June 3, 2012

Martha Washington-- Before She Met George

Activity: Make a Lady’s Cap

Martha Washington actually had a life before she met George. To honor her birthday this month, a brief look at her first love story.

Born in Virginia June 2, 1731 Martha Dandridge, the eldest of eight children, mastered the multitude of housewifery skills so important to a girl’s upbringing. With some formal education mixed in, Miss Dandridge was well prepared to find a husband, a female’s main job in colonial America. Martha’s kindness and vivacious personality charmed Daniel Parke Custis, a man twenty years her senior and one of Virginia’s wealthiest men.

The promise of a peaceful home life with Miss Dandridge appealed to Daniel. His parents’ bitter marriage required a legal document spelling out they’d refrain from calling one another “vile names” and other abuses. The Custis and Parke family sagas featured contested wills, bizarre behavior, rages and illegitimate children. No wonder Daniel sought refuge with calm, good-natured Martha!

Terrified of his father and knowing Martha stood lower on the social ladder than a Custis, Daniel wooed her in secret. When the news leaked out Daniel’s father John Custis furiously denounced Martha as a fortune hunter and threatened Daniel with disinheritance rather than let “Dandridge’s daughter” have anything.

Daniel sent friends to plead his case. James Power soon wrote him: “I am empowered by your father to let you know that he heartily and willingly consents to your marriage with Miss Dandridge… and this is owing to a prudent speech of her own. Hurry down immediately for fear he should change the strong inclination he has to your marrying….” Whatever Martha said or wrote volatile John Custis to change his mind is unknown. The couple married May of 1749 or 1750 and lived a happy life until death stalked the family.

In November 1751 Martha bore a son named Daniel Parke Custis II. [Daniel’s grandfather had decreed only those bearing the “Parke” name could inherit any part of his fortune.] The family welcomed daughter, Frances, in April 1753. Then in 1754 two-year-old Daniel died in February while a second son, John Parke Custis, called Jacky, was born. Martha’s last child arrived in 1756, daughter Martha Parke Custis, called Patcy.

A year after Patcy’s birth, four-year-old Frances died in February 1757.  By June, Jacky sickened and Daniel fell ill on July 4. Daniel died four days later. Martha must have been terrified Jacky would follow his father to the grave, robbing her of three beloved children and her husband, but the boy lived. Martha survived those cruel months relying on her deep sense of duty and her religious beliefs.

As a wealthy widow Martha quickly attracted several suitors including George Washington, a young colonel in the Virginia militia. Martha married George January 6, 1759, packed up herself, Jacky and Patcy and moved to her new husband’s home to start their life together at Mount Vernon.


  1. Love this! Always a huge fan of George Washington's lady, this will be a must-read for me. Thanks for the post

  2. Washington is my husband's favorite president, so we've read a lot about him. But thank you so much for shining the spotlight on Martha Washington.

  3. Thanks Kathy and Kirsten! I love George, but it is nice to tell Martha's story, too!

  4. I never really knew much about Mrs. Washington. Thanks!

  5. Great post. I may have to try sewing the hat with my daughter. It doesn't look too hard.

  6. Hello, my name is Bárbara Bruchez and I'm editor. I'm working on a New Spain's history book and I would like use the picture of Martha Dandridge Custis that you uploaded in your blog. ¿Which is the source? ¿Can I use it? Please confirm. Thank you for your kind attention.

    Bárbara Bruchez

  7. Love the rerun! Martha's always great to read about again!

  8. This was so interesting, Brandon! I love that she "had a life" before George. :)