Like most kids, I learned a lot about George Washington in school. He was celebrated as an American hero and someone whose childhood we should all admire. I knew almost nothing about Martha Washington, except that she was a supportive wife to America’s first president.
Of course, when she was born, Martha had a different last name. The first born of nine children, she was named Martha Dandridge, but her family nicknamed her Patsy. She grew up on a plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. In the 1700s, the word plantation meant property that was devoted to a single crop, not necessarily thousands of acres of land with a mansion. In Virginia, plantation owners like Martha’s father grew tobacco. Martha did not grow up in a fancy home, but it had two stories, two chimneys, and comfortably housed all the Dandridge children.
With a total of eight siblings, Martha learned to care for children at an early age. Her father John Dandridge had slaves who worked in the fields, but could not afford household slaves. As a result, Martha’s mother taught her how to do every necessary chore. With her mother Frances by her side, Martha learned to kill and cook chickens and other fowl, make clothes and bed linens, wash clothes in a big boiling kettle without burning them, and how to preserve food and make home remedies for illnesses. Based on later accounts of her work stitching clothes for U.S. army soldiers, she learned her lessons well.
In addition to chores, Martha learned the skills she needed to be a success in Virginia society. Dancing was an especially important social skill. Dancing masters traveled to various towns to teach young people, boys and girls, to dance. Learning to dance was a break from chores, but some of the dances had such complex steps that practicing them seemed like a chore. Conversation was also considered an art, and Martha took to it easily. She genuinely enjoyed other people and cared about them—an asset that served her well as First Lady.
Although Martha did not have the same academic education as some young women from New England, she learned to read and enjoyed books all her life. Her grammar and spelling were inconsistent, but she got her point across in letters. She did better in math, which came in handy when she had to manage the business accounts of her first husband, Daniel Custis.
At seventeen, Martha was considered an adult, and she became secretly engaged to Daniel Custis, a wealthy man twenty years older than Martha. Though it seems strange to us that a young girl would marry someone so much older, young girls often got engaged to older men in the 1700s. Martha and Daniel also genuinely liked each other, which was probably less common.
According to a family account, even as a teenager Martha “excelled in personal charms, which with pleasing manners, and a general amiability of demeanor, caused her to be distinguished amid the fair ones who usually assembled at the court of Williamsburg.” She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and good-natured and conversed easily with everyone. Her charm also won over her future father-in-law John Custis, who originally objected to the match.
After she became a wife, mother, and then a widow, she was courted by George Washington.