The Custis Years
Death and Widowhood
Daniel Parke Custis’s untimely death on July 8, 1757 forced Martha into action. She ordered a black walnut coffin for her husband’s burial. Because Virginians did not practice embalming, burial occurred within a day or two after death. To commemorate Daniel’s final resting place, Martha later purchased an expensive marble tombstone from England. As was customary for the time, Martha donned somber mourning dress and ordered mourning clothes for the rest of the family, including house slaves.
Yet Martha’s sense of grief must have been overwhelming. By all accounts, the Custis’s marriage, though relatively brief, had been a happy one. Fortunately, many members of the Dandridge family lived nearby. To help her cope with her new circumstances, Martha turned to her brothers and sisters for aid, comfort, and support.
Intestacy and Coverture
Martha especially needed this help because her husband had died without having made a will. Often men in colonial Virginia men wrote wills naming their male friends or relatives as the executors of their estates. Yet because Daniel had died intestate, his widow became the executor, responsible for paying off debts, handling complex business affairs, and managing complicated legal transactions for the estate.
Although widowhood was burdensome and challenging, it also offered women greater freedom than they had as wives. Married women lived under the strictures of coverture. As defined by English common law, coverture meant that once a woman married she could not own property, sue or be sued in court, or make contracts. Widows, however, acted in place of the male head of household and were allowed to perform all these functions.
Unlike many widows who faced financial ruin at the death of their husband, Martha’s economic future was secure. According to the English common law which pertained in Virginia, Martha was guaranteed one-third of her husband’s enormous estate for her use during her lifetime. The remainder would be divided between the children when they reached adulthood.
Head of Household
As the head of the Custis household, Martha assumed primary responsibility for rearing two young children, handling the family finances, managing land held in six different counties, and overseeing almost three hundred slaves. Many other women would have shrunk from such burdens. Not Martha. Rather than wallow in self-pity or despair at her situation, Martha immediately began to take control.
Within a month of her husband’s death, Martha had begun to do what was necessary. She had the tobacco crop harvested, cured, packed, and shipped to market on time. She wrote to English merchants informing them of her “great misfortune” and requested that future correspondence be sent to her. She consulted attorneys about the disposition of outstanding legal matters. She lent money to neighboring planters and arranged for repayment.
Most of all, she tended to the needs of her children, John Parke (Jacky) ,who was three, and Martha Parke (Patsy), only a year old, who would never know their natural father. Once again, Martha’s life had taken an unexpected turn. As usual, she would make the best of it.