Home Arts & Entertainment Martha Washington: A “First Lady” in Every Sense

Martha Washington: A “First Lady” in Every Sense

First Lady of the United States Martha Washington. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
First Lady of the United States Martha Washington. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Jennifer L. Warren

When most people think about historical figures that resided in and profoundly influenced the Hudson Valley, male figures, specifically from the Revolutionary period, come to mind. The buzz typically is about our first President, George Washington.

However, at the same time Mr. Washington was accomplishing incredible feats leading his troops through Valley Forge, another local icon, a female was breaking historic ground as a strong-willed, intelligent, attractive pioneer in her own right: Martha Washington (Dandridge), his wife. Born June 2, 1731 in New Kent County Virginia, Martha Dandridge was 8 months George’s senior. Possessing the rare traits of being able to read and write as a woman in the early 1700’s, Martha enjoyed reading the Bible along with an assortment of magazines and novels. A passionate letter writer, she wrote regularly to her husband, family members, as well as local dignitaries. Both of these pastimes provided her with precious pleasure and peace. In fact, a collection of her writings can be found at the Mount Vernon Library.

A very attractive and poised woman, Martha married Daniel Parke Curtis when she was just 18 years old; he was 20 years her senior. She gave birth to four children, all of whom she outlived; her oldest was John, passing away at 27 years old. Her husband too lived a relatively short life, passing away in his forties. Possessing an incredible inner will and resilience, Martha was able to get through these extremely challenging times.

Still young, very attractive, wealthy and having a great deal of freedom for a woman of her time period, Martha immediately fell for the charming, tall military leader George Washington.

At the time the couple owned about 300 enslaved people as well as more than 17,500 acres of land along with an impressive amount of overall wealth.

They also had a strong, what is now, City of Newburgh, connection. Martha frequently joined George at his winter encampments during the Revolutionary War when fighting was at a stalemate. Washington Headquarters, located on Liberty Street, was a regular stop for Martha, who did a great deal of traveling to stay in contact with her husband while he was carrying through his military responsibilities. In fact, Mr. Washington saw his wife’s presence during these long winter months as so integral that he requested Congress reimburse her for her traveling expenses. Before one of the many trips, Martha had to be inoculated against Smallpox, a deadly wartime nemesis.

Dubbed by many as the Nation’s first First Lady, Martha set the tone for all other women who would occupy this critically important position. On Friday evenings, she started a weekly reception for anyone who would attend. Whether it was members of Congress, visiting politicians or local community members, Martha provided an outlet at her home for all to gather, mingle and enjoy themselves. Referred to as “Lady Washington” or “Our Lady Presidentess,” Ms. Washington was very well received by most all she encountered.

Perhaps one of the most little known and impressive facts about Martha was that she freed 123 of George Washington’s fully owned slaves. Technically, it was stated in George’s will that the slaves be let go following his wife’s death. However, after George passed away, Martha freed the slaves even earlier, on January 18, 1801, a little than a year after George’s passing.

Martha Washington was to pass away two years after her husband, on May 22, 1802 where she was laid to rest next to him. In 1831, her remains were moved to a new tomb, placed on a marble sarcophagus near her husband, where the two remain to this day.

Although in many ways overshadowed by her husband in the history books and everyday chatter, Martha Washington was a woman very much ahead of her time and had a profound, positive impact on the many lives she touched. Her loyalty to and support of her husband deeply impacted his effectiveness as both a military leader and President of the United States. Her pioneer efforts in her own right as an articulate, altruistic figure with a huge heart and lively spirit, make her a woman well worth learning about and celebrating.

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