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Martha Washington

First Lady

Martha Washington - A Stan Klos Biography

MARTHA WASHINGTON - Daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Uneducated, she was instructed well in domestic and social skills.

At the age of eighteen, she married Daniel Park Custis a wealthy colonist. She bore four children two of which died. Her husband died in 1757. Martha married George Washington in 1759. During the American Revolution, she spent winters in army camps with her husband. Martha also organized a women's sewing circle to mend clothes for the troops

As First Lady in the capitals of New York and Philadelphia, Martha entertained in a formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe.

In 1797 the Martha said farewell to public life and returned to Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by a constant flow of guests, friends, and family. George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters. She died of "severe fever" on May 22, 1802. Martha and George Washington lie buried at Mount Vernon.

From Knapp's Female Biography.

MARTHA WASHINGTON, wife of General George Washington, was born in Virginia, in the same year with her husband, 1732, according to Weems; and probably he knew as well as any of Washington's biographers. She was the widow Custis when she married Col. Washington, in 1758. She is mentioned by Ramsay, Marshall, Bancroft, and Weems, as wealthy and beautiful, one to whom Washington had been long attached but neither of them give her maiden name; and all but Weems forgot to mention the time of her birth. But we believe that her maiden name was Dandridge. She was known, to those who visited Mount Vernon, as a woman of domestic habits and kind feelings, before her husband had gained more than the distinction of a good soldier and gentlemanly planter, with whom one might deal with safety, and be sure of getting fair articles at a fair price. After Washington was appointed to command the American armies, and had repaired to Cambridge to take the duties upon himself, Mrs. Washington made a visit to the eastern states, and spent a short time with her husband in the camp at Cambridge. The quarters were excellent, for the Vassals and other wealthy tories had deserted their elegant mansions at Cambridge, which were occupied by the American officers. After this visit Mrs. Washington was seldom with her husband, until the close of the war. She met him at Annapolis, in Maryland, when he resigned his commission, at the close of the year 1783. It is not remembered that she came to New York with the president, when the federal government was organized, in 1789; but was at Philadelphia during the first session after its removal to that city. A military man like Washington could not suffer even the courtesies of social intercourse to move on without a strict regard to economical regulations. These were displayed with good manners and taste. Mrs. Washington, in her drawing-room, was of course obliged to exact courtesies which she thought belonged to the officer, rather than those which were congenial to herself. The levees in Washington's administration were certainly more courtly than have been known since. Full dress was required of all who had a right to be there, but since that time, any dress has been accepted as proper, which a gentleman chose to wear. At table, Mrs. Washington seldom conversed upon politics: but at-tended strictly to the duties of the hostess. Foreign ambassadors often attempted to draw her into a conversation upon public affairs, but she always avoided the subject with great propriety and good sense.

It was not in the saloons of Philadelphia, when heartless thousands were around her, that Mrs. Washington shone the most conspicuous. It was at her plain mansion-house, at Mount Vernon, that she was most truly great. There she appeared, with her keys at her side, and gave directions for every thing, so that, without any bustle or confusion, the most splendid dinner appeared as if there had been no effort in the whole affair. She met her guests with the most hospitable feelings, and they always departed from the place with regret. Her first husband, John Custis, died young, and her son died still younger, leaving two children, a son and a daughter. A great part of her time was absorbed in assisting in the education of these children. They were the favourites of Mount Vernon. The place was one of general resort for all travellers; and every one, from every nation, who visited this country, thought that his American tour could not be finished unless he had been -at Mount Vernon, and had seen the Washington family, and, partaken of the cakes of the domestic hearth. Of course, no eastern caravansary was ever more crowded than the mansion-house at Mount Vernon, in the summer months. Washington died in less than three years after his retirement from office. He was as great, if not a greater, object of curiosity in-retirement, than in public life: for it was almost miraculous to a foreigner, to see the head of a great nation calmly resigning power and office, and retiring to a rural residence to employ himself in agricultural pursuits. Seeing was to them the only method of believing; and they would see. Mrs Washington did not long survive her husband; in eighteen months she followed him to his grave. She was an excellent parent, a good wife, an important member of society, and passed a long life without an enemy. It is to be regretted that an ample memoir of this excellent woman has not been written; but we must content ourselves at present with a scanty notice. The few letters, that have been published, that came from her, show that she wrote with good taste and in a pleasant style. Her ashes repose in the same vault with those of her august husband, a family tomb, built within the pale of the pleasure grounds around the house, at Mount Vernon.


18th Century ladies made up their silks and satins and brocades into sacks and petticoats, hooped and trailed, set off with ruffles, and variously patterned and bedecked, according to the style of the hour. A costume which figured at Martha Washington's receptions is thus described :

“The satin slip, or, as we should say, underskirt, was white; but it is now of a rich cream color at night. This slip is so narrow that it is a wonder how any woman ever walked with ease in it. Around the bottom is a simple row of very costly lace, of the kind known as Honiton. The overdress is an India satin, Turkey red, as our ancestors had it. It is cut close to the form, with a few gathers in the back&#151 a modern tie-back is nothing to it; the queer old waist terminates just below the bust. It is rather diamond-shaped than square in the neck, with a fall of white lace, with which also the skirt of the 'Turkey' is trimmed. The shoes are most singular. It seems as if no woman ever could have walked in them; but the soles show that they have been worn. They are of white satin, with the toe part sharpened almost to a point, while the heel is placed in time centre of the slipper; the heel is about two inches high, and at the end resembles the bowl of an inverted clay pipe.”

Courting Martha

It is thus delightfully narrated in a memoir of Martha Washington in Longacre's American Portrait Gallery, which is by Mr. Sparks attributed to the pen of G.W.P. Custis, Esq., of Mount Vernon.

"It was in 1758 that an officer, attired in a military undress, and attended by a body servant, tall and militaire as his chief, crossed the ferry called Williams', over the Pamunkey, a branch of the York river. On the boat touching the southern or New Kent side, the soldier's progress was arrested by one of those personages who give the beau ideal of the Virginia gentleman of the old regime, the very soul of kindliness and hospitality. It was in vain that the soldier urged his business at Williamsburg, important communications to the governor, &c. Mr. Chamberlayne, on whose domain the militaire had just landed, would hear of no excuse. Colonel Washington was a name and character so dear to all the Virginians, that his passing by one of the old castles of Virginia without calling and partaking of the hospitalities of the host, was entirely out of the question. The colonel, however, did not surrender at discretion, but stoutly maintained his ground, till Chamberlayne, bringing up his reserve in the intimation that he would introduce his friend to a young and charming widow then beneath his roof, the soldier capitulated on condition that he should dine& only dine and then, by pressing his charger and borrowing of the night he would reach Williamsburg before His Excellency could shake off his morning slumbers. Orders were accordingly issued to Bishop, the colonel's body servant and faithful follower, who, together with a fine English charger, had been bequeathed by the dying Braddock to Major Washington, on the famed and fatal field of the Monongahela. Bishop, bred in the school of European discipline, raised his hand to his cap, as much as to say, 'Your honour's orders shall be obeyed.'

"The colonel now proceeded to the mansion, and was introduced to various guests, (for when was a Virginian domicile of the olden time without guests?) and above all, to the charming widow. Tradition relates that they were mutually pleased on this their first interview; nor is it remarkable. They were of an age when impressions are strongest. The lady was fair to behold, of fascinating manners, and splendidly endowed with worldly benefits; the hero, fresh from his early fields, redolent of fame, and with a form on which 'every god did seem to set his seal to give the world assurance of a man.'

"The morning passed pleasantly; evening came, with Bishop, true to his orders and firm at his post, holding the favorite charger with one hand, while the other was waiting to offer the ready stirrup. The sun sank in the horizon, and yet the colonel appeared not; and then the old soldier marveled at his chief's delay. ''Twas strange, 'twas passing strange;' surely he was not wont to be a single moment behind his appointments, for he was the most punctual of all punctual men. Meantime, the host enjoyed the scene of the veteran on duty at the gate, while the colonel was so agreeably employed in the parlor; and proclaiming that no guest ever left his house after sunset, his military visitor was without much difficulty persuaded to order Bishop to put up the horses for the night. The sun rode high in the heavens the next day, when the enamored soldier pressed with his spur his charger's side and speeded on his way to the seat of government, where, having dispatched his public business, he retraced his steps, and at the White House the engagement took place, with preparations for the marriage.

"And much hath the biographer heard of that marriage from gray-haired domestics, who waited at the board where love made the feast and Washington was the guest. And rare and high was the revelry at that palmy period of Virginia's festal age, for many were gathered to that marriage of the good, the great, the gifted and the gay, while Virginia, with joyous acclamation, hailed in her youthful hero a prosperous and happy bridegroom.

"'And so you remember when Colonel Washington came a-courting of your mistress?' said the biographer to old Cully in his hundredth year.

"'Ay, master, that I do,' replied this ancient family servant, who had lived to see five generations; 'great times, sir, great times; shall never see the like again.'

"'And Washington looked something like a man, a proper man hey, Cully?'

"'Never seed the like, sir; never the likes of him, though I have seen many in my day: so tall, so straight and then he sat a horse and rode with such an air! Ah, sir, he was like no one else. Many of the grandest gentlemen in their gold lace were at the wedding, but none looked like the man himself.'

"Strong, indeed, must have been the impressions which the person and manner of Washington made upon the rude, 'untutored mind' of this poor negro, since the lapse of three quarters of a century had not sufficed to efface them."

"The precise date of the marriage the biographer has been unable to discover, having in vain searched among the records of the vestry of St. Peter's church, New Kent, of which the reverend Mr. Mossom, a Cambridge scholar, was the rector, and performed the ceremony, it is believed, about 1759. A short time after their marriage, Colonel and LADY WASHINGTON removed to Mount Vernon, on the Potomac, and permanently settled there."


Signature, from a letter, with additional words “this place have” written in her hand on the verso.
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