Everyone thinks of her as a dowdy old lady with a frumpy bonnet.
But, it wasn’t always that way. Martha Dandridge grew UP the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter in colonial days. At the age of 18, she married her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis who was twenty…years older than she.
He was one of the richest men in the American colonies at the time. His land holding alone consisted of over 17,500 acres covering five counties. He had no fewer than 300 slaves. And, according to all reports, he was good looking, and “had good teeth and pleasant breath”. Apparently in the 1700s those were rare.
When Martha was 26, she became a widow, Daniel died after a brief illness. She had two surviving children, and a pot full of money.
Daniel died without a will. Two thirds of the estate was put into trust for the children, and Martha, with one third her own and control of the rest, became the wealthiest widow, and most eligible bachelorette in Virginia. She lived at White House, their plantation on the Pamunkey River. She was courted by many men including the other richest man in America, Charles Carter of Shirley Plantation.
And by the standards of the day, she was pretty as well.
Shortyly after her husband’s death, Martha Custis met George Washington at a Cotillion in Williamsburg. Some say that Martha fell in love with him instantly, but I wasn’t there, and I’m not so sure about that love at first sight thing, so I can’t say.
George had a crush on an attractive neighbor, Sally Fairfax, but she UP and married some fancy schmancy English Lord, and he – regardless of what some people say – gave UP and went looking elsewhere.
With his own plantation to manage, he needed a wife to help him and to produce heirs so that he wouldn’t have to leave it to his sorry nieces and nephews.
So, George went a courtin’.
George wasn’t so bad himself. Well, the breath and teeth thing might have been a drawback, but at any rate, he was pretty well off, good looking, tall, and single. And they were the same age, 27.
And he fell in love.
History tells us that their wedding was a pretty big deal. The groom wore a suit of blue and silver with red trimming and gold knee buckles; the bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles. I’m assuming she had on a dress as well.
His marriage to Martha changed his status. He married UP. The Washingtons were well-off, but not in a class with the Dandridge Custis set. George went from being an ordinary planter to a wealthy landowner. He resigned his commission in the army (the Colonial British Army at that time), remodeled and enlarged Mt. Vernon and moved his new family home.
Martha’s two children were denied nothing, and by all accounts very spoiled. When the daughter, Patsy, died at the age of 17, George and Martha were heart-broken, and when the son, who did make it to adulthood, and did have his own children died, they adopted his children and Washington reared them as his own.
Martha was not a camp follower as we are lead to believe, she did spend the winter at Valley Forge, and she did travel with Washington at times, but much of their time was spent apart throughout the Revolution.
Their marriage appears to have been a solid one, untroubled by infidelity or clash of temperament. She did oppose his election to the Presidency, but stood by him the entire eight years, and earned the term “First Lady”.
There is no dirt, no scandal; believe me, I looked!
After his years of battle and the Presidency, they returned to Mt. Vernon.
Washington died first, he caught a cold, got a fever, and his doctors did the rest. Ah, modern medicine wasn’t so modern in 1799.
Martha was never the same. One report has her moving from her rooms at Mt. Vernon to a small chamber on the UPper floor where she took no water and no food for several days. She was too distraught to attend his funeral.
Three years later, knowing that she too was dying, she made a will, freed all of her slaves, and burned her letters to and from Washington.
Only two remain.