This Day in History: Martha Washington: Famous, but “completely unknown”
On this day in 1731, future First Lady Martha Washington is born. History has relegated Martha to a simple label: George’s wife. What a shame! Martha was a vivacious, bright, capable woman with her own story to tell.
“She is both famous as the first First Lady and completely unknown,” her biographer Patricia Brady concludes.
The future Mrs. Washington’s given name at birth was Martha Dandridge—but her family called her “Patsy.” The Dandridges were modestly successful plantation owners. Thus, Patsy would simultaneously learn to work her father’s plantation, even as she had the benefit of learning to read and write.
In other words, Patsy could handle herself in Virginian society, but she wasn’t afraid of a little hard work, either.
When Patsy was just 18 years old, she married someone much older: Daniel Parke Custis was 38! He had long been a bachelor because his father, John Custis IV, was a grouchy old man who kept squashing Daniel’s love interests.
Indeed, John initially objected to Patsy, too. The Dandridge name and Patsy’s modest dowry weren’t good enough for his son!
Amazingly, Patsy managed to talk John off his ledge—a feat that no one else had been able to accomplish. A family friend soon wrote Daniel. “[Your father] has so good a character of [Martha],” the friend wrote, “that he had rather you should have her than any lady in Virginia—nay, if possible he is as much enamored with her character as you are with her person.”
That Patsy must have been something else!?
Daniel was finally free to marry Patsy, which is exactly what he did on May 15, 1750, mere weeks before her 19th birthday. The home he moved his bride into, interestingly enough, was named the White House.
The couple seemed happy, but then tragedy struck. Two of their four children died. Then Daniel also became very sick and passed away in July 1757. Patsy was left behind, a wealthy young widow with two small children.
Such tragedy was all too common in those days, of course. Patsy pulled herself together. By the time she met Colonel George Washington, she was running her plantation with efficiency and good sense. Moreover, Patsy’s “beauty and good humor,” as Brady describes, turned George’s thoughts toward marriage. But Patsy also had another suitor—a wealthy planter—and George wasn’t yet the impressive national figure we know today.
She could have chosen either man, but she chose George. “[I]t seems clear,” Brady concludes, “that Patsy fell passionately in love with George almost immediately and decided to please herself in her second marriage.”
The two were married on January 6, 1759.
Patsy and George lived a long life together, as everyone knows, but did you know that Patsy followed George to all of his winter encampments during the American Revolution? She made friends with the other officers’ wives. She spent hours knitting dry woolen socks for infantry. She had fun with George, singing with friends, or enjoying a nice dinner.
When she couldn’t be with George, the two wrote to each other. Patsy was George’s emotional rock, a shelter in the storm. He undoubtedly needed it: He was the head of a ragtag Continental Army that had dared to wage a Revolution against the most powerful Army and Navy in the world.
“George Washington was the indispensable man to the success of the American Revolution,” Brady concludes, “and Martha Washington was the indispensable woman to him.”
Americans have learned much about the Indispensable Man. Perhaps it’s time to learn more about the Indispensable Woman.
Anne Hollingsworth Wharton, Martha Washington (1897)
Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: An American Life (2005)
Robert P. Watson, Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal, 1789–1900 (2012)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)