The Twilight Years
Martha’s death on May 22, 1802 marked the end of an era. Because Martha and George Washington had no children together, each spouse had made provision for the division of their estates among other family members and friends.
George had left Mount Vernon and much of its land to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. In addition to providing for other nieces and nephews, he also set aside gifts for his step-granddaughters and for their children. With her bequest, Martha Parke Custis Peter built a fine home called Tudor Place in Georgetown, designed by William Thornton, architect of the first U.S. Capitol. In Alexandria, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law erected Hoxton House, another fine example of Federal architecture.
George had a special place in his heart for the two children that had grown up in his home. George gave Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Nelly) and her husband about two thousand acres from the Mount Vernon estate, which became the site of her home, Woodlawn.
To his mischievous step-grandson, George left a lot in the federal district of Columbia and a 1200-acre estate on the Four Mile Run in northern Virginia. Here Wash would build his home, which he called Arlington. In 1831, Wash’s only daughter (who was Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter) married the U.S. Army officer and future Confederate General Robert E. Lee (scion of the Lee family, one of the oldest and most illustrious in Virginia), who took up residence in Arlington until the Civil War.
Soon after George’s death in 1799, Martha had made her own will. As a widow, she owned all the personal property in the house, including silver, china, linens, and portraits. She also possessed a certain amount of money that she had brought into the marriage and a piece of property and townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, that George had bequeathed to her. In addition, she owned one slave, a mulatto named Elish. Martha had no control over the goods, slaves, or property that belonged to the Custis heirs and which were to be distributed among the Custis grandchildren after her death.
Martha’s death brought the Custis heirs even greater riches. Each of Martha’s four grandchildren received substantial amounts of land and money that been held in trust for them for years. Moreover, each received a share of the so-called “dower slaves,” the descendants of the slaves once owned by Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Martha Parke Custis Peter, for example, received 61 slaves at the time of the division of the estate.
Martha also singled out certain individuals in her will for special bequests. Two of the granddaughters each received a remembrance of Mount Vernon: for Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, John Trumbull’s portrait of General Washington, a dressing table, and a special looking glass; for Martha Parke Custis Peter, a writing table, a chair, and a engraved print of General Washington.
But the two grandchildren Martha had raised as her own received extra gifts. To her dear Nelly, Martha gave furniture, linens, mirrors, glassware, and china from Mount Vernon. And to her beloved Wash, Martha left the bulk of the valuables in her personal estate, including silver, china, pictures, linens, and bedding.
Martha’s legacy lived on in the collective national memory. During the American Revolution, General Washington had named a row-galley in the Continental Navy after his wife, calling it the Lady Washington. Music was composed in her honor. Much later, during the First World War, a troop transport ship would be baptized the USS Martha Washington. Martha Washington was the first woman to appear on U.S. currency, on paper money printed in the years 1886, 1891, and 1895. She was also the first woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, initially in 1902, with other stamps following in 1923 and 1938.
During the 1840s, women sought to honor her memory in another way. Throughout the country, social reform groups arose, calling themselves the “Martha Washington Societies.” Committing to advancing the cause of temperance and to relieving the suffering of the afflicted, these organizations, like their namesake, were dedicated to serving the public good.
With Martha’s passing in 1802, “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men” had died.* Within two months of her death, all the items from Mount Vernon, including household goods, livestock, farm tools, and office supplies, had been given to the appropriate heirs or sold at auction.
Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, came into possession of Washington’s lands and estate. Washington’s slaves had been emancipated; the Custis slaves were sent to their new owners. The Mount Vernon that Martha Dandridge Custis Washington had once made into such a warm and welcoming home was no more.
*Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer, May 25, 1802.