunes but also his political career, as Washington got elected a Burgess.
  • On June 19, 1773, her 17-year-old daughter Patsy died of a seizure. Her death came in spite of Martha and Washington’s hard-fought effort to cure Patsy of her epilepsy.
  • As the Revolutionary War wound to an end, Martha and George Washington’s lives were rocked by the death of her son John, who died of a severe “camp fever” at Yorktown on November 5, 1781. John was serving as an aide to his stepfather General George Washington during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 when he fell ill and died. What that meant was that Martha outlived all four of her children.

    After Martha Washington’s marriage to George Washington, the dower estate that Martha inherited from her first husband was transferred to Washington. In addition to serving as the administrator of the Custis estate, Washington helped raise Martha’s two surviving children – Jackie and Patsy. | Image: Washington’s Family by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington, and one of the enslaved servants of the Washingtons.

  • During their separation that was caused by the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Martha and George exchanged hundreds of letters; however, only but a few survive to this day. Martha was said to routinely dispose of those letters. Some historians have suggested that she burnt many of those letters before the death of Washington in 1799. As a result of the absence of those letters that would have given great insight into the life of Martha Washington, what we know of the first First Lady of the U.S. comes from the people that had the honor of interacting with her.
  • During winter encampments, she joined her husband General Washington and gave all her support to Washington as he fought for freedom and independence for the American colonies. She was also instrumental in galvanizing the support of many women to help in the Revolutionary War.
  • After the Revolutionary War, Martha and her husband Revolutionary War hero George Washington returned to Mount Vernon to rebuild the plantation. The couple raised John’s two youngest children, Eleanor and George. About six years later, duty beckoned and Washington accepted his election as the first president of the United States. The Washingtons, our nation’s first First Family, would spend the next eight years living in temporary capitals – New York and Philadelphia. Throughout Washington two terms in office, Martha took to entertaining and hosting guests of the Commander-in-chief. She hosted weekly dinner on Thursdays and then had receptions on Fridays.

Martha Washington and her slave/lady’s maid Oney Judge

Born around 1773 to a white English tailor Andrew Judge and an enslaved woman Betty, Oney Judge was one of the numerous slaves Martha Washington had on her estate at Mount Vernon. Judge moved with the first Family of the United States to the President’s House in Philadelphia, then our nation’s capital city.

Desiring more than just being a slave who could not write and had no freedom, Judge absconded to New Hampshire in 1796. Judge took this bold decision after Martha made plans to place her in the services of her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, who was known for her bad temper. The Washingtons did not actively pursue Judge as they feared it could damage their reputation. Instead, Martha tried her hardest to convince Judge to return to the Washingtons. Judge, who at the time had married and converted to Christianity, vehemently refused. Therefore, Martha allowed Judge to carry on with her life in New Hampshire.

How did Martha Washington die?

Martha Washington

Sarcophagi of Martha (left) and George Washington in the tomb at Mount Vernon, Virginia

About two and half years after the death of George Washington, Martha Washington, aged 70, passed away at her home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. She died of a terrible fever on May 22, 1802. Her body was laid to rest at the family tomb in Mount Vernon.

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