Martha Dandridge, Mistress Custis

martha young-2

Said to be an etching of young Martha Dandridge.

Nearly ten years before she became Mrs. George Washington, Martha Dandridge became Mrs. Daniel Parke Custis.

The Turbulent and Eccentric Daniel Parke 

Daniel Parke insisted his heirs carry the name “Parke.”

Daniel Parke (1669-1710), the grandfather-in-law to Martha Custis, long dead by the time she married into the family, was a big, brawny and difficult man. He was born in Virginia in the mid-seventeenth century, educated in England, and returned to Virginia as a young man. He became very wealthy, owned vast tracts of land and property, and wielded considerable political power. He had a personality and character that could gently be described as debauched and truculent, and practically nobody liked him. To the point of physical fighting and legal battles.

He returned to England in time for the War of the Spanish Succession, was considered a fine soldier, fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough, and was enough of a favorite of Queen Anne to receive honors and position. She appointed him Governor of the Leeward Islands (Antigua). Parke was disappointed since he had hoped for the Governorship of Virginia. His truculence and arrogance appealed even less to the Islanders than it did to the Virginians, and he was assassinated.

He had married years earlier, and sired two children along with several illegitimate children in various locations. He left his legal heirs with a great inheritance, several pending and complicated legal matters, and a mandate to keep the “Parke” name in the family, if they wanted to maintain claim to the inheritance.

The More-Eccentric Custises

Daniel Parke’s daughter Frances married John Custis IV (1678-1749) at a young age. If Parke was a wealthy man with a vast estate, it was easily matched by Custis, who with nearly 18,000 acres across five counties, was considered one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia. They had two children (although Custis, like his father-in-law, was known to have had illegitimate children).

Within a short time, the marriage became sour, rancorous and positively hostile. The couple barely spoke to each other, and then only in an exchange of invective. They had even had drawn up a legal contract of “behavior” so they could manage the proprieties of social engagement.

Daniel_Park_Curtis

An etching of Daniel Parke Custis

Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), their son, somehow managed to navigate the shark-infested waters of his parents’ marriage, and generally avoid their vicious temperaments. Even when Frances Custis died (when Daniel was still in his youth), his relationship with his snarly father did not improve. It is said that Jack, a black youth sired by Custis and one of his slaves, was favored far above his legitimate kin. Custis was known to threaten his son with disinheritance from time to time, if he failed to do as bidden. Huge wealth was at stake.

A portrait of Daniel Parke Custis

Daniel  understandably wished to marry, and had twice found likely candidates – both with substantial fortunes of their own. For reasons best known to his belligerent father, both prospects were denied. He eventually moved to a smaller plantation within the family acreage but far enough away from his father to maintain independence. By his mid-thirties, he had practically given up hope for marriage.

Then he met Miss Martha Dandridge.

Miss Dandridge

The small plantation called White House, owned and occupied by Daniel Parke Custis, was in proximity to the 500 acres in New Kent Country owned by John Dandridge, a man of middling gentry.

marthawhitehouse

The White House (rebuilt long afterwards) was originally built and owned by Daniel Parke Custis.

Custis first saw Martha at their Church services, and thought her comely. She was only sixteen, and he was already an old man of thirty-six. Nevertheless, she impressed him enough to seek out her company. She was said to be small, pleasingly plump, with a sweet and modest disposition.

He proposed to Martha when she was seventeen, considered a marriageable age. John Dandridge, was pleased, since he knew of the Custis fortune. Martha was pleased, since she liked Daniel.

Of course irascible John Custis was displeased. The Dandridges were far below them in prestige as well as property, and Custis was wary of “fortune hunters.” Daniel did not seem to care, since by age thirty-seven, he believed he was mature enough to think for himself. Nevertheless, John Custis put the kibosh on the situation, giving the affianced couple his usual grief.

Dandridge vs. Custis

Martha Dandridge may have been a reasonable, docile and ladylike seventeen year old young woman, but she was not spineless. She knew her father-in-law-to-be had a reputation as obstreperous at best, but she also believed that if he met her and knew her better, he might come around.

She was feisty enough to insist upon calling on the old gentleman, and brought an attorney along just in case. She stated her position as a would-be bride for Custis’ adult son; advising the elder man politely, but in no uncertain terms, that she was not a fortune hunter, and that she sincerely cared for Daniel, with or without Custis property. The attorney was not needed.

Like many bullies, a strong woman will make them cave. John Custis was obviously taken by surprise by the young Miss D. and impressed by her colonial-era chutzpah.

Colonel George Washington, Martha’s second husband.

He wound up telling his son there was absolutely no one else he could consent to except Miss Dandridge. He became her ardent supporter.

Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge were married in 1750, only months after the death of John Custis IV. She was just eighteen, and he was twenty years her senior. Despite those differences, they had a happy and fruitful marriage since she bore him four children, two dying when they were under five years old.

But after only eight years of marriage, Daniel died, leaving Martha with two small children and a very large fortune.

 

Sources:

Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking Pres – 1910

Desmond, Alice Curtis – Martha Washington, Our First Lady – Dodd, Mead – 1947

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/martha-washington/

http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/john-custis-vs-martha-dandridge/

 

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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