First Lady: 1789 to 1797
Wife of President George Washington
Born: June 21, 1731 Died: May 22, 1802
Martha Dandridge, eldest child of Colonel and Mrs. John Dandridge, was born at Chestnut Grove Plantation, not far from Williamsburg in the British colony of Virginia. Growing up in a select society of English families, she was much the same kind of person as a daughter of the rural gentry in England. At the age of sixteen, she was quite popular; petite with brown hair, with lively flirtatious eyes, who knew all the steps in the figure dances of the time and much about social diplomacy. The husband that her family had chosen for her was Captain Daniel Parke Custis; however, there was a possibility that he might be disinherited by his father. As soon as the fear of this was allayed, the wedding was celebrated in 1749, Martha being eighteen and her husband more than twice her age. The marriage was happy, however brief, as Captain Custis died at the age of forty-five, from probably a heart attack, leaving Martha a widow at twenty-six. The death of her husband left Martha quite rich, with a magnificent plantation called the White House, (later called Mount Vernon) and two children, Jack and Patsy.
During the same year, 1757, Colonel George Washington was obliged to return home from duty in the frontier with the French and Indians to take care of his health. The friends of Martha managed to introduce her to Washington, and after two visits to her home, they became engaged. The wedding was held at Martha's house, the White House, on January 6, 1759. The next years at Mount Vernon were happy, and Martha's only anxiety was over her badly spoiled children. Patsy developed an illness and died at the age of seventeen, and Jack died in 1781, from typhus, while serving with his stepfather at Yorktown. Jack had married early, and two of his four children were taken to Mount Vernon to be raised, which was helpful to Martha, considering the childless marriage to Washington.
Martha's noblest public service was her joining her husband at Valley Forge, during the long years of the Revolution, which brought a degree of rational living in spite of the many miseries and hardships. Martha however was not cut out for public life, and during the Presidential years, it was George who established a balance of dignity during the many dinners and receptions. When the eight years of the Presidency were over, Martha, being a delicate old lady, required help in entertaining the constant stream of visitors, who came to see the great Washington.
In December 1799, George Washington died. Martha survived patiently until May 22, 1802, and is buried at Mount Vernon with her husband.
Copyright© John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.
From The First ladies of the United States by John T. Marck.