For some time, I have been working on what I hope to be a very different type of book about one of my heroes, President George Washington. As my research continues to unfold, I have been drawn to a women who, has clearly taken a heightened place in American history is in fact so much more in every capacity than how she has previously been portrayed: Martha Washington.
America's first lady was in fact a stunning, clever, strong, and unbowed women who in reality, when reflecting upon the rise of a women's voice in the west, was in fact a maverick.
During another recent trip to Mount Vernon, where I conducted additional research on Martha, I could not help but laugh at how Martha was portrayed as some frumpy old lady when in fact she was an extremely attractive, intelligent, and highly independent women who was in reality, George Washington's true partner and equal.
How independent was Martha?
During the time George Washington was going to be inaugurated as America's first president at Federal Hall on New York's Wall Street, she did not want her husband to take on that responsibility . . . so she stayed home back at Mount Vernon.
As a sidebar, think about what must have been going on in President Washington's head that day and during the night of his inaguration!
Over the coming months I will be sharing some interesting facts about my research discoveries and how these new understandings about Martha Washington matter today.
Here is a general biography of America's First Lady . . .
Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 on her parents' plantation Chestnut Grove in the British colony, Province of Virginia. She was the oldest daughter of John Dandridge (1700–1756), a Virginia planter and English immigrant, and Frances Jones (1710–1785) of English and Welsh descent.
Martha had three brothers and four sisters: John (1733–1749), William (1734–1776), Bartholomew (1737–1785), Anna Marie "Fanny" Dandridge Bassett (1739–1777), Frances (1744–1757), Elizabeth Dandridge Aylet Henley (1749–1800), and Mary Dandridge (1756–1763).
She may have had an illegitimate half-sister (date of birth unknown), Ann Dandridge Costin, who was born into slavery; her enslaved mother was African and Cherokee and her father was believed to be John Dandridge. Her father may also have sired an illegitimate half-brother, Ralph Dandridge (date of birth not known), who was probably white.
On May 15, 1750 at age 18 Martha married Daniel Parke Custis, a rich planter two decades her senior. They lived at White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River, a few miles upriver from Chestnut Grove. She had four children with him. A son and a daughter, Daniel (1751–1754) and Frances (1753–1757), died in childhood, but two other children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754–1781) and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis (1756–1773) survived to young adulthood.
Her husband's death in 1757 left Martha a rich young widow at age 25, with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime, including properties and slaves, and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children. "She capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices."
The wedding was grand. Washington's suit was of blue and silver cloth with red trimming and gold knee buckles. The bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles, which are occasionally displayed at Mount Vernon. 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 during an epileptic seizure, classed as SUDEP. John (Jackie) Custis returned from college to comfort his mother.
Custis later married and had children; he served as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War. He died of "camp fever" (probably epidemic typhus).
After his death, the Washingtons raised two of John's four children, Eleanor Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 - July 15, 1852), and George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 - October 10, 1857). They also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.
Content to live a private life at Mount Vernon and her homes from the Custis estate, Martha Washington followed Washington to his winter encampments for each of eight years. She helped keep up morale among the officers.
After the war, she opposed his agreeing to be President of the newly formed United States of America, and refused to attend his inauguration (April 30, 1789). Once he came to office, as the First Lady, Mrs. Washington hosted many affairs of state at New York and Philadelphia during their years as temporary capitals. (The capital was moved to Washington D. C. in 1800 under the Adams administration, following construction of the Capitol and White House).