|Mount Vernon, VA||July 2003|
The first woman to be first lady of the United States was Martha Washington, though that term was not used to describe a president’s wife until decades after she served. Like her husband George did two and a half years before, Lady Washington died at the Mount Vernon plantation in eastern Virginia in May 1802. Both passed away on the upper floors of the mansion, which my sister and I are standing in front of in this image from our visit in late July 2003.
Martha Washington’s body was initially laid to rest in a deteriorating vault by the Potomac River, in which the remains of her husband and other family members were kept. They were exhumed in 1831 when a new tomb was finished a short walk away, in accordance with George Washington’s last will and testament.
The tomb underwent a makeover in 1835 at the behest of Lawrence Lewis, the general’s nephew. Lewis requested a plan be drawn up by 28-year-old West Point graduate Robert E. Lee. Lee was a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers and the husband of Mary Custis, Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter and George’s step-great-granddaughter. Historian Matthew R. Costello writes that Lee’s plan “called for thirty thousand bricks to enclose the vault, a new iron gate, and stone tablets, totaling $560.” The work was completed that year. In 1837 Philadelphia stonemason John Struthers donated marble sarcophagi for the first couple, who were then moved to the antechamber, separate from their kin in the back vault. The antechamber’s layout is not symmetrical, and Lady Washington’s sarcophagus (left) is farther from the gate. Therefore it is more challenging for visitors to see the details of the first lady’s sarcophagus than those of the president’s (right).
Here I am, age eight, standing in front of George Washington’s sarcophagus on a hot and humid July day. Martha Washington’s sarcophagus is just out of view on the left in this image. She was the fourth U.S. first lady whose interment site I saw, following Abigail Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Born: June 2, 1731 in New Kent County, Virginia
Spouses: Daniel Parke Custis (m. 1750-1757); George Washington (m. 1759-1799)
First Lady Tenure: 1789-1797
Died: May 22, 1802 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Cause of Death: Severe Fever
Interment: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, Virginia
"I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town - I never goe to the publick place - indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from - and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal[.]"
- Martha Washington
October 23, 1789 in a letter to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington, describing her experience as first lady in New York, New York
When George Washington died in 1799, mourning jewelry was decades away from reaching its Victorian era (1837-1901) peak in popularity. It was not uncommon for members of the aristocratic tier of society to wear displays of remembrance in other periods, however, such as the Georgian era (1714-c. 1830). As a widow, Martha Washington wore a ring with her late husband’s profile incorporated into it. Federal Hall National Memorial, the Manhattan site where the first presidential inauguration was held, possesses the ring, pictured here. Its collection also includes portions of the first lady’s mourning dress.
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Costello, Matthew R. The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2019.
Washington, Martha. Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, October 23, 1789. Letter. From George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Accessed February 19, 2022. https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/letter-martha-washington-to-fanny-bassett-washington-october-23-1789/.
White House. “Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.” Accessed February 19, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-families/martha-dandridge-custis-washington/.