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Martha Washington

[wosh-ing-tuhn, waw-shing-]

Martha Custis Washington (née Dandridge) (June 2, 1731May 22, 1802) was the wife of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Although the title was not coined until after her death, Martha Washington is considered to be the first First Lady of the United States. During her lifetime, she was simply known as "Lady Washington."


Born on her parents' Chestnut Grove Plantation on June 2, 1731 at 10:29 a.m., she was the eldest daughter of Virginia planter John Dandridge (1700–1756) and Frances Jones (1710-1785). She was a Baptist. At the age of 18, she married Daniel Parke Custis, a rich bachelor two decades her senior. They lived together at White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River, a few miles upriver from Chestnut Grove. She had four children by Custis. A son and a daughter, Daniel (1751-1754) and Frances (1753-1757), died in childhood, but two other children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754-1781) and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis (1756-1773) survived to young adulthood. Custis' death in 1757 left Martha a rich widow, with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children.

Martha D. Custis married Colonel George Washington on January 6, 1759. There is now speculation that Washington was actually in love with the wife of one of his friends (Sally Fairfax) at the time that he and Martha became engaged. However, regardless of his feelings before the marriage, it is widely agreed that the partnership was mutually beneficial. Shortly after they were married, he left the colonial arm of the British military due to the British policy denying colonials command opportunities with the regular British army. They lived a prosperous and apparently happy life at Washington's Mount Vernon estate.

Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha's two surviving children. Martha's daughter, also named Martha, died during an epileptic seizure, which led John to return home from college to comfort his mother. John Parke Custis later served as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. Jack died during this military service, probably of typhus. After his death, the Washingtons raised two of his children, Martha's youngest grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 - July 15, 1852), and George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 - October 10, 1857). They also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.

Content to live a private life at Mount Vernon and her homes from the Custis estate, Martha Washington nevertheless followed Washington into the battlefield when he served as Commander in Chief of the American Army. She spent the infamous winter at Valley Forge with the General, and was instrumental in maintaining some level of morale among officers and enlisted troops. She opposed his election as President of the newly formed United States of America, and refused to attend the inauguration (April 30, 1789), but gracefully fulfilled her duties as the official state hostess during their two terms.

Martha Washington and her husband both died at Mount Vernon, with Martha dying on May 22, 1802, slightly over two years after her husband. In 1831, her remains were moved from their original burial site a few hundred feet to a brick tomb that overlooks the Potomac River.

Martha Washington and Slavery

Martha Washington was raised in a time when chattel slavery was legal in all the American colonies. No record exists of her questioning the ethical or moral foundations of the "peculiar institution." While George Washington set a national example by freeing his slaves following his death, Martha did not.

Following the 1757 death of Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, the widow received a "dower share," the lifetime use of (and income from) one third of his estate, with the other two-thirds held in trust for their minor children. The full Custis Estate contained plantations and farms totaling about 27 square miles, and 285 enslaved men, women, and children attached to those holdings. In 1759 Martha's dower share included at least 85 slaves.

Upon his 1759 marriage to Martha, George Washington became the legal manager of the Custis Estate, under court oversight. In actuality, estate records indicate that Martha Washington continued to purchase supplies, manage paid staff, and make many other decisions. Although the Washingtons wielded managerial control over the whole estate, they received income only from Martha's "dower" third.

Washington used his wife's great wealth to buy land, more than tripling the size of Mount Vernon (2,650 acres in 1757, 8,251 acres in 1787). For more than 40 years her "dower" slaves farmed the plantation alongside his own. The Washingtons could not sell Custis land or slaves, which were held in trust for Martha's only surviving child, John ("Jacky") Custis (1754-1781).

Seven of the 9 slaves that President Washington brought to Philadelphia (the national capital, 1790-1800) to work in the executive mansion were "dowers." Pennsylvania had begun an abolition of slavery in 1780, but non-residents were allowed to hold slaves in the state for up to 6 months. The Washingtons rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state before the 6-month deadline to prevent their establishing residency (and legally qualifying for manumission). Washington reasoned that should the "dowers" attain their freedom due to his negligence, he might be liable to the Custis Estate for the value of those slaves.

Martha Washington was personally upset when her lady's maid Oney Judge, a "dower" slave, fled the Philadelphia household during Washington's second term. According to interviews with Oney in the 1840s, the First Lady had promised the young woman as a wedding gift to granddaughter Eliza Custis. Oney hid with free-black friends in the city, and then traveled to the north. Patricia Brady, in her 2005 biography of Martha Washington, writes:

"''Martha felt a responsibility for the unsophisticated girl under her care, especially since her mother and sister were expecting to see her back at Mount Vernon. What she could never understand was that (Oney had)...a simple desire to be free. Ona, as she preferred to call herself, wanted to live where she pleased, do what work she pleased, and learn to read and write . . . Ona Judge professed a great regard for Martha and the way she had been treated, but she couldn't face a future as a slave for herself and her children." (Brady, p. 209)

In March 1797, during the Washington family's last week in Philadelphia, their chief cook Hercules also fled slavery, leaving a daughter at Mount Vernon who told a visitor that she was glad her father was free.

By 1799 the number of "dower" slaves was 153, the number of Washington slaves was 124, and at least a dozen couples had intermarried. In Washington's will he resolved to free his own slaves following his death, but his hope of purchasing the "dowers" from the Custis Estate and freeing them too, or of setting up a system by which the "dowers" would be rented out and gradually work themselves out of slavery came to nought. To spare Martha the spectacle of witnessing slave families torn apart, Washington directed in his will that his slaves not be freed until after her death.

Martha freed Washington's slaves on January 1, 1801. Abigail Adams visited Mount Vernon two weeks earlier, and wrote: "Many of those who are liberated have married with what are called the dower Negroes, so that they all quit their [family] connections, yet what could she do?" Adams cited a sinister motive for Martha freeing Washington's slaves early: "In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death, she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her--She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.--" (A.A. to Mary Cranch, 21 December 1800)

Following Martha's 1802 death, the "dower" slaves were inherited by her four grandchildren (the children of Jacky Custis). She bequeathed the one slave she owned outright, Elisha, to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis.

Author Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America", writes that Martha Washington owned her own mulatto half-sister, a slave named Ann Dandridge, who had a child by Martha's son (and therefore Ann's nephew), John Parke "Jack" Custis. He bases his assertion on original documents he discovered in the files of Mount Vernon and the Virginia Historical Society, and states that previous historians ignored the documentary evidence that this sister existed. According to Wiencek, this incident was among several that led George Washington to call slavery repugnant, and probably influenced Washington's decision late in life to free all his slaves. The existence of a slave named Ann Dandridge is recognized in Helen Bryan's 2001 "Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty." However this book draws upon Wiencek's research. Bryan stated that the "shadow sister" was close to Martha's age and had been with her since they were children.

Brady, in a brief bibliographical note at the end of her book (page 256), denies the existence of Martha Washington's half sister and asserts that Wiencek and Bryan accepted "family mythology" and "lore" as fact. Brady does not offer a review of the documentary evidence discovered by Wiencek in the Virginia Historical Society and in the Washington, D.C., archives where Ann Dandridge's manumission is recorded--Land Records, Liber H., #8, p. 382; Liber R, #17, p. 288. In assessing the documents that have survived on this question, Wiencek notes that Ann Dandridge was omitted from the Custis estate records and the records of slaves at Mt. Vernon. Having studied plantation families for many years, Wiencek observes that family ties between slaves and slave owners were often kept hidden.

USS Lady Washington

Mrs. Washington had a row galley named in her honor, the USS Lady Washington. It holds the distinction of being the first U.S. military ship to be named in honor of a woman and for a vessel named while the person was still alive (see also List of U.S. military vessels named after living Americans). It has a number of other distinctions as well, as the first ship named after a (future) First Lady and one of the few active vessels in the U.S. Navy named in honor of a woman (see also USS Hopper (DDG-70)).

U.S. Postage Stamp

In 1902 Martha Washington became the first American woman to be commemorated by a U.S. postage stamp. It was an 8 cent stamp. In 1923, a second stamp was issued in her honor, a 4 cent. The third Martha Washington 1 1/2 cent stamp was issued in 1938.

Appearance on U.S. Currency

Paper currency

Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note. It appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896.

First Spouse Coin

The First Spouse Program under the Presidential $1 Coin Act authorizes the United States Mint to issue 1/2 ounce $10 gold coins and bronze medal duplicates to honor the first spouses of the United States. Martha Washington's coin was released on June 19, 2007, and sold in just hours.


  • Brady, Patricia. "Martha Washington: An American Life." Viking/Penguin Group, New York, New York, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03430-4.
  • Wiencek, Henry. "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America." Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, hardbound edition 2003, paperback edition 2004. ISBN 0-374-52951-5.

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