Martha Parke Custis Peter

By Wendy Kail


On January 6, 1759 the widow Martha Dandridge Custis married Colonel George Washington. She stood only five feet to his six feet, three and a half inches. [1] She brought two children from her first marriage, John Parke Custis [Jacky, born 1754], and Martha Parke Custis [Patcy, born 1756]. Washington welcomed these children into his home and into his heart.

For fifteen years the Washingtons, who had no children of their own union, lived happily and contentedly at Mount Vernon. But Patcy Custis suffered from what is believed to have been epilepsy, and by 1768 the illness began to manifest itself more severely. [2] In June 1773, when she was seventeen, she died of a seizure. General Washington noted that her mother was reduced to “the lowest ebb of misery.” [3] Martha Washington’s son, Jacky, was an indifferent student, and Washington despaired of preparing the boy to manage the large inheritance that soon would be his. Jacky attended several schools, but soon became engaged to young Eleanor [Nellie] Calvert of Mount Airy, Maryland. Although Washington believed his stepson too young to bear the responsibilities of marriage, the event took place. Washington attended the boy’s wedding on February 3, 1774, although Martha, still in mourning for her daughter, did not.

marthapeter

Martha Parke Custis Peter.
Copy by Armistead Peter III (1975) of the well-known Pine portrait.
Courtesy, Tudor Place Foundation, Inc.

The young couple had children in rapid succession. Elizabeth [Betsy, Bett, Eliza] Parke Custis was born in 1776; Martha [Patty] Parke Custis was born in 1777; Eleanor [Nelly] Parke Custis was born in 1779; and a son, George Washington [Wash] Parke Custis, followed in 1781. For the first year of their marriage, the young Custis family lived at both Mount Airy and Mount Vernon. In 1778 Custis purchased the estate Abingdon, 900 acres on the west bank of the Potomac River, from Robert Alexander. [4] For the Custis family, Abingdon was located conveniently equidistant between Mount Vernon and Mount Airy. Today part of this property is the site of Reagan National Airport in Alexandria, Virginia.

The young Custis family enjoyed many happy hours together, but tragedy struck in 1781. Jacky, who was acting as a civilian aide to his stepfather, George Washington, at Yorktown, contracted camp fever and died in November of that year. His widow was 23 years old and had four children. Eventually it was decided that the two oldest girls, Betsy and Patty, would remain in the custody of their mother. The two youngest children, Nelly and Wash, were informally adopted by the Washingtons. The Widow Custis was courted by and married to Dr. David Stuart (1753-1814) of Alexandria in 1783. They remained at Abingdon for the first years of their marriage. The growing Stuart family and the Washingtons remained very close, and the children visited back and forth often.

From the very beginning of Martha Parke Custis’ life her grandmother was present, and remained a strong and commanding presence throughout Patty’s childhood. On November 18, 1777 Martha Washington noted to her sister Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett the arrival of Eleanor Custis at Mount Vernon, and added that Eleanor was not well. [5] Indeed Anna Maria Bassett was gravely ill at this time, but Martha felt it her duty to remain with her daughter in law, who “Expect (sic) every day to be brought to bed. . .”. [6] Anna Maria Bassett died before Patty’s birth, but Martha remained staunchly at Mount Vernon with Eleanor Custis. On Dec. 31, 1777 Martha Parke Custis, named for her grandmother, was born in the Blue Room at Mount Vernon.

When he received the news of the birth of a granddaughter, George Washington wrote Jacky Custis from Valley Forge, “I congratulate you on the birth of another daughter, and Nelly’s [Eleanor’s] good health; and heartily wish the last may continue, and the other be a blessing to you.” [7] In a letter held at Tudor Place in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Jacky Custis wrote to his mother from Mount Airy. [8] He told her of their attempts to inoculate the baby against smallpox, but that the inoculations had not taken. She [Patty] had become “the finest Girl I ever saw and the most Good natured Quiet Little Creature in the World.” He chided his mother, “You took the advantage of Me, to ask for her just after my Disappointment. . . . I could not have loved It better if It had been a Boy.” He added that Patty’s older sister, “Miss Bett has grown very much, and is very saucy and entertaining,” a prophetic judgment on Betsy’s character.

Although Eleanor Custis remarried, the family remained at Abingdon until Dr. Stuart bought the estate Hope Park in Fairfax County in 1785, and removed his growing family there. The girls continued to visit back and forth with their grandparents, and Martha Washington’s letters mark these occasions. Betsy and Patty were brought often to Mount Vernon in George Washington’s coach. When Eleanor Stuart went to stay with her mother on her father’s death in 1788, Betsy and Patty remained with Martha Washington. [9] According to Martha Peter’s daughter Britannia, on Sept. 18, 1793 Patty and other members of the Stuart family drove from Hope Park to see the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. [10] An ox had been killed and barbequed for the occasion. After the cornerstone was placed and the speeches heard, everyone “partook of the repast”. The girls did not dare join in, but General Washington approached Eleanor Stuart, and insisted that she and her children eat before they began their long journey home. He escorted them all to the table, where they ate heartily. It is generally acknowledged that Martha Washington was a strict disciplinarian in regard to music, an essential skill for young ladies of the time; evidently Patty fell under her tutelage, for in the Tudor Place collection is a music book from Mount Vernon that belonged to Patty Custis. [11]

By 1794, however, the tenor of Martha Washington’s letters in regard to her namesake changed. Martha Washington told Fanny Bassett Washington on Feb. 15, 1794, “Mrs. Peter . . . arrived hear (sic) [Philadelphia] fryday (sic) night much fatigued – the girls [Betsy and Patty] had boath (sic) colds ever since they gott (sic) hear (sic) Mrs Peter delivered me your letter . . .”. Mrs. Peter was Elizabeth Scott Peter (1744-1821), the wife of Robert Peter (1726-1806), a former mayor of Georgetown. Their son Thomas was courting young Patty Custis. Martha Washington continued, “I wish Patty may marry well she is a clever girl and I am the more anxious that she should marry well as I am sure it will be an advantage to her younger sister [Nelly].” The severe colds, however, did not stop the sisters from a “flying trip to New York they were only two days in the city rode around it- and went to church Thursday –and to a play- they seemed so delighted with the jaunt all together. . .”. [12]

Only a month later Martha Washington wrote from Philadelphia to Fanny Bassett Washington again: ” . . .from what I can hear Patty and Mr. Peter is to make a match- The old gentleman will comply with Dr. Stuart’s bargain and in the last letter I had from Mrs Stuart she says Patty had given him leve (sic) to visit her as a lover – I suppose by that he is agreeable to all parties – if it is so I shall be very happy to see her settled with a prospect of being happy – I really believe she is a very deserving girl – I am told that he is clever.” [13] Several days later she noted the presence of the girls and Mrs. Peter [Elizabeth Scott Peter] again, who had been with her five weeks. “Betsy thinks of staying with me and let Patty go down without her . . . Mr. Peter talks of going from this place about the 16th which will be next Monday the girls have been very well since they came hear except colds they boath (sic) got in traveling in the extreme cold weather.” [14]

gwmini

George Washington Miniature
by Walter Robertson.
Courtesy, Tudor Place Foundation, Inc.

Patty was the first of the sisters to marry, and she was seventeen years old. The marriage to Thomas Peter (1769-1834) took place at Hope Park, Dr. Stuart’s home in Fairfax County, on January 6, 1795. This day was Twelfth Night, and also the same wedding day of Martha and George Washington. There are no details of the wedding, but Martha Custis requested from her grandfather George Washington a miniature of himself as a wedding gift. Washington complied, and indeed this miniature by Walter Robertson remains in the collection of Tudor Place today. Britannia Kennon, a daughter of Martha Peter, was later told that when her mother made this request, Washington “. . . could never believe the wish nearest a young lady’s heart on the eve of her marriage, was to possess an Old Man’s Picture.” [15] The trunk from the trousseau Mrs. Washington sent her granddaughter from Philadelphia is at Tudor Place today.

The newlyweds visited the Washingtons in Philadelphia. Robert Peter, Thomas Peter’s father, told his kinsman Robert B. Dunlop, “You will no doubt have heard that Tomy (sic) is married to a Grand Daughter of the President’s Lady a Miss Custis, & they are now in Philadelphia on a visit to the old people at their Request.” [16] From there they also made another quick trip to New York, for George Washington recorded on February 18, 1795 to Tobias Lear, “Betsy & Mr. & Mrs. Peter, left this on Monday morning for New York to return on Saturday.” [17]

When they returned to the Federal City, the Peters lived on K Street in a house built for them by Robert Peter. Nelly Custis visited her sister there often; in January 1796 Martha Washington wrote to Nelly and forwarded a trunk “to your sister Peter I have put into it everything that you have asked for . . .”. [18] Martha Peter’s older sister Betsy married also soon after she did, and lived with her husband Thomas Law in the Federal City. Through the next few years the sisters continued to travel back and forth between houses to visit, often for long periods of time. George Washington’s diaries and letters record his visits to the Federal City and frequent extended family stays at Mount Vernon.

The Mount Vernon Legacy

Martha Peter never forgot her Mount Vernon heritage. On the death of Washington she inherited $8,000, 1/32 of his estate. In an indenture written later in 1823 by her husband, Thomas Peter noted that this money was specifically used to purchase the grounds and buildings in Georgetown that came to be called Tudor Place. [19] In 1802 after the death of Martha Washington, Thomas Peter, an executor of her estate, purchased at a private sale many objects from Mount Vernon. [20] Not all of these are still at Tudor Place, but many are. Some were chosen for their decorative beauty, but others were plainly functional; as household objects they related to day to day living, and serve even now as they might have served to Martha Peter, reminders of her grandmother and life at Mount Vernon.

When the scholar Jared Sparks visited Martha Peter in 1828 to gather information for his life of Washington, she told him that after General Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington burnt all their personal letters except two, “which seemed to escape by accident.” [21] Mrs. Washington willed her writing desk to Martha Peter, and in this desk were found the two letters from General Washington to his wife. Although the date of this discovery is not known, since Sparks’ narrative of 1828 only one more letter from George to Martha Washington has been found that escaped destruction. [22] The letter found in the desk written on June 18, 1775, is significant because Washington wrote from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to tell his wife that he had just accepted the command of the Army of the United Colonies.

Martha Peter did not ever hesitate to display her Federalist beliefs in public despite the political climate of the times. Early in 1812 Miss Phoebe Morris of Philadelphia was a guest of President and Mrs. Madison. Phoebe Morris was a young friend of Dolley Madison’s; in fact the two were so close that Phoebe’s father referred to her in jest as Dolley’s daughter. [23] Phoebe’s political leanings were allied to her friend Dolley’s. On February 28, 1812 Phoebe Morris wrote that at a Birthnight Ball for Washington arranged by Martha Peter’s sister, Martha Peter wore “. . .two [miniatures] as large as warming pans, one representing the General, which rested upon her bosom, & the other his Lady, which dangled below her waist . . .”. [24] This brazen Federalist display would not have escaped the notice of any Republican guests at the Ball.

Martha Peter did not hesitate to express her Federalist beliefs privately, either. Family legend states that she watched the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 from her bedroom window. In a scathing letter of August 28, 1814 to her friend Timothy Pickering (1745-1829), who had been Washington’s Secretary of State, Martha Peter described the pitiful American resistance before the British under President James Madison, a French partisan. The British General Cockburn told her that had Washington been president, Cockburn would have made a very different provision for the city. The British officers thought the Minister of War, James Monroe, was a fool to oppose the English regulars with raw militia, for after all the British regulars had fought and trained under Wellington, and “. . . their Nation would never make Peace with A President who was so much under the influence of the Emperor of Elba.” [25] Her disdain for the French never diminished. Even now the beautiful entrance hall at Tudor Place designed by Dr. William Thornton is called the “Saloon” in the English fashion, and will never be known as the “Salon”, for her wishes are honored at Tudor Place even today.

Yet of the four grandchildren of Martha Washington, the least is known about Martha Custis Peter. Her brother George Washington Parke Custis published two volumes of his own memoirs of Washington; her sister Betsy left a record of her recollections and many letters; and her sister Nelly’s letters have been edited and published. [26] Martha Peter was surrounded from the start by a family that seemed to outshine her. Her mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, “. . . attracted Admiration whenever she appear’d (sic), mounted on an elegant horse, which she rode well, she was certainly a most captivating object . . .”. [27] Her older sister Betsy was bohemian, charming, and entertaining; her younger sister Nelly, a favorite of the Washingtons, was very beautiful. Her brother, as their father before them, was an indifferent student who relied heavily on the influence of his family’s inheritance. Washington, her stepgrandfather, was an object of adoration even before she was born, and her grandmother was revered as the consort of Washington, later to be called Lady Washington. In her future lay a father in law, Robert Peter, and a husband, Thomas Peter, whose energetic dealings and business ventures in Georgetown and the Federal City wove a story of power and intrigue all their own.

Like her forebears, Martha Peter remained a staunch Federalist. The letter of June 18, 1775 in which Washington worries that he is not equal to the heavy task of leadership placed on his shoulders, is held most carefully and with great honor at her home, Tudor Place. The house and almost all of its grounds purchased with the Washington legacy remain intact; its public Washington collection of objects is only surpassed by that of Washington’s own home, Mount Vernon. Martha Custis Peter, who according to family tradition was more like her grandmother than either of her sisters, succeeds in preserving the Federalist legacy even today.


Notes

1. Louisa Lear Eyre, Letters and Recollections of George Washington. (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906), 137. It should be noted that estimates of Washington’s height range. [back]

2. Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: An American Life. (New York: Viking), 79. [back]

3. W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and Philander Chase, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series. (Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1983), Washington to Burwell Bassett, June 20, 1773, 89-90. [back]

4. Thomas J. Fisher, “‘Abington’ (sic), Opposite Washington”. (Alexandria, Va.: J. Marriott & Co., 1881), pp. 1-10. Fisher states that the property contained 480 acres in a romantic but inaccurate description written for the sale of the property in 1881. See Joseph E. Fields, “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p.182, n.3. Fields notes that Abingdon included 900 acres. [back]

5. Joseph E. Fields, “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p.174. November 18, 1777. [back]

6. Ibid., p. 175. December 22, 1777. [back]

7. Tudor Place Archives, as transcribed in Britannia’s Reminiscences, MS 14, Box 69, Folder 24. [back]

8. Tudor Place Archives, MS 3, Box 1, Folder 1, John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, April 3, 1778. [back]

9. Fields, p. 201, January 18, 1788. [back]

10. Tudor Place Archives, Britannia’s Reminiscences, MS 14, Box 69, Folder 24. Dr. William Thornton, who designed the first capitol, was a friend of Washington and Thomas Peter. Thornton was to design Tudor Place, the Peter estate in Georgetown, that would be built 1805-1816. [back]

11. Tudor Place Archives, Patty Custis Music Book: 1783/ Six Favourite Sonatas for the Piano Forte or Harpischord, by Signor Luigi Boccherini, Principal Composer at the Court of Spain. (London, 1783). [back]

12. Fields, p. 257-258, February 15, 1794. [back]

13. Fields, p. 259, March 2, 1794. The nature of Dr. Stuart’s “bargain” with Thomas Peter is not known. Stuart would later make another “bargain” with Patty’s older sister Betsy’s husband Thomas Law in 1796; other indentures later were affixed in 1800 and 1802 with Thomas Peter, now Law’s brother-in-law, as a substitute trustee. See Allen C. Clark, Thomas Law: A Biographical Sketch, (Washington, D.C.: Press of W.F. Roberts, 1900), p. 12. [back]

14. Fields, p. 261, March 9, 1794. [back]

15. Tudor Place Archives, Britannia’s Gleanings, MS 7, Box 8. [back]

16. Tudor Place Archives, Britannia’s Reminiscences, MS 14, Box 69, Folder 24. [back]

17. Louisa Lear Eyre, p. 90, February 18, 1795. [back]

18. Fields, p. 290, January 14, 1796. [back]

19. Tudor Place Archives, MS 2, Box 1, Folder 16, Deed and Indenture, 1823. [back]

20. Tudor Place Archives, MS 2, Box 1, Folder 43, List of Objects Purchased at Mount Vernon in hand of Thomas Peter. [back]

21. Herbert B. Adams, ed., The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, Comprising Selections from his Journals and Correspondence. Vol. II. (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1893, reprint), p. 47-48, entry for February 26, 1828. [back]

22. Rhode Island Historical Society. [back]

23. Allen C. Clark, Life and Letters of Dolly Madison. (Washington, D.C.: Press of W.F. Roberts Company, 1914), p. 133. [back]

24. Morris Family Papers, Dumbarton House/The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Washington, D.C. I am obliged to Ann Steuart, Curator of Collections, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, for bringing the irony of this event to my attention. [back]

25. Massachusetts Historical Society, Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) Papers. [back]

26. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. (Washington, D.C.: William H. Moore, 1859); George Washington Parke Custis, Mary Custis Lee, Benjamin J. Lossing, Memoirs of Washington by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, with A Memoir of the Author, by his Daughter. (Edgewood Publishing Company, 1859); William D. Hoyt, Jr. “Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis, 1808.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Historical Society, April, 1945); Patricia Brady, ed., George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991). [back]

27. William D. Hoyt, Jr., “Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis, 1808.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 53, No.2. (Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Historical Society, April, 1945), p. 96. [back]

Bibliography

Abbot, W.W., Dorothy Twohig, and Philander Chase, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1983.

Adams, Herbert B., ed., The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, Comprising Selections from his Journals and Correspondence. Vol. II. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1893, reprint.

Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. New York: Viking, 2005.

Clark, Allen C. Life and Letters of Dolly Madison. Washington, D.C.: Press of W.F. Roberts Company, 1914.

Clark, Allen C. Thomas Law: A Biographical Sketch. Washington, D.C.: Press of W.F. Roberts, 1900.

Eyre, Louisa Lear. Letters and Recollections of George Washington. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906.

Fields, Joseph E. “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Fisher, Thomas J. “‘Abington’ (sic), Opposite Washington”. Alexandria, Va.: J. Marriott & Co., 1881.

Hoyt, William d., Jr. “Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis, 1808.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 53, No.2. Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Historical Society, April, 1945.

Archives

Tudor Place Archives, Washington, D.C.

Special Collections

Dumbarton House Library/The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Washington, D.C.

Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts

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