“As George was what the soldiers looked to, Martha then became what women looked to.” Learn more about the remarkable life of the first First Lady with interpreter Lee Ann Rose.
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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Leann Rose, who portrays Martha Washington at Colonial Williamsburg.
I think in history we know a good deal about George Washington and Martha just as the first, first lady. But we don’t think a lot about her as a force in her own right, her own strength of character, her own business acumen, and her own efforts to support the Revolution and to support George through the Revolution.
LeeAnn Rose: Martha is a very interesting subject. You know, they all think about the women behind George Washington. I often think of George Bush, and the first George Bush’s wife, Barbara Bush. If you ask what Barbara Bush did most people think she baked cookies and she wore pearls, and she looked very pretty.That’s what a lot of people think of Martha Washington as well. She was George Washington’s wife.
And as a matter of fact, before I even started playing her, I thought, “Oh she stayed at Mount Vernon waiting for George to come home from the war.” And when I started to research this woman, it opened my eyes to a really remarkable woman that in her own right did a lot of fabulous things. You know she’s married twice, a lot of people don’t realize that George was not her first husband. He was her second husband. She was married to Daniel Custis, a very formidable man here in Williamsburg.
Harmony: And from all accounts this marriage was a happy one. A detail I like is that the place where she went to live with her first husband was called White House.
LeeAnn: Right, a lot of people ask me, “Did you ever live in the White House?” And I said, “Yes, but with my first husband.” And then they’ll look at me very strangely because they’re thinking of the White House and Washington’s presidency. Washington and Martha never got to the federal city, it wasn’t finished. It wasn’t finished until the Adams’.
But White House was the home she lived with Daniel Custis in New Kent. It was very nice because Martha was born and raised in New Kent. She was born at Chestnut Grove. So for the most part of her life she lives in the area she grew up. She went to St. Peter’s Church, her father was a vestrymen at St. Peter’s church. Daniel Custis is a vestryman at St. Peter’s church. White House is not too far from Chestnut Grove, so she’s born and reared in the same place for a long period of her life and had her mother and sisters and brothers surrounding her.
Harmony: So it was a happy marriage and also a productive marriage. How many children did she have?
LeeAnn: She had four children with Daniel Custis. Now, two of them are buried at Bruton Parish Church. They were removed from New Kent to be placed at Bruton Parish Church. But her youngest son, Daniel, dies at 3 and her daughter, Frances, dies at 4.
Then she has two children she brings into the marriage with George Washington and that is Martha, who they called Patsy, and John, who they called Jacky. They were 3 and 5 when she married Mr. Washington.
Harmony: Which two graves were moved and why was that?
LeeAnn: They were moved to be more focal, of course because of Martha’s connection to Williamsburg. A lot of people don’t realize she has a greater connection to Williamsburg than even George does, because she owns properties that were given to her when Daniel Custis dies in Williamsburg.
They lived off and on in Six Chimneys, which was John Custis’ big home in Williamsburg right next to the Public Hospital. And the area was being built up where White House had been. White House burnt in the 19th century, so they wanted to move those graves to Bruton Parish church so that they would be there.
Harmony: What were the circumstances of Daniel Custis’ death? It was sudden.
LeeAnn: It was sudden. They said his speech was slurred and that part of his face had fallen. Now he also got an illness, the daughter dies about three weeks before him and she had an illness of the throat. Today we would probably we would call it strep. He had gotten that illness, and most likely he had strep that attacked the heart. And Martha had no time to mourn her husband because Jacky contracted the illness as well. So she was tending to a sick son she thought she was going to lose at the same time she’s trying to mourn her husband.
Harmony: Poor Martha. How old was she when all this happened?
LeeAnn: She was in her twenties, 25. And she marries Washington at 27.
Harmony: After her first husband died, and before she meets George Washington, she is actually finds herself at the head of a large plantation operation.
LeeAnn: She is managing several properties. And it is broken into thirds. Daniel died so quickly that there was no real formal will. So a third of his properties went to Martha but she also had to manage books because a third of the property was Patsy’s and a third of the property was Jacky’s. So she had to contract and manage three sets of books: hers, her daughter’s, and her son’s. Now some men came and offered their services to help Martha. One of them was Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer of the colony.
Also John Robinson also helps tend to at least Jacky’s properties. These men mostly wanted to help with Jacky’s properties, because Jacky was the last to carry the Custis line so he would be carrying the Custis name. So there were men that had done business with John Custis and Daniel Custis that wanted to make sure that he was well set up in society. But Martha did a lot of the management of the properties herself.
She did it very well, you didn’t see those properties diminishing in the two years that she managed the properties herself. She wrote very quickly to Mr. Cary, her benefactor in England, letting him know that her husband had passed away and that anything that would be done as far as English goods or accounts in England would now have to come through her.
Harmony: What type of business was she managing?
LeeAnn: Land, mostly land, tobacco that was being grown on the land and and those goods that were being grown on the land. They were landed gentry.
Harmony: And a tremendous workforce of enslaved people.
Harmony: How many slaves were in her household?
LeeAnn: They were up to the hundreds. Maybe more than that. Well, what she does, she had overseers for most of the properties. Mr. Valentine was an overseer for a lot of her properties. So what she would do is, she would manage the overseer and the overseer would manage the slaves, except for the slaves inside her household.
Harmony: So she’s managing this property, managing what’s left of her family for two years, how does she meet George Washington?
LeeAnn: George Washington Parks tells it in his memoirs of the Washingtons. George Washington Park Custis is Martha’s grandson. He writes that they met at the Chamberlain’s party, that George was only to linger for a little while. He was on his way to Williamsburg to meet with Governor Dinwiddie and that when he met and saw the widow Custis, he did not leave her side and stayed to the wee hours of the morning making his manservant stand by the horse all evening.
Harmony: But he was not the only suitor that she had.
LeeAnn: According to a lot of accounts, yes, she had a Carter that was a suitor of hers as well.
Harmony: And the Carters were a prominent family.
LeeAnn: Very prominent family.
Harmony: Probably outranking George Washington.
LeeAnn: Yes, as far as land and of course name. The Carters, the Lees and the Custis’ were prominent names. But I think Martha, and this is just my own personal feeling, I feel like Martha knew when she was not good enough, and knew how Daniel Custis helped her into society, and I think she did the same for George. And George was working himself pretty well into society by his own right but the Custis’ helped a bit, the Custis properties helped a bit.
Harmony: So what happens through their courtship?
LeeAnn: They court very, very quickly. They’re married on twelfth night in 1759, and they meet at the Chamberlains’ party only several months before that. I think they realized that they wanted each other from the very beginning. I always say, you know when I play Martha, I always say that, “I never realized what a rugged and a fine figure of a man George Washington was ‘til I met him at the Chamberlains’ party.”
But they’re well suited for one another. Washington was very uncomfortable around very intellectual people because he had educated himself. So the Fairfaxes helped with his education as well as his brother Lawrence, but he tended to want to be around the more sportsmen men. The intellectual types made him very uncomfortable. And Martha was the same way. Martha was very much of a homebody and a country girl.
Even when George comes into Williamsburg for the House of Burgesses, Martha doesn’t often come into town. She stays with her sister outside of town, out in the country. And she comes into Williamsburg for balls, or assemblies, or a night in the theatre but then she goes right back out into her sister’s home. And I think both of them were very well suited for one another.
Harmony: Where did they set up house after they were married?
LeeAnn: They set up house at Mt. Vernon. And I think that must have been awful hard for Martha, because you know she had lived in New Kent all her life. She was born in Chestnut Grove, the home that she and Daniel lived in most often was White House.
She’d gone to St. Peter’s church most of her life and now she was going into the home of a bachelor. But Martha does go to Mt. Vernon and she delights in the fact that she is there. But I feel it was really scary for her at first because she’s leaving all those comforts. And her children were only 3 and 5, so she’s leaving all that comfort to go up to an area she did not know.
Harmony: About the children, what was George’s relationship with these children from Martha’s first marriage?
LeeAnn: He was a very loving parent. You see as soon as he knows that they are marrying and he orders his wedding clothes, he also orders things for the children. And I I find the tenderest way to know how good a father he was is when Martha’s in Philadelphia in 1776 recovering from her smallpox inoculation, George is with her. Jacky writes him a letter, and in the letter he says, “I do not know why my father was taken from me at such a young age but the name of father could not be given to a better man than you.”
Harmony: And George and Martha never have children of their own though.
LeeAnn: No they had no children of their own.
Harmony: As the Revolution brews, Mt. Vernon becomes kind of a hub for political and social activity. I imagine they must have been entertaining a great deal.
LeeAnn: Yes, I find the most the most fascinating people they entertain is when George goes to the first Continental Congress. Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton dine with George and Martha and they leave with George the next day.
If you read Edmund Pendleton’s diaries or writings, he writes that Martha waited at the front door and told Henry and Pendleton to stand firm, for her husband would. And he said that she stood there like a Spartan mother sending her sons off to battle.
Harmony: Battle does come. As George is placed at the head of the Continental Army, Martha is kind of pushed into a new role. What role does Martha take up as George becomes this key figure in the Revolution?
LeeAnn: You know it it’s interesting, I find her one of the best PR people, public relations people, that I can ever imagine. She knows very quickly what she needs to do for George and his reputation. Very early in the war it’s not as much a war of bullets sometimes with Washington, this was a war of words -- trying to break down this man’s reputation, trying to break down the morale of the troops.
And one of the things they used against him fairly early in the war was that his mother and his wife were loyalists, for Martha had not done anything to openly support the cause. So when he asks her to come to Cambridge to the first time he winters someplace and calls for her, she makes a great showing in going. She takes off her silks, she puts on homespun. She takes her son and his wife with her. She picks up a nephew of his, George Lewis, which later on would become a member of his life guard, to protect him. She picks up Horatio Gates’ wife. There’s this cavalcade that goes into Cambridge, Massachusetts showing a portrait of what she called frugality and loyalty to her husband.
And then she goes to every winter camp after that to be with him. She realizes very quickly what she needs to do for not only him, but for the soldiers. For him she realizes fairly quickly that he needed some comfort, to have her there. So she plans dinner parties, horseback riding, things that gave him a little comfort of his home away from home. And then she, she starts to realize that the troops need her as much as George does. And she starts to visit the soldiers.
There’s a woman in her 80s called Mrs. Westlake that writes about seeing Martha at Valley Forge and she writes that she is busy from morning to night seeking out the soldiers that are in the most need and giving them what comforts that she could. She’s often seen in the company of other General’s wives like Lucy Knox, and Catherine Littlefield Greene. General Greene’s and General Knox’s wife come as well to the winter camps and they’re gathered together, knitting stockings for the soldiers and sewing shirts.
Like George was what the soldiers looked to, Martha then became what women looked to. She started to meet with other women and the biggest spearhead of it was Esther Reed of Philadelphia, Joseph Reed’s wife. Even though she was English herself and her family still lived in England, she became a great Patriot for the cause. And these ladies started to collect money and they put down how the money should be collected and this shows how important Martha was to the cause, because each colony was to have a treasurer and each county would have a treasurer.
The money would be brought to them, but then it would be collected to be given to Martha, not to Congress, but given to Martha for her to take to George. If Martha was already at the winter camp then it would be sent to George. And they collected over 300,000 continental dollars to be used for the cause. unfortunately Esther Reed dies in the midst of it and she never sees her big dream come to fruition but Martha keeps it going.
Harmony: What do you want to make sure is known about the life of Martha Washington?
LeeAnn: I guess what I want people to realize is, she wasn’t a passive participant in George Washington’s life, that there were things that she did.