Topics: , , , ,
Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Impressions of Martha Washington: A Visit to New Kent County

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
May 12, 2016

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Historical marker for New Kent County, Virginia.

Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.

I yearn to know more about her younger life, about her relationship with her first husband, about her family, about her home, about what her favorite dresses were, even.1 Who was this girl, Patsy Dandridge, before she became the wealthy Martha Custis, before she was thrown into the spotlight as Martha Washington? Alas, I’m forced to settle for getting only glimpses of her, when I can get them.

So I was excited to visit New Kent County, Virginia, with our Martha team. I wanted to walk the land she grew up on, to see her Pamunkey River, and to wander about the foundations of her family homes.

Though it gave me an atmospheric understanding of her world, the visit ended up raising more questions than it answered. For, in marked contrast with Mount Vernon, these places are being absorbed back into the earth.

Martha was born in Chestnut Grove, which her father, Jack Dandridge, built in the 1720s while courting his wife.

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

The plaque commemorating Martha Washington’s birth at Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Virginia.

Martha lived there until she was 19. One of the only significant events we know happened there was her marriage to her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. There is now almost nothing left of her childhood; the house burned down in 1926. A new house rests on the original foundation, and the family cemetery has been swallowed by forest.

After her marriage, she moved to her new husband’s home, White House, which is quite close to Chestnut Grove.

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

The foundations of White House, New Kent County, Virginia.

She lived there for nine years, and in that time, the house witnessed events of enormous significance to her. She had four children and lost two of them. She lost her first husband too. Then she began an entirely new chapter of her life by marrying George Washington.2 So much happened there, and yet, the original White House is difficult to find now unless you have knowledgeable local guides. We wandered around the brick-lined crater that is all that remains of the once-grand Custis home. It’s close to the river, much as Chestnut Grove and Mount Vernon are. We thought that Martha would have liked having similar river views even as she moved from place to place—of course, so far as we know, she hated the water, so maybe not.

There was even less to see of Eltham, the home of the Bassett family and Martha’s beloved sister, Anna Maria. The Washingtons often visited there. It’s yet another place you can’t find without local guides. To get there, we drove up a winding, dirt road with cavernous pot holes. When we arrived, we saw only a field of wheat and bachelor buttons on one side of the road, and tangled trees surrounding ruins on the other side. The man who lived there kindly showed us around and talked to us about what was left.

John Parke Custis (Jacky) 1754-1781

John Parke Custis (Jacky) 1754-1781. Image from The New York Public Library.

Actually, I was most curious to see Eltham and what was left of it because we were all quite sure that John Parke Custis (Jacky), Martha’s son, was buried there. I have to admit that I kind of like Jacky—spoiled, lazy and trial to his stepfather that he was. One difficulty Jacky presented George with was his friendship with the rather unstable John Price Posey. Amongst other crimes, Posey not only extorted a lot of money from the Washington family but also stole a cow from Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.3 To my surprise, I discovered that New Kent County residents still hold Posey in deep disdain. When I asked why, they replied that in a fit of spite, Posey burnt all of New Kent County’s records in 1787. He was executed for it, but still, the records are gone.4

So any trace of Martha that could have existed in those records is long gone too. Darn it, Posey.

Clearly Jacky didn’t have the best judgment, especially when it came to his friends. But Martha had the terrible, unimaginable burden of losing all of her children to illness—and Jacky survived the longest. Sentimental as I am, I wanted to see him and to tell him that I appreciated him for loving his mother. We found his grave, which was a thick headstone poking out of tall grasses and thorny shrubs, framed by an iron fence.

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

John Parke Custis’s tombstone. Note that he was born in 1754, not in 1755.

Lynn, an assistant editor for the Washington Papers, put flowers on the stone. We stood around it, ruminating, when suddenly our guides mentioned that Jacky was probably—but not certainly—buried there. We were shocked. How could they not know? How could it be that Martha’s last and precious son was missing? Then again, I often ask similar questions of many things to do with the past.

When we got back to the office, Lynn asked the mighty Mary Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian, about the matter—was Jacky buried at Eltham? She replied that, in fact, there were conflicting opinions on whether he was or not. There were at least four possible places he could be. Maybe he’s somewhere in Williamsburg, perhaps at Queen’s Creek, or at Camp Peary.5 Maybe he really is buried at Eltham. It’s likely that we’ll never know for sure.

Jacky’s missing grave made me think that travelling around these scenes of Martha’s youth was like looking at a Monet painting. I could make out some shapes, and some brilliant light and shadow, but the specifics are blurry and out of focus. Who knows how much the land has changed since Martha walked it—the buildings certainly have. For details on family relationships, what Martha was like as a child, and so much more, we’ll have to keep looking elsewhere.

Overall, we had a wonderful trip. Thank you so much to John Crump, a resident historian of New Kent County, for a great tour! We all hope that the current preservation efforts of these sites can continue and look forward to any new discoveries that are made. Who knows, maybe my fondest daydream will come true, and we’ll stumble across a fat chest stuffed full of Martha’s missing letters!

Notes

1. Patricia Brady gives the best picture of Martha’s childhood that I have seen so far. Even Brady, though, has to rely on general knowledge of what women’s lives were like at the time. See her 2005 biography, Martha Washington: An American Life.

2. There is some debate about where George and Martha Washington were married. Many contend that they married in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Our trip included a tour of this lovely place, where our guides had a cheerful argument over whether Martha and George were married there or not.

3. George has many cutting things to say about John Price Posey. He writes to David Stuart on November 19, 1786, “Pray what is become of that Superlative Villain, Posey? It has been reported here, that he is run off to Georgia. By a letter I have just received from Mr Hill, I find that the whole produce of my Estate below from the year 1774 together with the moneis which Hill received from others on my acct, has got into that abandoned wretches hands, not one shilling of which, I presume, will ever be got out of them.” (The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.)

4. For more details on Posey’s trial, see Harris, Malcolm Hart, ed. Old New Kent County [Virginia]: Some Account of the Planters, Plantations, and Places. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006.

5. Thompson explains that the most reliable source concerning his grave is Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, who was one of George’s aides-de-camp. He writes that he went with “the Gen & friends to Williamsburg to inter Mr. Custis, who is deposited in the family Burying place about 3 Miles from Town – the Body sent off in the Night – the Ceremony over, we return [sic] to Bassetts [sic] in the _____ ab’t 50 miles”. (Jonathan Trumbull, Autograph Journal of Occurances from August 12, 1780 to the Siege of Yorktown in Virginia and return to Philadelphia, Nov 1781.)


All photos taken by Caitlin Conley, unless otherwise noted.