Martha Washington was an educated woman, skilled business manager, a clever hostess, and the only woman to appear on U.S. paper money. Before she even married George Washington, she was the wealthiest woman in Virginia.
Martha Dandridge was born June 2, 1731, in New Kent County, Virginia, to a wealthy and prominent family – members of the planter class. Raised to be a complimentary marriage partner, Martha was taught to read, write, and keep up on customs of the times and etiquette required to be comfortable in colonial society.
Martha married a neighboring planter, Daniel Parke Custis, and on May 15, 1750. Custis died after seven years of marriage at the age of 45, leaving Martha the wealthiest woman in Virginia. She owned the 17,500-acre plantation called The White House – long before the presidential residence came into being. But she wasn’t just the legal owner; she was also a masterful manager of the entire enterprise. Martha Custis managed the estate and business interests, regularly communicating with England about the plantation’s business matters.
Martha Dandridge Custis would not be single for long. In the spring of 1758, several men tried to court the young widow – including George Washington. In March of 1758, George visited Martha twice. They shared several acquaintances and, more likely than not, knew each other while Martha was married to Custis. George and Martha married at her estate on January 6, 1759, and then moved to Mount Vernon.
When the Revolutionary War called for her husband to lead the rebellion, Martha was known to travel long distances. She visited her husband’s encampments in Cambridge, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, and Morristown to support him and the soldiers.
Of course, Martha followed her husband as he ascended to the presidency and set the tone for American diplomacy, hosting weekly receptions for male and female guests on Friday evenings. Her warm reception became the precedent for today’s state dinners hosted for heads of state, Congress members, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community.
As the first First Lady, few have paved the way for others as Martha Washington. Respected by men and women, her image was on the $1 silver certificate. Her name was emblazoned upon a U.S. military vessel, the U.S.S. Lady Washington, and a United States postage stamp. Perhaps her own words allow us a peek into her successful American life as no other could describe as well: “I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends more upon our disposition, and not upon our circumstances.”
Martha Washington created a legacy as the first First Lady – a role that many have undertaken, but few have accomplished as well as the gentle, educated, and accomplished Virginian.