Because of her family’s status as members of the local gentry, Martha was able to acquire the values and behavior that would enable her to marry well. She imbibed the fine points of etiquette, learned to dance, and mastered the art of horseback riding.
Martha Dandridge left behind no diaries or letters from her early years. She never wrote a memoir or autobiography. Although this makes it impossible to recover specific details from Martha’s childhood, general information about the lives of Virginia planters and their children makes it possible to understand the overall contours of Martha’s early life.
Martha Dandridge was the eldest child, and oldest daughter, among the eight children born to Frances Jones and John Dandridge. As members of the local gentry in New Kent County, the Dandridges lived a comfortable, though not lavish, life at Chestnut Grove, a two-story frame house situated on the Pamunkey River.
Religion and Education
Martha grew up learning from her parents how to navigate in the society of eighteenth century Virginia. Her father insured that she was a member in good standing of the Church of England, the Virginia colony’s official state religion. Baptized as a child, she attended religious services at the local Anglican parish, St. Peter’s Church.
Her mother probably taught her to read. Unlike the majority of women in Virginia at this time who were not literate, Martha learned both to read and write at an early age. Throughout her entire life, Martha found pleasure and solace in reading. She read the Bible and other devotional literature for religious edification and novels and magazines for entertainment and instruction. Although only a small fraction of her letters survive, she was also a voluminous correspondent.
Household Tasks and Skills
Her mother also instructed Martha in the skills she would eventually need to know to become mistress of her own household. Except among the wealthiest Virginia families, who had domestic servants and slaves to help them, the female members of the family were responsible for performing all household tasks. These tasks included cleaning the house, washing the clothes, planting a vegetable garden, caring for small domestic animals, preparing the meals, and caring for the children. In an era with few trained doctors, mothers were also supposed to be proficient in the healing arts. Martha’s mother would have taught her folk remedies and the preparation of medicinal herbs to treat common illnesses.
Sewing was among a woman’s most important tasks. The mistress of the household had the primary responsibility for clothing the entire family. Although the wealthiest Virginia planters might import textiles from Britain, most colonists still spun their own thread, wove their own cloth, and sewed their own garments. As an adult, Martha remained fond of needlework, including darning, embroidering, and knitting, and was known for her excellent handiwork.
Like most women of her social class, it is likely that Martha always envisioned her future in terms of being a wife and a mother. Because of her family’s status as members of the local gentry, Martha was able to acquire the values and behavior that would enable her to marry well. She imbibed the fine points of etiquette, learned to dance, and mastered the art of horseback riding. She knew how to deport herself in public and converse with men. Martha’s mastery of these skills would hold her in good stead, first in her role as a planter’s wife—and then, as a wealthy widow.