There’s so much to say about Martha Washington. Welcome to the second installment of the most frequently asked questions about America’s first First Lady. Yesterday we covered questions 10 down to 6. Here now are the top 5.
#5 Did Martha and George have any children?
The short answer is no. There are several theories about why. Many historians believe George was left infertile after a bout with smallpox in 1751. It seems that Washington did not think that he was sterile; in writing to a nephew once, he stated that if Martha died and he remarried, he “probably” wouldn’t have children, but only because he would marry a woman suitable to his age. This implies that he thought he could have children with a younger woman.
Others claim that it was Martha who was incapable of having more children. Historians have theorized that because family history claims that Martha’s last pregnancy with her daughter, Patsy, was difficult, forceps might have been used which caused damage to Martha internally, making more children an impossibility without corrective surgery. But this doesn’t mean that George and Martha didn’t raise quite a few children! They raised her children from her first marriage, Jacky and Patsy as well as two grandchildren, Nelly and Wash. Mount Vernon was rarely, if ever, without children.
#4 What Happened to Martha’s Children?
A good question to ask! Martha had four children with her first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Daniel Parke Custis II was born in 1751, followed two years later by his sister, Frances Parke Custis in 1753. In 1754, John “Jacky” Parke Custis was born, and in 1756, Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis made her entrance into the world. Daniel II died in February 1754 at the age of two. In April 1757, Frances died at the age of four. It is assumed that Daniel and Frances died of childhood illnesses, which was not uncommon at the time. They were both buried at the Queen’s Creek Plantation next to their grandmother, Frances Custis.
Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis developed “nervous fits” or seizures very early in life. George and Martha tried everything in their power to cure her of the affliction. She was attended by numerous doctors and tried every known treatment at the time. Unfortunately the fits got worse as she grew older. She died of a seizure in June of 1773 at the age of 17. In his diary George wrote, “At home all day. About five oclock poor Patcy Custis Died Suddenly.” The next day he wrote to his brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett, an account of what occurred:
yesterday removed the Sweet Innocent Girl into a more happy, & peaceful abode than any she has met with in the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod. She rose from Dinner about four Oclock in better health and spirits than she appeared to have been in for some time; soon after which she was seized with one of her usual Fits, & expired in it, in less than two Minutes without uttering a Word, a groan or scarce a Sigh. This Sudden, and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery.
John “Jacky” Parke Custis lived to the age of 27. Jacky had a rocky adolescence and never quite took to his schooling as Washington would have liked. He married Eleanor Calvert in 1774 and had four children before his death in 1781. He joined his stepfather at the siege of Yorktown and contracted a fatal illness. George, Martha, Eleanor and their daughter Elizabeth (or Bett) were able to be there when Jacky passed away at Eltham, his aunt’s home, on November 5, 1781. Washington wrote to Jonathan Trumbull the following day, “I came here in time to see Mr. Custis breathe his last. About Eight o’clock yesterday evening he expired. The deep solemn distress of the Mother, and affliction of the Wife of this amiable young Man, requires every comfort in my power to afford them.”
#3 Are the Custis home, Chestnut Grove, and White House still standing?
The Custis home in Williamsburg occupied the lots east of the Public Hospital. It is said that George and Martha spent the first few months of their marriage there before moving to Mount Vernon in April of 1759. The property was rented to Martha’s brother, Bartholomew, in 1760 and subsequently to several other tenants until it was sold by Jacky in 1779 to Dr. James McClurg. The property became known as Six Chimneys in the 19th century. By 1815 it was described as being “in ruinous & decaying state— not habitable.” In 1841 the property was purchased by the Public Hospital, by that time called Eastern State Lunatic Asylum.
Eventually the house and out buildings were removed. Our Coach and Livestock department uses the land the house stood on as a pasture today. All that remains of the property is a small brick building, at one time a kitchen, on the eastern end near the fence. It is closed to the public but you can see it from the road if you drive by the Public Hospital on Francis St., which houses the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
Chestnut Grove, Martha’s childhood home, stood fairly unaltered until its destruction in Nov. 1926, when a fire made to warm the house while fall cleaning was in progress grew out of control and burned it to the ground. But thanks to several sketches and photographs that were taken before it’s destruction we have a fairly good idea of what Chestnut Grove looked like. A 1768 advertisement described it:
To be sold
A tract of land on Pamunkey River in New-Kent County, about 4 miles below the Court-House containing 500 acres. On it is a dwelling house, with three rooms and a passage-way on each floor, and all the necessary out-houses with a good orchard. The terms may be known of Bartholomew Dandridge.
White House Plantation, Martha’s home with Daniel Parke Custis, was still owned by the family when Union Gen. George McClellan made it his headquarters during part of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. Family history states that Mary Custis (who was by then Mrs. Robert E. Lee) had left a note on the door begging any occupying forces to respect the first married home of Martha Washington. As troops were leaving, an apparently accidental fire began and burned the house to the ground. Another descendant built a house on the lot after the war and it too burned. The sites of both Chestnut Grove and White House Plantation are now private property and not accessible to the public.
# 2 What is My Favorite Martha Story?
I’ve come across so many stories about Martha that I am constantly amazed at this woman’s strength and resilience. Several very funny stories that speak volumes about her personality. One of my favorite stories of her youth is one in which she convinced John Custis IV of her value and worth.
John Custis IV wanted his son Daniel, who was the sole heir to the family fortune, to marry well. Mr. Custis did not think that Martha, the daughter of the clerk of New Kent County, was good enough for his son, and let everyone know. Daniel, afraid of confrontation or one of his father’s berating speeches, asked his friends to speak to his father on his behalf.
Those friends, John Blair and Thomas Lee, each tried their hand at convincing Mr. Custis of the value of young Miss Dandridge, to no avail. Through letters, they both advised Daniel to have a frank conversation with his father. Failing that, they urged him to marry Martha anyway risk his father’s wrath. Martha must have been growing tired of this little game because at this point she trotted herself into Williamsburg and made her own appeal to Mr. Custis.
We know this because James Power, an attorney in Williamsburg, also approached Mr. Custis about allowing the marriage. But before he could make his argument Mr. Custis said, “He had rather have Daniel marry Martha… than any other young lady in Virginia. Her character, he maintained, enamored him as much as her person attracted Daniel.” This, Custis explained, was “because of a prudent speech she had made.”
This little anecdote that illustrates Martha’s tenacity speaks volumes to me. Looking at her life it is easy to see where her determination shows up over and over again. Martha was fiercely protective of those she loved. Daniel Parke Custis needed an advocate and protector, and Martha stepped up to the plate.
#1 What books would you recommend to learn more?
This is one of my favorite questions to answer because I am always reading new books about her! My top picks for books about Martha Washington are:
- “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington by Joseph Fields
- The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” by Flora Fraser
- The General and Mrs. Washington by Bruce Chadwick
- Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady
- Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty by Helen Bryan
- The Custis Chronicles: The Virginia Generations by James B. Lynch Jr.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was an astounding woman of character that I have had the honor of studying now for almost 10 months. Through my studies I have gotten to know this woman on a personal level and am constantly amazed at her fortitude and grace. She lived through the most tumultuous times our young country had seen and she came out on top every time. I can’t wait to see what else I will learn about Martha… and, of course, share it.
Please join me during Becoming Mrs. Washington at the Hennage Auditorium today (and most Wednesdays throughout the summer) at 1:15 p.m. to hear the rest of the story and ask questions of your own. And make sure you’re following us on Facebook. We will offer a livestream so you’ll have the opportunity, no matter where you live, to ask me what’s on your mind.
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!