Martha Washington was an elite, slave-owning, estate-managing, debt-paying widow who conducted business from her home, Mount Vernon. She managed thousands of acres and hundreds of enslaved people throughout her lifetime, but especially during her two periods of widowhood. Patriarchal legal codes in 18th-century Virginia gave only unmarried women explicit power to control property. A look at Martha’s two periods of widowhood reveals how the former Mrs. Custis, and then the former Mrs. Washington, exercised this power. Her experiences demonstrate how these codes affected her and her family’s inheritance, and the lives of the enslaved people she owned.
In 1750, at age 18, Martha Dandridge married 39-year-old Daniel Parke Custis. Daniel came from one of the oldest and wealthiest planter families in Virginia. Daniel and Martha were married for seven years. They had four children together, although only two of them—a son, Jacky, and a daughter, Patsy—survived into early adulthood. Daniel Parke Custis died suddenly in 1757. His death made 25-year-old Martha one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia.
Because Daniel died without making a will, which would have stipulated who exactly would get which property of his, the common law of “dower share” applied to Martha. She had the legal right in her lifetime to control, but not own, one-third of Daniel’s wealth. The other two-thirds of his wealth was held in trust to Daniel’s heirs. Since Jacky was the only child who reached adulthood, he inherited the two-thirds share when he turned 21. But in the meantime, Jacky and Patsy were still minors, so Martha controlled the two-thirds share. This meant that she controlled Daniel’s entire wealth—which included land, enslaved people, investments, and cash—until she remarried. So, when her first husband died, Martha came to control Daniel’s 17,000-some acres and almost 300 enslaved people. Having control over so much physical and human wealth meant that Martha was a desirable marriage partner for a new man.
After a brief courtship, 28-year-old Martha married 27-year-old George Washington in 1759. George brought his own enslaved people to the marriage. According to the common law, once a widow remarried, the new husband now controlled her one-third dower share. Since Martha’s male child was still a minor, George also controlled the two-thirds share (until Jacky reached adulthood). Thus, because of feme covert laws, George came to control all of Martha’s property.
Before states legislated what were called Married Women’s Property Acts during the mid-19 century, women fell under the common law of feme covert upon marriage. Feme covert, or “covered woman,” meant that women relinquished ownership of all moveable goods to their husbands. While women retained ownership of any realty, their husbands managed their real estate. But, if a woman remained unmarried, or became a widow, she fell under feme sole status. While she lacked the power to vote or serve on a jury, she retained the same property rights as a man. So, happily remarried and once again a “covered woman,” Martha moved into George’s Mount Vernon home with her children.
Martha’s beloved husband of 40 years died in December of 1799, when the dower share reverted to Martha. George’s will stipulated that his own 123 enslaved people should be freed only after Martha died. George stated that while he “earnestly wished” to free his enslaved people upon his death, he thought that would be too painful for his enslaved people, who had intermarried and created families with the dower enslaved people, over whom he had no authority.
But Martha freed George’s 123 enslaved people early, on January 1, 1801. Why? The answer is as stark as it is simple: because she was worried that they would kill her. George’s enslaved people knew about his will; they knew that once Martha was dead, they would be free. So why not hasten Martha’s end? The enslaved people at Mount Vernon and the white man and woman who owned them had experienced absolute dependence on each other for their entire lives. But generally, freedom felt threatening to the owners—not to the owned.
For the final two years of her life, Martha was again a widow. Her business records during this time reveal things ran relatively normally at Mount Vernon, since her dower slaves were still working the plantation and its associated industries. Martha continued her domestic work. She purchased home improvement wares such as glass and oil. She paid Mr. Keating’s “balance due” with cash, herring, and whiskey.
But a slight change did occur: as a widow, Martha had to engage in the agricultural side of things at Mount Vernon, which had usually been George’s purview. As a widow, Martha was forced to dip into the more masculine world of industrial management.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington died on May 22, 1802. The remaining one-third dower share thus returned to Daniel’s heirs, who should have been Jacky and Patsy. But since both children were dead by the time Martha died, this share was transferred to Martha’s four grandchildren. Her death proved devastating for the Mount Vernon enslaved community: George’s enslaved people had intermarried with the Custis-dower share enslaved people over those 40 years, and so at least 20 couples or families would be separated. Decades passed before the various divisions of black human “property” satisfied the many white Custis descendants.
The legal, cultural, and familial experiences of white women’s widowhood is woven throughout Mount Vernon’s history. The patriarchal legal codes differentiating married from unmarried women at this time absolutely mattered for every woman, as well as every man.
George was able to personally control Martha’s 153 enslaved people for 40 years because of these laws. Imagine how the productivity, even landscape, of Mount Vernon would be vastly different without them. And let us not forget: it was only after the widow of George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence died that George received ownership of his famous Mount Vernon.
Martha experienced widowhood twice. This meant she experienced two periods of irony, since these times were full of personal sadness, yet also, legal freedom, and an abundance of property—which meant wealth through control over land and other human beings.
A member of the 2019–20 class of research fellows at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Alexi Garrett is a Ph.D. candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. Her work analyzes how feme sole (unmarried) businesswomen managed their slave-manned enterprises in Revolutionary and early national Virginia. She would like to thank Mary Thompson and Katy Gehred for their input on this essay.