Virginia Heiress Seeks Charming (Young) Mate

Martha Custis Washington early in her marriage to Washington with daughter Patsy on her lap, George to her left and son Jacky to her right. The children were from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. Washington adopted the children. Mount Vernon Ladies Association

No doubt that 26-year-old widow Martha Custis need not announce her availability in the Williamsburg press. Most knew of her net worth: 17,500 acres of land, 300 enslaved people, valued then at 40,000 pounds (today’s value approximately $7.7 million). (1)

Much of Virginia knew her husband, wealthy businessman Daniel Parke Custis, had died young and now she managed this massive holding. Many were vying for her hand because she was not only wealthy, but attractive, and had a head for business. In addition after marriage her husband would control two-thirds of her wealth. But one-third would belong to her for the entireity of her life under Virginia law.

George Washington, 6′ 2+” and a popular hero of the French and Indian War, towered over the competition. He’d learned of her husband’s death while in Williamsburg to dine with legislators at the opening of the House of Burgesses. George won a seat there before he left for war, which he would assume in the next session. Wasting no time to meet Martha, he set out the next morning for the 35-mile trek to the Custis’s White House plantation in New Kent County.

Another key suitor, widow Charles Carter, had no financial worries as the son of “King” Carter (Virginia’s official tax collector of the British crown). Carter offered sophistication after studying law in London, was smitten, praising Martha’s beauty, amiable mind, “uncommon sweetness of Temper,” and said he hoped “to raise a Flame in her breast.” (2) Even though he dressed in modern fashion and served in the House of Burgesses as Martha’s grandfather had, his strong deterrents were his age, nearing fifty, and his ten children living at home.

Bachelor Washington had neither the financial nor the social stature of Charles Carter, but his youth and developing chemistry with the young widow could work in his favor. Martha and George came from the same generation–he eight months younger than she. His military leadership added an appeal few others could match. When he arrived for his first meeting with Martha, George’s financial records showed he gave “munificent” tips to the Custis servants and slaves (3) to make a good impression, express his serious intent, and indicate his financial ability.

While he had full intention of managing and safeguarding their joint properties if he were successful in this quest, George must have known that at 26 he could still be called back into military service. Having a winsome woman to think about at home and abroad, who combined humor, intellect, and moxie to oversee a plantation if he were gone, could be a strong asset. After a total of twenty hours together (4) over several visits, their engagement was announced.

Wedding Fashionista

At the not so tender age of 27, Martha ordered bespoke purple slippers from London for her wedding day. Purple–the most expensive because of the delicate mix of red and blue dyes. Slippers in purple satin were unusual enough as to be saved to this day by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Wedding dresses then did not often come in white. Rather the bride selected her favorite dress or had one made in a color and design that favored her. Martha’s dress was made of fitted yellow damask with a flared skirt that featured three creamy white silk bows down the front that accentuated her dainty waistline. (5)

Fine Dresden lace rimmed the square neckline and flowed out of the sleeves. A silk petticoat featured interwomen silver threads, adding glint and rustle. It’s been said that wearing lace of this quality in the Colonies was comparable to carrying a Hermes Epsom Birkin handbag today (2019 value: $15,950). She favored fashionable garnet crystal jewelry and had earrings, a bracelet and several necklaces made from the gem. Money wasn’t a problem for Martha, but she displayed her wealth tastefully.

George sent a request to a tailor in London to make him a blue velvet suit for his marriage to be held during Virginia’s Twelfth Night Festivities on January 6, 1759. (6) The marriage lifted George from the middle of the pack of the planting classes to a standout among the top wealthy plantation owners in Virginia. (7) He’d arrived and he wanted to be recognized not just as a leading military man, but one of stature–subtly, not in an ostentatious manner.

Martha’s two surviving children from her marriage to Daniel Custis, Jacky and Patsy, were also well dressed for the occasion. Likely they wore their best attire that they’d worn for a portrait made of them that same year–Jacky in a shiny blue coat with a light-colored waistcoat; Patsy in a silver-toned gown edged with lace that matched nicely with her mother and step-father’s attire. (8)

The Custis inheritance, according to Virginia law, divided one-third-for Martha, then the children were to divide the income from the Custis assets. Nearly four months after the marriage, George petitioned the General Court in Williamsburg for permission to administer the children’s portions of the estate vested in the children. He reported annually on his actions and claimed the responsibility of a stepparent demanded more attention than a parent, “who could rely solely on his conscience.” (9)

Patsy loved music and her stepfather spoiled her with a spinet (similar to a harpsichord). Appealing to Jacky’s interests became a bit more challenging, which resulted in Washington’s quote: “I can govern men, but not boys.” (10)

Washington and Custis In-Laws

Then the issue of in-laws. Martha’s father died before Daniel, but her mother lived to be 75, residing in nearby Williamsburg and shortly becoming a favorite of the General. Historians for the bride and groom could not find note of George’s mother attending his wedding and it was about a year before Martha met Mary Ball Washington. His father died before George was eleven, which forced him to mature early and it deprived him of the classical education he coveted. Once he’d established Mount Vernon, George emassed a great number of books on a wide variety of topics and spent time reading them when he was at home.

George’s mother did not remarry in a time when many women died young and in childbirth and widows often remarried within two years. His letters to her began “Honored Madam” and concluded in distinct formality, “Your most Dutiful and Obiedient Son, George Washington.” Biographer Ron Chernow used the term “hypocritical” and suggested that his mother’s treatment created a sensitive son with an “overly controlled personality,” someone who equated silence and a stoic personality with strength. George would plan visits to his mother in Fredericksburg on his way to Williamsburg, but they were short. He may have scheduled them, so Mary would not be tempted to visit Mount Vernon, where there are few records of her visits. She had a reputation for being difficult, if not a bit eccentric, but she was his mother and George did his best to serve her needs and fulfill his obligation. (11)

A month after the marriage George assumed his seat in the House of Burgesses, beginning his political career. This entailed travel to the Custis White House in Williamsburg (named long before the President’s House) to attend the legislative sessions. Stay tuned for the Revolutionary political service by George and Martha.

See next: Revolutionary Lady–Martha Washington

(1) The combined annual incomes of 150 craftsmen were in the range of 12,000 pounds sterling. John Ferling. The Ascent of George Washington .(New York: BLoomsbury Press, 2009), 42.

(2) Patricia Brady, Martha Washington. (New York Penguin Group, 2005), 55.

(3) Brady, 58.

(4) Ferling, 42.

(5) Ron Chernow, Washington a Life, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 97, 100.

(6) Chernow, 97.

(7) Chernow, 98.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Washington Irving, Life of Washington, (New York: Pitman, 1858), 615.

(10) Chernow, 98

(11) Ibid.

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