The Truth About The Nation's First First Lady, Martha Washington

Martha Washington, who became the nation's first first lady, was born to John and Frances Dandridge on June 2, 1731, on the Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. American Revolutionary War Facts reports she was the oldest of nine children.

As reported by US History, Martha had a variety of hobbies, including dancing, gardening, horseback riding, and sewing. Although it was unusual at the time, her father ensured she was educated in mathematics, reading and writing.

American Revolutionary War Facts reports Martha had a private tutor, who taught her the core subjects and she likely learned everything she needed to know about running a plantation from one of her father's indentured servants. Mount Vernon tells us that she was also trained in housekeeping and other skills, which young women were expected to learn in anticipation of becoming a wife and running a household.

In 1749, when she was 18 years old, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis. US History says that Custis was 20 years older than his wife. However, he was a wealthy plantation owner and, according to Mount Vernon, "was one of the most eligible bachelors in Virginia." 

Over the next seven years, Martha assisted her husband with running their 17,000-acre plantation. She also gave birth to four children, although two of them died as infants. According to US History, Martha and Daniel had a loving relationship, and Daniel often pampered his wife with luxurious gifts, many of which were imported from abroad.

George Washington was Martha's second husband

In the summer of 1757, Daniel was overcome by a short but fatal illness. US History reports Martha was only 26 years old and her children were both under the age of three. Although Daniel did not have a will, Martha inherited the entire plantation and the responsibility for its continued operation.

Although the task was daunting, Martha, with the help of her late husband's business manager and attorneys, kept the plantation operational in the wake of Daniel's death. As reported by US History, her education, and particularly her ability to read and write, helped her assist in the daily operation and the business of running the large plantation.

In the year following her husband's death, Martha met a young colonel named George Washington. US History reports George and Martha eventually fell in love, and married on January 6, 1759. Martha, her son John ("Jacky") and daughter Martha ("Patsy"), moved to George's plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia. US History reports the home was expanded and remodeled to accommodate the new family and to entertain guests.

In the early years, the Washingtons enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. In addition to maintaining their luxurious home, George and Martha "pampered and lavished attention and expensive gifts on" the children. However, as reported by US History, they began to experience financial distress amid several years of bad crop returns. They also struggled to maintain the expected level of generosity they extended to their "constant stream of visitors."

Martha Washington spent time at Revolutionary War encampments

In the 1770s, Martha's daughter Patsy began experiencing medical issues that eventually led to her death at the age of 17. US History reports Martha's son, Jacky, attended King's College in New York, where he met his future wife. On February 3, 1774, Jacky wed Eleanor "Nelly" Calvert and the couple moved to Mt. Vernon. At the time, the region was experiencing unrest over taxes and levies which were being imposed on the colonists by the colonial government under the direction of the British crown.

As reported by US History, Martha Washington felt torn, as her friends and family took sides, and it caused discord in the household. However, she was a staunch believer in the Revolutionary War, and supported her husband's decision to assume a leadership role to help organize a militia.

By the winter of 1775, George was stationed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he was named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. That December, Martha, Jacky, and his wife traveled to Cambridge to spend Christmas together. Although everyone else returned home afterwards, US History reports Martha remained at the encampment until June 1776.

Upon her return to Mount Vernon, Martha was inoculated for smallpox, despite the fact that she was initially hesitant and afraid to get the vaccine. However, Colonial Williamsburg reports being inoculated allowed her to travel throughout the region to meet up with and assist her husband.

Martha Washington becomes the nation's first First Lady

At the encampments, Martha utilized her reading and writing skills to help with secretarial duties. She also entertained guests, including visiting dignitaries and the officers' wives. According to Mount Vernon, Martha liked to say, "she always heard the first cannon at the opening, and the last at the close of the campaigns of the Revolutionary War." American Revolutionary War Facts reports Martha also provided medical assistance to the soldiers who were wounded in combat, mended their clothing, and organized a donation campaign called "the offering of the ladies" which raised money to purchase warm clothes for the soldiers. Her dedication and generosity earned her the nickname "Lady Washington."

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Washingtons once again when Jacky volunteered to join George and assist his army. Just days after he arrived at the encampment, US History reports Jacky contracted "camp fever," and died on November 5, 1781.

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, George and Martha returned to Mount Vernon, where Martha resumed her household duties, which included entertaining guests, assisting with running the plantation, and caring for her grandchildren. Although George resigned from his commission, he remained active in politics. In addition to joining the Constitutional Convention, he was named president of the convention and was soon being encouraged to run for President of the United States. In April 1789, George was elected the first President of the United States and Martha became the first First Lady.

Martha Washington was a devoted and supportive wife

At the time, the capital was in New York, and the Washingtons had to take out a loan to make the move. Although George traveled alone, and arrived before his wife, Martha and the grandchildren soon followed. As reported by US History, being the First Lady, in addition to running the household and caring for her grandchildren, was "a bit overwhelming" for Martha. However, she enjoyed planning and hosting banquets, parties, and formal receptions for dignitaries and their friends. Martha was especially known for her informal Friday dinner parties, which Mount Vernon reports "gave those who attended their only opportunity to freely socialize with the president."

Although George and Martha Washington spent much of their time focusing on official business, Sundays were always reserved for family. US History reports the family spent Sunday mornings at St. Paul's church and the afternoons on outings.

As reported by Mount Vernon, George was known to be "rather reserved" and Martha was more friendly and outgoing. Their differing personalities complimented each other well in their interactions with dignitaries as well as their family and friends. George ultimately served two terms as President of the United States. And, as is to be expected, he often faced harsh criticism from his political opponents and others. Mount Vernon reports Martha was deeply troubled by the criticism of her husband and often took the rhetoric personally. She tried to remain positive, telling a close friend, "I am ... determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be."

Martha Washington was devastated by George's death

The Washingtons returned to their Mount Vernon home on March 4, 1797. Over the next two years they celebrated several milestones, including the wedding of their great-granddaughter, and enjoyed spending time with their family and friends. However, George got a severe cold in late 1799 and died on December 14, 1799. US History reports Martha was devastated by her husband's death. In addition to foregoing his funeral, she moved out of the bedroom they shared and into a small room on the third floor of the home. As reported by Mount Vernon, Martha Washington told her family and friends "that she was ready to join him in death." According to some reports, she burned all but two of the letters they exchanged over their 40 years in the years following his death.

In his last will and testament, Mount Vernon reports George Washington ordered a number of his slaves to be freed. Essentially, the older slaves were to be released and the younger slaves were to remain on the plantation. However, Martha decided to free all of her late husband's slaves remaining on the plantation in 1800.

As for Martha herself, she died on May 22, 1802, with her granddaughter by her side. She was buried next to her beloved husband.

Did Martha Washington own a tomcat named Hamilton?

In recent years, Martha Washington and a cat she reportedly named after Alexander Hamilton were discussed in the Broadway hit "Hamilton." As reported by Mount Vernon, legend suggests Martha found a tomcat at Morrison during the American Revolution. According to rumor, she named the cat "Hamilton" "as a way of teasing" her husband's aide and friend.

As reported by Discovering Hamilton, there are several notable references to Washington having a "feral tomcat" named Hamilton. However, the earliest source was clearly satire. The joke was thought to have been made based on rumors about Hamilton's exploits, which reportedly echoed the behavior of a feral tomcat, but the term "tomcat" did not have the same connotation as it did in later years.

It is unclear whether Martha ever had a cat, much less a tomcat. Even if she did, it is unlikely she ever named a cat after Alexander Hamilton.