Martha Washington’s biography is the story of a strong and courageous woman who, despite numerous losses in her life, continued with success. She only stood five feet tall, but was not afraid to speak her mind or stand up for her beliefs. Her story begins in Virginia in 1731.
Martha Dandridge was the oldest of eight children born to Frances Jones and John Dandridge. Her family, as members of the local gentry, lived a comfortable but not extravagant life. She was raised in the Anglican church and her mother taught to read. She learned to cook, clean, spin thread, weave cloth, make clothing, raise a garden, care for children and care for domestic animals. As she got older she loved embroidering, needlework and knitting. She learned the fine points of etiquette, horseback riding, dancing and how to converse with men. These things prepared her for her future role in life.
When Daniel Parke Custis began to court her, she knew she had a fight on her hands. His father, John Custis IV, was one of the richest men in Virginia and had hampered all his son’s prior attempts to wed. Daniel was in his late 30s and Martha eighteen when they met. Martha knew she had to win over the father in order to marry him. She set up a meeting with his father and used her beauty, charm, personality and social adeptness to win him over. Before they got married, his father died and Daniel became one of the richest men in Virginia.
Martha and Daniel married in 1750 and had a son and a daughter, Daniel and Frances. Both children died before the age of five. Martha had two more children, John (“Jacky”) and Martha (“Patsy”). When Daniel died suddenly in 1757, Martha found herself in charge of the entire estate at age 26. With her usual determination, she got everything under control and accomplished within one month after her husband’s death.
George Washington, who came from a relatively prosperous family and had risen to the rank of Colonel in the Virginia regiment, heard about the widow and paid her a visit. The attraction was instant and within a few months the two began planning a wedding. They were married ten months after their initial meeting. Martha and George never had any children, but George was a doting step-father to Martha’s children and their love and mutual respect grew deeper.
More heartbreak was ahead for Martha when she lost her last two children. By the time Patsy was twelve she developed epilepsy and at seventeen she died during a seizure. Her son Jacky met his future wife, Eleanor, and married her when he was nineteen and she was sixteen. They had four children and filled Martha’s life with love and laughter. Jacky joined the military and at 26 he died suddenly from “camp fever.” Martha and George took in Jacky’s two youngest children to raise.
Martha was an excellent hostess and her skills were a benefit to George during his career as commander in chief and later as president. She visited the winter encampment every year and helped raise funds for the troops. Each year as she traveled to the encampment she was honored with dinners and balls.
In 1789, after George became president, Martha, her grandchildren and seven slaves moved to New York City where the temporary government was set up. She was now completely in the spotlight and had to dress formally every day. She knew what she did would set the precedence for future first ladies. She held weekly receptions where anyone could come and discuss events.
Finally in 1797, the Washingtons returned home. Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Provisional Army, which only required one six-week trip away from home per year.
A little over two years after Washington left the presidency, he died. Once again Martha was left alone, having outlived two husbands, four children and several other family members. She found comfort in her grandchildren. In 1801, after threats of an uprising, she freed Washington’s slaves. Martha’s health began to decline and in May 1802, she died and was buried next to her husband.