One of the ladies in my ancestry is Martha Custis Washington, the wife of our first United States President. I have always admired her for her the way she supported her husband and the soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Martha Dandridge was the eldest child, and oldest daughter, among the eight children born to Frances Jones and John Dandridge. On June 2, 1731, she was born, about thirty-five miles from Williamsburg. As members of the local gentry in New Kent County, Virginia, the Dandridges lived a comfortable, though not lavish, life at Chestnut Grove, a two-story frame house situated on the Pamunkey River.
Martha grew up learning from her parents how to navigate in the society of eighteenth century Virginia. Her father insured that she was a member in good standing of the Church of England, the Virginia colony’s official state religion. Baptized as a child, she attended religious services at the local Anglican parish, St. Peter’s Church.
Martha learned both to read and write at an early age. Throughout her entire life, Martha found pleasure and solace in reading. She read the Bible and other devotional literature for religious edification and novels and magazines for entertainment and instruction. Although only a small fraction of her letters survive, she was also a voluminous correspondent.
Her mother also instructed Martha in the skills she would eventually need to know to become mistress of her own household. Except among the wealthiest Virginia families, who had domestic servants and slaves to help them, the female members of the family were responsible for performing all household tasks. These tasks included cleaning the house, washing the clothes, planting a vegetable garden, caring for small domestic animals, preparing the meals, and caring for the children. In an era with few trained doctors, mothers were also supposed to be proficient in the healing arts. Martha’s mother would have taught her folk remedies and the preparation of medicinal herbs to treat common illnesses.
Sewing was among a woman’s most important tasks. The mistress of the household had the primary responsibility for clothing the entire family. Although the wealthiest Virginia planters might import textiles from Britain, most colonists still spun their own thread, wove their own cloth, and sewed their own garments. As an adult, Martha remained fond of needlework, including darning, embroidering, and knitting, and was known for her excellent handiwork.
Like most women of her social class, it is likely that Martha always envisioned her future in terms of being a wife and a mother. Because of her family’s status as members of the local gentry, Martha was able to acquire the values and behavior that would enable her to marry well. She imbibed the fine points of etiquette, learned to dance, and mastered the art of horseback riding. She knew how to deport herself in public and converse with men.
Martha Dandridge and Daniel Parke Custis married on May 15, 1750. Almost nineteen years old, Martha was slightly younger than the average Virginia bride, who married at age 22. At 38, Daniel Parke Custis was nearly twenty years older than his new wife, and significantly older than the average Virginia man who married for the first time at age 27. Yet by waiting until he found a woman of whom his father approved, Custis guaranteed his own financial future as well as that of his future heirs–and of Martha herself.
Two of her four children reached the age of adulthood; two died before they were five. In the colonial era, childhood was the period of greatest vulnerability to death and disease. Only about 60% of children born at this time lived to the age of 20. In 1754 Daniel died, probably of malaria; Frances died in 1757. John Parke Custis (called “Jacky”), who was born in 1754, and Martha Parke Custis (called “Patsy”), born in 1756.
Her husband died on July 8, 1757. By all accounts, their seven-year marriage had been a happy one. Now, however, at the tender age of twenty-six, Martha Dandridge Custis was left alone in the world, a widow with two small children to raise. She was expected to marry again, and she did; her second husband was George Washington.
On January 6, 1759, less than ten months after their initial meeting and less than eighteen months after her husband’s death, Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home in New Kent County. For both Martha and for George, a new era dawned.
As you can see, she was trained to be a woman of substance and a leader in her community. She was well prepared to run Mount Vernon, support her husband during the war years, and become the First Lady of our country.
Although Martha adored her husband, she was not overly deferential to him. It is said that when Martha, more than a foot shorter than George, wanted to get his attention, she pulled on his shirt collar to bring his face down to her level. (I love this story about her!)
The Sons of the American Revolution give out several medals to women. The Martha Washington Medal was authorized in 1971 and may be given by the National Society, a state society, or a chapter to a woman over 18 years of age in recognition of outstanding service to SAR. It is presented to those who have assisted the Chapter or in making a significant contribution to the Community.
At their Christmas dinner on Monday night of this week, my husband John, the President of the Daniel Morgan SAR Chapter, presented me with this award. What a surprise it was! And what a treasure it was to me to have John give it to me. Thank you, sirs, for this honor.