Martha was born on June 2, 1731, making her 8 months older than George Washington. She was born at Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, which is roughly 35 miles from the colonial capital of Williamsburg. Martha was the first of eight children born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones.
Unlike the majority of women in Virginia, Martha learned 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. Martha was also known as a regular and active letter writer, and a collection of her surviving letters are housed in the collections of the Mount Vernon library. She was married to her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis was nearly twenty years older than Martha. Custis guaranteed his own financial future as well as that of his future heirs–and of Martha herself by waiting until later in life to marry a woman his father approved of.
Martha’s marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, who died on July 8, 1757, lasted just over seven years and she gave birth to four children during the marriage.
As a pretty, young, wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis owned nearly 300 slaves and had more than 17,500 acres of land when she met George Washington.
The attraction between George and Martha was powerful. George stood at over six feet two inches tall and was an imposing figure with a formidable reputation as a military leader. George had inherited the Mount Vernon estate from his elder half-brother Lawrence who passed away in 1752, following the death of Lawrence’s daughter Sarah in 1754.
Washington resigned his military commission. 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.
After Washington left Mount Vernon in 1775, he would not return again for over six years. Every year, during the long winter months when the fighting was at a standstill, the General asked Martha to join him at his winter encampment.
During the Revolutionary War, Martha made the arduous journey to George’s camp, whether it was at Cambridge, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Morristown, Newburgh, or elsewhere. She stayed with him for months at a time. In fact, during the period from April 1775 until December 1783 Martha was able to be with her husband for almost half the time he was away. The General regarded his wife’s presence as so essential to the cause that he sought reimbursement from Congress for her traveling expenses.
Washington felt that his wife’s presence was important. Many guests enjoyed refreshments, talked with each other, and mingled. Most people called her “Lady Washington,” or “our Lady Presidentess.”
Under the provisions of his will, George Washington declared that the 123 slaves that he owned outright (separate from the dower slaves that would be distributed among the Custis heirs) were to gain their freedom after his wife’s death. There was a fear that these slaves could revolt and kill Martha in order to gain their freedom. Rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon that may have been set by slaves.
Fearing for her life, Martha, at the urging of relatives, decided to free her deceased husband’s slaves immediately. On January 1, 1801, a bit more than a year after George’s death, Washington’s slaves gained their liberty.
Martha’s death brought the Custis heirs even greater riches. Each of Martha’s four grandchildren received substantial amounts of land and money that been held in trust for them for years. They each received a share of “dower slaves,” the descendants of the slaves once owned by Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. In 1831, after being moved from Mount Vernon’s old tomb to the new tomb, Martha’s remains were placed into a marble sarcophagus that stands near her husband’s at Mount Vernon.