Two hundred and fifty years ago today, George Washington, a land owner and an officer in the Virginia militia, and Martha Dandridge Custis (right), a widow with two children, were wed at White House, the Custis home in New Kent County, Virginia, that Martha inherited upon the death of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. It was not a coincidence that the date chosen for the wedding was Epiphany; Twelfth Night was traditionally a night for celebrations, and the Washington-Custis wedding was purposefully tied to this date.
In her biography Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty, Helen Bryan writes:
The wedding was probably a very robust affair. Most social occasions in the tidewater were. Martha would have known what to expect and would have made meticulous preparations in advance to feed and accommodate a houseful of guests who would be cooped up together in the house for an indeterminate number of days. Plantation weddings went on for a long time, and once guests had made the trip over bad, frozen, or snow-covered roads or up the icy Pamunkey River to White House, they would have had no inclination to go home quickly. Advance preparations must have involved making up endless sleeping pallets; preparing bedding; stocking up with firewood, extra soap, and candles; and an orgy of roasting, smoking, and baking; not to mention provisioning with cordials, brewing of beer, and ordering plenty of wine, Madeira, port, rum, brandy, and whiskey. Colonials were a notoriously hard-drinking lot. And in keeping with the custom of the time, Martha probably decorated White House with pine boughs, holly, mistletoe, and ivy.
Although George Washington entered the relationship as a property owner and a man of excellent reputation, Martha’s inheritance of property and slaves from Daniel Parke Custis’s estate would have been an attractive corollary to the establishment of this marriage. Washington was ambitious with respect to property, and he had great plans for his holdings at Mount Vernon; marrying a wealthy widow roughly his own age—Martha was born in 1731, some eight months before George’s birthday in 1732—would greatly increase his social and financial positions. As colonial law forbade Martha to own property after marriage, George immediately became responsible for the property Martha shared with her two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis. On May 1, 1759, George wrote to Robert Cary and Company, London merchants:
Gentlemen, the enclosed is the minister’s certificate of my marriage with Mrs. Martha Custis, properly as I am told, authenticated. You will therefore for the future please to address all your letters which relate to the affairs of the late Daniel Parke Custis, Esquire, to me, as by marriage I am entitled to a third part of that estate, and invested likewise with the care of the other two thirds by a decree of our general court which I obtained in order to strengthen the power I before had in consequence of my wife’s administration.
George and Martha would share forty years together; however, George spent a substantial portion of that time fighting to build and to administer a new nation. He died in December of 1799, and she passed away in May of 1802. Although plans were conceived within the young government to bury Washington beneath the United States Capitol, George and Martha Washington are fittingly interred together at Mount Vernon.
George Washington and Family/David Edwin, 1798, Copy after: Edward Savage/Stipple engraving on paper/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington/Rembrandt Peale, c. 1853/Oil on canvas/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of an anonymous donor
George Washington (Lansdowne portrait)/Gilbert Stuart, 1796/Oil on canvas/National Portrait Gallery; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation