Martha Washington married a wealthy plantation owner before becoming a widow and inheriting his estate. She wed Colonel George Washington in 1759 and became the first U.S. first lady upon his eventual ascendancy to the presidency. Martha was known for her aplomb and large social events, though she actually preferred privacy. She died in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on May 22, 1802. Martha Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, in New Kent County, Virginia, on the Chestnut Grove plantation. She was raised and educated with an emphasis on skills seen as integral to running a household, though also taught reading, writing, and mathematics.
At 18 years old, Martha wed Daniel Parke Custis, a rich plantation owner, in 1749. The couple would have four children, though only two, Jack and Patsy, lived past childhood. Custis himself died in the summer of 1757, and Martha inherited his 15,000-acre estate. She later met Colonel George Washington at a Williamsburg, Virginia cotillion, and the two wed in 1759. Martha and her two children moved to Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia plantation, where the family became known for their social events and upscale lifestyle, though they suffered financial setbacks as well.
By 1775, Washington had become the leader of U.S. forces in the Revolutionary War, and Martha later took up residence with him at his encampments for extended periods of time. She experienced tremendous loss with the deaths of her two surviving children: Patsy died from epilepsy during her teens and Jack succumbed to “camp fever” while enlisted as a soldier.
Nation’s First First Lady
With the colonies achieving their independence and the U.S. Constitution ratified, Washington was elected to become the country’s first president, having his inauguration in April 1789. Martha, who had also effectively assumed guardianship of Jack’s children, took on the responsibility of arranging major social events and parties for the presidential home/office in New York, thus setting precedents and standards for future first ladies to come. (The term “first lady” wasn’t used at this time, with Martha being called “Lady Washington.”)
She also had Friday public receptions and handled household affairs while developing a friendship with Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams. The Washingtons relocated to Philadelphia, which was the nation’s next capital, in 1790. Martha was seen as a gracious presence and looked to Europe for inspiration in terms of setting standards for official affairs, though it was noted that she often felt trapped and preferred a quieter life. She also held slaves in her household and did not favor manumission, though those held as slaves by Washington, who took on an abolitionist stance, would be freed after his death.
Washington returned to Mount Vernon once the president’s second term was up in 1797. Washington died in December 1799, with his wife subsequently closing their bedchamber and taking up residence on the third floor of their mansion. Upon taking ill in early 1802, she wrote her will and burned most of the letter correspondences between her and her husband. She died on May 22, 1802, and was buried with her husband on the estate.