Martha Washington

Mother of the nation

Martha Washington is known for having been the “Mother of the Nation”, the first "First Lady", wife of the first President of the United States, George Washington. This portrait was painted by Rembrandt Peale more than half a century after her death, reflecting the era of nation-building.

Born in 1731 into a plantation-owning family in Virginia, Martha Dandridge had seven known siblings. She also probably had a (white) half-brother, Ralph, and half-sister Anne Dandridge Costin, whose mother was of mixed African and Cherokee descent, and who was born into slavery.

Martha married at age eighteen Daniel Parke Custis, who was twenty years her senior. She had four children by him. Her first son and daughter both died very young.  She herself was widowed at the age of 25.

At the death of her husband, Martha Dandridge Custis was left in charge of 17,500 acres of land and 300 slaves, in addition to other property and monies. According to her biographer, "she capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices."

Eighteen months after she was widowed, Martha brought her vast wealth to her marriage to George Washington in 1759, which enabled him to buy land to add to his personal estate. She also brought with her 84 dower slaves from her first husband's estate for use during her lifetime. They and their descendants reverted to her first husband's estate at her death, to be inherited by his heirs. The Washingtons did not have children together, but they did rear her two surviving children by her first husband, their son John "Jack" Parke Custis and daughter Martha “Patsy” Custis. Patsy was prone to seizures and died at age 17.

“The Blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”  --MARTHA WASHINGTON, 1795

Jack married Eleanor Calvert before he turned 20, and she gave birth every year until six years later when he was serving on his stepfather’s staff at the siege of Yorktown (1781) where the War of Independence was won, but Jack died of Typhus. On the death of his widow in 1811, his three surviving daughters and one son (mostly) inherited more than 1,100 acres of land now comprising Arlington Cemetery and the National Airport in DC, and more than 600 enslaved people.

In addition to his six babies with his wife, Jack is also thought to have fathered a son William Custis Costin with his enslaved aunt, Ann Dandridge Costin.

Ona Judge, (c1774-1848) Escaped from Martha Washington

Ona Maria "Oney" Judge Staines, was the daughter of Betty, a seamstress, and Andrew Judge, and indentured tailor. Ona was inherited by Martha Washington from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Legally, the people Martha inherited as property were to be returned on her death to her children by her first marriage. 

Ona had plenty of nice clothes and some pocket money as the personal maid of First Lady Martha Washington, but longed for freedom. The final straw came when they were soon to leave Philadelphia (then the Capital) to return to Mount Vernon at the close of Washington’s presidency (which was due in March 1797). Philadelphia was a liberal city, where many free Blacks lived and often prospered. Although Ona had never been taught to read, she made friends in Philadelphia, and learned new ideas about liberty and possibility. 

Pennsylvania had a Gradual Abolition Act (1780), under which any enslaved person who entered the State with an owner and lived in there for longer than six months would be set free automatically. As a result, the Washingtons made sure that all the eight individuals who were held captive in their household would travel out of State, usually back to Virginia with Martha Washington, before six months was up. The President instructed his Secretary to keep the reason for this regular travel a secret.

Whether or not Ona knew about this law, she had heard that she might be transferred to the ownership of Martha’s granddaughter back in Virginia. She knew this meant she’d never have a chance of freedom. Virginia was the very place that had introduced into American Law the inherited condition of slavery, and where “whiteness” as a position of privilege had been invented to discourage solidarity between indentured and enslaved people, following Bacon’s Rebellion.  Although Ona’s father and grandfather were white, the law said enslavement should be inherited through the mother. 

Instead of packing her bags for Virginia, Ona Judge asked some friends to hide her belongings beforehand, then packed a small bag and slipped out of the house while the Washingtons were having dinner.

Helped by a ship’s captain to escape to Portsmouth, NH, and by a Senator (later Governor) of NH who tipped her off that a catcher (probably Martha’s nephew) was after her - both men who could have been severely punished for their assistance under George Washington’s first Fugitive Slave Law - Ona made her escape. The Washingtons and their agents pursued Judge for three years, dispatching friends, officials and relatives to find and recapture her, but with help from her friends she always evaded them. Ona and her children remained forever free, and without regrets.

Ona’s sister, Philadelphia ‘Delphy’ was born c 1780 at Mount Vernon. Her mother Betty, a seamstress, was one of the 84 people in bondage brought to her second marriage by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.

Ona's sister Philadelphia married William Custis Costin, son of Ann Dandridge Costin Holmes, (thought to be the half-sister of First Lady Martha Washington). ‘Delphy’ and her two daughters Louisa age 2 and Ann age 4 months, were granted emancipation on 13 June 1807 by Thomas Law, the former husband of her owner, Elizabeth Custis Law, who was Martha Washington’s granddaughter.

In 1812 when the second war with Britain began, Delphy and William were in their early thirties, raising many children (five daughters, two sons and four adopted children) in a house they built on A Street South in Washington DC.


They gave each child the middle name of Parke, a link to John Parke Custis, Martha Washington's son, who is thought to have been William's father. John Parke Custis, heir to a large Virginia estate, was given that middle name because his grandfather left a will dictating that only descendants with the middle name Parke could inherit the Parke/Custis money, land and slaves. Numerous white children benefited from the naming rule until the Parke and Custis money ran out. William Costin’s reasons for naming his children in similar fashion are, like his origins, not recorded.

In general, the people owned by Martha Washington were not freed until the death of her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis in October 1857. The executor, (his grandson-in-law and also a beneficiary) Robert E Lee, was charged with ensuring the slaves were all freed in a manner ‘expedient and proper’:upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid [$10,000 each], and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies being clear of debt, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years [my emphasis] from the time of my decease.”


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Last Updated

January 16, 2023 12:40 p.m.


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