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Martha Washington

America's First First Lady

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Martha Washington

Martha Washington

from a public domain image
George and Martha Washington, grandchildren, and a family servant and slave

Washington's Family by Edward Savage, about 1780

from a public domain image
Martha Washington Portrait - Gilbert Stuart

From a Gilbert Stuart Painting

Getty Images

Dates: June 2, 1731 – May 22, 1802
First Lady* April 30, 1789 - March 4, 1797

Occupation: First Lady* of the United States as wife of the first US President, George Washington. She also managed the estate of her first husband and, while George Washington was away, Mount Vernon.

*First Lady: the term "First Lady" came into use many years after Martha Washington's death; it's used here in its modern sense.

Also Known As: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

About Martha Washington:

Martha Washington, was born Martha Dandridge in Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Virginia. She was the eldest daughter of John Dandridge, a wealthy landowner, and his wife, Frances Jones Dandridge, both of whom came from established New England families.

Martha's first husband, also a wealthy landowner, was Daniel Parke Custis. They had four children; two died in childhood. Daniel Parke Custis died on July 8, 1757, leaving Martha quite wealthy, and in charge of running the estate and household, holding both a dower portion and managing the rest during her children's minority.

George Washington

Martha met the young George Washington at a cotillion in Williamsburg. She had many suitors, but married Washington on January 6, 1759. She moved that spring with her two surviving children, John Parke Custis (Jacky) and Martha Parke Custis (Patsy), to Mount Vernon, Washington's estate. Her two children were adopted and raised by George Washington.

Martha was, by all accounts, a gracious hostess who helped restore Mount Vernon from the neglect of George's time away during the French and Indian War. Martha's daughter died in 1773 at the age of 17, after some years of suffering epileptic seizures.

Wartime

In 1775, when George Washington had become the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Martha traveled with her son, new daughter-in-law, and friends to stay with George at the winter army headquarters in Cambridge. Martha remained until June, returning in March of 1777 to the Morristown winter camp to nurse her husband, who was ill. In February of 1778 she rejoined her husband at Valley Forge. She is credited with helping to keep up the spirits of the troops during this gloomy period.

Martha's son Jacky enlisted as an aide to his stepfather, serving briefly during the siege at Yorktown, dying after only a few days of what was called camp fever -- probably typhus. His wife was in ill health, and her youngest, Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) was sent to Mount Vernon to be nursed; her last baby, George Washington Parke Custis was also sent to Mount Vernon. These two children were raised by Martha and George Washington even after their mother remarried a doctor in Alexandria.

On Christmas Eve, 1783, George Washington arrived back at Mount Vernon from the Revolutionary War, and Martha resumed her role as hostess.

First Lady

Martha Washington did not enjoy her time (1789-1797) as First Lady (the term was not then used) though she played her role as hostess with dignity. She had not supported her husband's candidacy for the presidency, and she would not attend his inauguration. The first temporary seat of government was in New York City, where Martha presided over weekly receptions, and was later moved to Philadelphia, where they lived except for a return to Mount Vernon when a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia.

After the Presidency

After the Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon, their granddaughter Nelly married George's nephew, Lawrence Lewis. Nelly's first child, Frances Parke Lewis, was born at Mount Vernon. Less than three weeks later, George Washington died, December 14, 1799, after suffering a severe cold. Martha moved out of their bedroom and into a third floor garret room and lived in seclusion, seen only by a few of the remaining slaves and Nelly and her family. Martha Washington burned all but two of the letters she and her husband had exchanged.

Martha Washington lived until May 22, 1802. George had freed half the slaves of Mount Vernon, and Martha freed the rest. Martha Washington is buried with her husband in a tomb at Mount Vernon.

Legacy

George Washington Parke Custis' daughter, Mary Custis Lee, married Robert E. Lee. A part of the Custis estate which had passed through George Washington Parke Custis to his son-in-law was confiscated by the federal government during the Civil War, though the United States Supreme Court eventually found that the government had to reimburse the family. That land is now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

When a ship was named the USS Lady Washington in 1776, it became the first US military ship to be named for a woman and was the only ship the Continental Navy named for a woman.

In 1901, Martha Washington became the first woman whose image was depicted on a US postage stamp.

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