TOPICS: Martha Washington, Student’s Perspective
by Katie Herring, Former Undergraduate Intern
July 29, 2016
Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.
I was unbelievably excited to come to Charlottesville, not for the city itself, of course, but to work. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was looking forward to hiking and going to wineries, but that’s a story for another blog post. I couldn’t wait to start working with the Papers. The musical Hamilton had just gotten popular, and the first time I heard “Right Hand Man” only increased my excitement. I got chills when George Washington’s character was introduced in Hamilton. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The entire musical amplified my enthusiasm for the Revolutionary Era. This internship really couldn’t have come at a better time for me—or in pop culture.
In late May, after listening to Hamilton in its entirety for the fourth or fifth time, I arrived in Charlottesville. I was ready. I was ready for the Wahoos, and more importantly, I was ready for the Washingtons. My first day on the job was spent in awe. How fascinating was this life: going back in time to the beginning of our nation, reading letters written by our Founding Fathers and Mothers. Truly, I felt this summer would be spent in a daydream. However, at the end of my first week, I realized something: I had been prepared for George Washington, but I had not been prepared for Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.
Before working with the Papers, I imagined Martha Washington as a plump and graying grandmother type. After reading a couple of biographies; compiling research on the Dandridge, Custis, and Washington families; reading and transcribing Martha’s letters; and creating a complete timeline of her life, I soon realized that Martha was so much more than my first impression. She was a courageous woman, a strong woman, a historical figure in her own right.
However, Martha never saw herself as that. While transcribing one day, I hit the historian gold mine. I had found the source of a quote I had so often heard in reference to Martha: “As if I had been a very great somebody.”1 This quote was found in Martha’s 1775 letter to a friend summarizing her journey and arrival at the winter headquarters in Massachusetts. When Lady Washington arrived, there was much cheer and ceremony—as if Martha was a great somebody. Her letter explained her surprise: she didn’t think she was anyone special. But oh, this summer, I learned she was.
I learned many things about Martha this summer that stand out to me. She was barely over five feet tall, something that’s usually ignored in her portrayals. She loved shoes and was always aware of the fashion of the day. Until her marriage to George Washington, she alone managed her late husband’s plantation and money, something a woman didn’t do back then. She braved the smallpox inoculation months after it had just been a mere dream in Edward Jenner’s mind. She outlived all her siblings (even though she was the eldest), all her children, and her two husbands. And lastly, though she shuddered every time she heard the sound of a gun, she braved that first winter with the Continental Army; she would spend every winter with her husband and his army for the next seven years. We call that courage.
It’s now late July, and my internship is coming to an end. I have always liked history, but unfortunately, as a biology and English double major, I haven’t had many opportunities to take a history class. This internship stepped in for all those missing history classes; it allowed my fascination with the past to flourish and helped me solidify my career plans. I will be a senior in college in less than a month, and at the beginning of summer, I wasn’t certain where my path would go, but now I am. I am currently applying to graduate school for library science, and I plan on starting the fall after graduation. After that, who knows? I do have my sights set on an academic or historic library, the ultimate dream being a mix of both (I’m looking at you, Harvard). But one of the things I’ve learned from Martha is you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve also got to smile, hold your head up, and welcome what life throws at you, just as Martha wrote to a friend in 1789: “The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”2
And so, after a summer in Charlottesville working with the Washington Papers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was a very great somebody. I know the soon-to-be published Martha Washington Papers project will show this, and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it.
Katie Herring will be giving a scholarly presentation on Martha Washington on Tuesday, August 16 at 1:30 p.m., at the Martha Washington Library in Alexandria, Virginia.