When last we spoke, I had just spent the past seven months researching and creating the character of young Martha Washington. Now that I have figured out who this interesting woman is from an intellectual standpoint, I have to populate her world. And that… is the fun part!
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was a material girl living in a very material world. Daniel Parke Custis’ account books shed light on what the Custis family was ordering during her first marriage. One purchase that struck me as one of the more interesting articles ordered from England was a riding “chair lined with smooth blue English cloth ordered for Mrs. Custis’s use.” Hmmmm…. This was a rabbit hole that I had to jump down. So I put on my detective’s hat and started looking.
I have always been a horse person. I was bitten by the horse bug at a very early age and have never grown out of my love of these gentle giants. I started riding when I was about six. My first horse was a sweet-natured chestnut named Opie. I took my horses to college with me (they have the finest of educations) and even brought my last horse, Banks, to Williamsburg with me. So reading that Martha was a horsewoman made my day! As I researched and studied more about this one particular aspect of Martha’s life, I came to understand the challenges of 18th-century travel. To put it mildly, it wasn’t easy getting around hundreds of years ago.
The three typical modes of transportation in the 18th century were horse, boat, and on foot. On horseback, at a decent pace, a rider could travel 20-30 miles a day with frequent stops for the rider and horse. Because of this, you see ordinaries, or taverns, dotting the landscape every 8-12 miles to function as a rest stop for travelers. Martha lived in New Kent County for the first 27 years of her life. New Kent County, as the crow flies, is 25 miles from Williamsburg. So if Martha wanted to come into town, she could expect a good day’s ride to get there. Mount Vernon to Williamsburg would take 5-6 days.
Now that we’ve figured out the nuts and bolts of 18th-century travel, let’s talk about how they did it. I mentioned earlier that Martha’s first husband purchased her a riding chair. This is exactly what it sounds like… a chair on wheels. It was a popular way of traveling short distances or around town, and doing it very fashionably. Typically, one horse pulls it and you can have one or two seats. In fact, we have a riding chair based off of one at Mount Vernon at our stables called “The Fairfax Chair.”
If a lady wanted to ride, she had to do so sidesaddle. The earliest functional sidesaddle is credited to Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394). It is said that the saddle was created in order to protect her virtue as she traveled to marry King Richard II of England. It was a chair-like saddle where the woman sat sideways on the horse with her feet on a little platform. In this design, a groom or chaperone was required to lead the lady’s horse as she had no way to control it. A more practical design appeared in the 16th century, and has been attributed to Catherine de ‘Medici. In her design, the rider sat facing forward, hooking her leg around the pommel of the saddle with a horn added to the near side of the saddle to secure the rider’s right knee. This not only provided the lady with greater security, but it also gave her the ability to control her own horse. It was this design of saddle (with a few tweaks) that was around in the 18th century.
I was curious if Martha rode like this. I started looking through Daniel Parke Custis’s estate inventory taken after his death in 1757, specifically targeting the New Kent properties, as that is where she made her home. I saw many objects relating to horses: one man’s saddle and bridle, one Charriot and Harness for six Horses, one two-wheeled chair, 14 pr Stirrups and one Crupper. But initially, I found nothing that would make me think Martha was riding.
Then, I found it! “1 woman’s Saddle & Furniture”, furniture being the other accouterment that went with the saddle (bridle, girth, etc…). Bingo! Martha owned a sidesaddle. This same saddle is listed in “An Account of Sundrys taken and used by Mrs. Custis out of the Inventories” taken in October 1759…which means not only did she have a sidesaddle, she was using it and apparently was quite the rider. Family lore claims that “…a mischievous Martha once scandalized her mother and aunt by riding her horse onto the porch of Elsing Green and threatening to ride on into the house”! Cheeky.
One day as I was falling down the rabbit hole of research on Martha’s modes of travel, I received a text from my colleague Mark asking if I would be willing to come to the stables and exercise one of our new horses. Mr. Paul Bennett, Director of Coach and Livestock, had just acquired two Cleveland Bays and they needed exercise riders. Mark would be exercising the 3.5 year old, Lancer, and I would work with the 7-year-old mare, Isabella. I had not ridden since my last horse, Banks, passed away two years ago, so to have the opportunity to ride was like waking up on Christmas morning.
If you haven’t heard of the breed, Cleveland Bay, you are not alone. According to the Cleveland Bay Horse Society, it is “England’s oldest breed of horse with a history that goes beyond a time when records were kept.” As far as the Virginia connection, there is a record in the 1780s, of a Virginia horse show in which Cleveland Bays participated. They are a utilitarian breed and can be used for riding as well as pulling carts or carriages. Unfortunately, the breed began to decline in popularity and with the loss of pure genetic diversity is now considered a rare breed. A recent Cleveland Bay Horse Society report shows only 361 purebred females and 118 purebred males (not including geldings) exist worldwide. In fact, Isabella is one of about 40 breeding-age mares in the entire country. So, with ties to 18th-century Virginia, and their usefulness as all-purpose horses, Lancer (that’s his baby picture above!) and Isabella are a welcome addition to the Colonial Williamsburg barn where hopefully we can raise awareness and promote the breed.
Once I assumed the role of Martha Washington, Mr. Bennett decided to put all the pieces together. That means you will now see Martha Washington riding sidesaddle on Isabella, the Cleveland Bay, in the Historic Area. Not only is it a wonderful way to interpret women’s travel, but also to educate our guests about Isabella and Lancer in hopes that it will raise awareness of the Cleveland Bay.
I have quite a unique job. In fact, it is a challenge to explain to people what exactly I do. In order to truthfully portray Martha Washington, I have to be an actor, historian, detective, researcher, psychologist, writer, editor, hair stylist, costumer—and now I can add 18th-century horsewoman to that list as well. And the list will be ever growing as I continue to become Mrs. Washington. I am looking forward to every moment!
Special thanks to Cindy Kiser for Lancer’s baby photo, Cindy McEnery for the visual trip down memory lane, Arden Billings for the sidesaddle images, and CW photographer Dave Doody for all of the training pics!
 Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington, An American Life. Penguin Books, 2005. pg. 37.
 Fields, Joseph. “Worthy Partner”, The Papers of Martha Washington. Greenwood Press, 1994. pg. 67.
 Ibid. pg. 68.
 Ibid. pg. 111.
 Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. pg. 37.
 Cowgill, Nigel. “History.” Cleveland Bay Horse Society. 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
GUEST BLOGGER: KATHARINE PITTMAN
Katharine is a Nation Builder portraying young Martha Washington for Colonial Williamsburg. She credits her love of history to her mom and dad who took her and her big brother to Colonial Williamsburg and many other historic sites with great frequency as children. She got a degree from Wake Forest University in 2007 with a major in theatre and a minor in history, so yes…she is using her entire degree!
Katharine met her husband, Stewart, at Colonial Williamsburg in front of the Magazine and they now live happily on Duke of Gloucester street with their 6 year old brown hound, Savannah. She enjoys game nights with close friends, wine tastings at the Williamsburg Winery and endless cups of coffee from Aromas!