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Martha Washington – Your Gal Friday

Today we are talking about the 1st, First Lady of the United States. A gal who widowed twice, spent 6 winters on battlefield camps, was a delight to everyone she entertained even though she wished for a private life. Today we’re going the life and legacy of your gal, Martha Washington.

Learn about Martha in less than 2 minutes

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Early Life

Martha youngMartha was born as Martha Dandridge on June 13, 1731 (or on June 2 in Old Style dating). Martha was born on her parents’ plantation Chestnut Grove in New Kent County, Virginia. Her father was John Dandridge Virginia, a planter and immigrant from England. Martha’s mother was Frances Jones.

Martha had three younger brothers and four sisters. She enjoyed riding horses, gardening, sewing, playing the spinet and dancing. Her father saw that she received a fair education in basic mathematics, reading and writing – something girls primarily did not receive at the time. 

Unlike the majority of women in Virginia at this time who were not literate, Martha learned both to read and write at an early age. Throughout her entire life, Martha found pleasure and solace in reading. She read the Bible and other devotional literature for religious edification and novels and magazines for entertainment and instruction. Martha was also known as a regular and active letter writer, and a collection of her surviving letters are housed in the collections of the Mount Vernon library.

Helen Bryan writes in her book, Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty that Martha may have had an illegitimate half-sister, Ann Dandridge Costin, who was born into slavery. Her enslaved mother was of African and Cherokee descent. Martha’s father may also have fathered an out-of-wedlock half-brother to Martha named Ralph Dandridge who was most likely white.

First Marriage

daniel park custisWhen Martha was 18 years old she married Daniel Parke Custis. Interestly they lived in a mansion dubbed “The White House”.

Daniel was the manager of his father’s plantation not far from where Martha grew up in Chestnut Grove. Daniel was also 20 years older than Martha. His family was not only wealthy but they were socially prominent. Daniel’s father was on Virginia’s Governor’s Council. Daniel did not take part in politics but instead stayed in farming eventually inheriting his father’s many plantations.

Martha and Daniel would have 4 children. Daniel Jr. was born a year after their marriage but died before turning 3 years old. In the next few years the family grew as Francis, John “Jackey”, and Martha “Patsy” were born.

Around Martha’s 25th birthday in 1757, she was delivered two horrible blows. Her first daughter, Frances, dies before turning four years-old. Then a few months later her husband dies, it is believed of a heart attack, he was 45.

As devastating as this is, Martha did have a rich inheritance for herself and her children, which included custody of nearly 18,000 acres of land, more than 85 slaves, spread over 5 plantations. She now had powerful estate to manage and children to raise and protect. 

Second Marriage

georgewashingtonandmarthaMartha met a young colonel from the Virginia Militia at a cotillion in Williamsburg. This young colonel fought for the British in the French and Indian War. His desire was to become a commissioned officer in the Royal Army, but the British never considered it. His name was George Washington.

As a man who lived and owned property in the area, George Washington likely knew both Martha and Daniel Custis for some time before Daniel’s death. During March 1758 he visited her twice at White House; the second time had either an engagement of marriage or at least her promise to think about his proposal. At the time, she was also being courted by the planter Charles Carter, who was even wealthier than Washington.

Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from an ordinary planter to a substantially wealthy landowner. The wedding was grand and Martha had fine clothes shipped from Europe for the occasion. Washington’s suit was of blue and silver cloth with red trimming and gold knee buckles. Martha wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles. The couple honeymooned at White House for several weeks before setting up house at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

They appeared to have had a solid marriage. Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha’s two surviving children. Her daughter, nicknamed Patsy, died as a teenager in 1773 during an epileptic seizure in George Washington’s arms The day following Patsy’s death, Washington wrote to Burwell Bassett, “It is an easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family, especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patsy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday re- moved the Sweet, Innocent Girl into a more happy & peaceful abode than any she has met with, the afflicted path she hitherto has trod.”

Washington cancelled all business activity and, for the next three months, was not away from Martha for a single night.

Patsy’s death enabled Washington to pay off his British creditors, since half of her inheritance passed to him. They lived well at first, but subsequent bad crop returns over a number of years began to take their toll on their finances. 

War Years

molly pitcherWomen were important at the camps during the Revolutionary War. They cooked, they delivered food, they tended to the wounded, they mended uniforms, they did the laundry, and they put on musical jamboree and plays to keep morale up. Some women got paid half as much as the men, if they even got paid at all.

Some women even took arms. There are stories of women who dressed as men to fight the war. There were teenage girls like Sybil Ludington who rode on horseback double the distance of Paul Revere to warn towns the British were coming. Molly Pitcher was a water catcher at the battle of Monmouth and when all the men in charge of the firing the cannons were morally wounded, she took up the cannons and fired them at the enemy.

George Washington was not a big fan of women at the camps as he felt is distracted the men from their mission, however every winter while the fighting was at a standstill, George would ask Martha to join him at camp. This went on for six years.

Martha made the trips from Mt. Vernon to the camps at Cambridge, Philadelphia, Morristown, Newburgh and Valley Forge.

When Martha arrived at Valley Forge, Cokie Roberts says in her fantastic book, Founding Mothers, “1,500 horses died of starvation and the human condition was not much better” She talks about how there were chants from the soldiers of “No bread. No Soldier.” 

Martha set up a sewing circle for the officer’s wives, she passed out food and arranged for music and song. She worked to boost morale. She was also George’s right-hand woman. She helped organize his thoughts, settle his mind, and be a compassionate shoulder in troubled times. Martha also acted as his secretary (look out Hamilton) she made copies of his letters and was his representative at important events. As it says on, “Her presence not only fortified her husband but helped boost the morale of the entire camp.”

Women would tend to stay for the winter in the camps and spend the summers at home. Some women didn’t have a home to go back to as it might have been burned down or claimed by the British.

For the women at home during battle whether it was Mt. Vernon, The Schuyler home, or a farmhouse, women were at a constant state of alert. Before America’s independence British officers had the right to anyone’s home at any point. Many times if troops or scouts were in your area they would stay in your home. Your allegiance didn’t matter, by law you needed to allow them to stay for as long as they deemed fit. If you were a woman whose husband was away fighting, regardless of which side, there was a real danger for your health and safety as well as that of your kids. If you upset the British soldiers during their stay, your home and crops could be burned or you could lose your life.  

Women, including Martha, were now in charge of running their husbands business whether it was farming, law, politics, or hospitality. They did this on top of raising families, keep children fed and healthy, corresponding with friends and family on the situation on the war, politics and home life. For the women who couldn’t join their husbands at camps and the months they were back at home, women were on their own not knowing if and when their husbands might return.

First Lady Washington

martha 2After the war, George Washington became the first president of the newly formed United States of America, the inauguration was on April 30, 1789. Once he assumed office, Martha knew her actions would be observed closely and even copied by those down the road. She hosted many affairs of state at New York City and Philadelphia during their years as temporary capitals. The socializing became known as “the Republican Court”.

The term “First Lady” was not yet established but Martha was referred to as “Lady Washington”. She also had Friday public receptions and handled household affairs while developing a friendship with Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams. 

Martha Washington was seen as a gracious presence and looked to Europe for inspiration in terms of setting standards for official affairs, though it was noted that she often felt trapped and preferred a quieter life.

Oney Judge

Beginning in 1789, Oney Judge was a personal slave to First Lady Martha Washington. Oney worked in the presidential households in New York City and Philadelphia.

Martha Washington had informed her that she was to be given as a wedding present to her granddaughter since Oney was Martha’s favorite and most trusted.

Oney knew that if she was sent back to Virginia there was no hope of being a free person, where in Philadelphia she had hope because of the new Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Law. 

With the aid of Philadelphia’s free black community, Judge escaped to freedom in 1796 and lived as a fugitive slave in New Hampshire for the rest of her life. She married and had three children. More is known about her than any other of the Mount Vernon slaves because she was twice interviewed by abolitionist newspapers in the mid-1840s.

Oney recalled in an 1845 interview in The Granite Freedman:

Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.

Two runaway advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers document Judge’s escape to freedom from the President’s House


Patricia Brady, author of Martha Washington: An American Life, writes:

“Martha felt a responsibility for the unsophisticated girl under her care, especially since her mother and sister were expecting to see her back at Mount Vernon. What she could never understand was that [Oney had…] a simple desire to be free. Ona, as she preferred to call herself, wanted to live where she pleased, do what work she pleased, and learn to read and write […] Ona Judge professed a great regard for Martha and the way she had been treated, but she couldn’t face a future as a slave for herself and her children.”

Post Presidential Life

After George Washington taught us how to say goodbye by stepping down as President, Martha and George returned to Mt. Vernon in 1797. It seems both were relieved to return to a normal life away from politics and war.

But according to Martha’s post-presidential life was filled with entertaining hundreds of guests. So much for a quiet retirement.

George spent his retirement working on his business interests and plantations, so it’s easy to assume she did as well. The plantations weren’t going to so well and was making little money. It seems that the Washington’s had more fame and notoriety than money. Historians note that most of the Washington wealth was tied up in unsellable land and slaves they didn’t want to be separated – they wanted to be freed.

Two years after stepping down as President, George Washington died after spending several hours inspecting his plantation in the frigid December conditions. First he got sick but still went back out in the snow, hail and freezing rain. His condition worsened and he could barely breathe, speak or swallow. Three doctors were summoned to Washington’s side. The last words Tobias Lear documented were “Tis well.”

Eliza Hamilton wasn’t the only one to have burned letters, to protect their privacy Martha burned letters between herself and George. 2 letters have survived one is with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the other is with the Virginia Historical Society.  There are 65 letters in Library of congress to and from Martha to various correspondence. Her letters are generally cheerful, supportive and matter of fact. On the flip side there is over 135,000 documents called “The Washington Papers” at the University of Virginia.

Slavery at Mount Vernon

When Martha’s first husband, Daniel died, she received a “dower share,” the lifetime use of (and income from) the remaining one-third of the estate and its slaves. 

Upon his 1759 marriage to Martha, George Washington became the legal manager of the Custis estate. At the time of her marriage, Martha’s dower share included more than 80 slaves. She also would control any children they had, as they would become part of the dower.

Washington used his wife’s great wealth to buy land and slaves; he more than tripled the size of Mount Vernon. For more than 40 years, her “dower” slaves farmed the plantation alongside her husband’s.  Some slaves owned by the Washington’s married each other, forming linked families. This created complex inheritance issues.

George Washington’s thoughts on slavery were contradictory and changed over time. In his will, he wrote to free of all his slaves upon his wife’s death.

This caused a great panic because 123 slaves could have their freedom if and when Martha died. Fear of a revolt, Martha freed those slaves one year after George’s death.

In accordance with state law, Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were too poor or indifferent to see to their education, were to be bound out to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of twenty-five.

Last Years

Living as a widow for now the second time in her life, Martha stayed at Mount Vernon. Her heath was never quite the same after George’s death but she entertained John and Abigail Adams and as well as future Presidents and First Ladies, John Quincy & Louisa Adams, James & Dolley Madison. She wanted to stay a private person however she seemed to know that her life was of public interest.

Martha died only a few years after George in 1802 she was 70 years old. was surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had outlived all of her children.

Martha was eulogized in the newspapers as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.”

Leah and Phoebe talk more about what we can learn from Martha as well as her legacy in this week’s episode. Listen here. 

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Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast about female leaders, innovators and rule breakers.  Your hosts, Dr. Leah Leach & Ms. Phoebe Frear, talk about the life and legacy about a gal as well as what they have learned from her.

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