Courtship of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge
Martha herself arranged a meeting with the elderly patriarch where she made her case. This seems to have done the trick. Her future father-in-law concluded that Martha was 'beautifull & sweet temper’d' and gave his consent for the marriage.
Daniel Parke Custis’s Family
As Martha Dandridge approached her late teens, her thoughts undoubtedly turned toward marriage. In colonial Virginia, most women of Martha’s social class met their potential mates through friends and family, or at church, court day, or a ball held at a neighbor’s house. Tradition holds that Martha met her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, at their local Anglican church.
What is known for certain is that Custis was the son of one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, John Custis IV, who owned thousands of acres of land, had almost 300 slaves, and sat on the Governor’s Council, the highest governing body in the colony. The elder Custis was also known to be arbitrary, capricious, and ill-tempered, even when it came to the happiness of his own children.
Martha possessed a unique combination of talents. Only about five feet tall, she was lovely and attractive with a lively personality. She was strong but dutiful, charming yet sincere, warm yet socially adept. These characteristics allowed her to overcome obstacles and forge her own path in the world. Martha would need all of these traits in order to win over not only her future husband but also his father.
Daniel Parke Custis began courting Martha Dandridge when he was in his late thirties. He lived on his own plantation, White House, situated four miles downstream from the Dandridge home on the Pamunkey River. Custis’s imperious father had quashed a number of Daniel’s previous efforts to wed. When word of his son’s interest in Martha surfaced, John Custis IV initially opposed the match. He insisted that the Dandridges lacked sufficient wealth and status to marry into his family and threatened to disinherit his son.
Marriage in Colonial Virginia
Marriage in colonial Virginia was seldom simply an affair of the heart. In the seventeenth century when the number of men greatly exceeded the number of women, women often had their choice of a male partner, regardless of their social or economic background. However, by the time Martha came of age in the middle of the eighteenth century, the ratio of white women to white men had evened out. Women no longer enjoyed a proportionate advantage. Family wealth came to play an increasingly important part in determining a woman’s marital prospects. A handsome dowry given by the bride’s father would help insure that a woman might marry into a good family
On this scale, Martha’s prospects, though promising, did not seem to suggest that she was destined to win big in the marital sweepstakes. Martha was the eldest of eight children. Although her father owned five hundred acres of land and fifteen to twenty slaves, he was not close to being among the wealthiest men in Virginia. When Betty Lightfoot married Beverly Randolph in 1737, for example, Lightfoot’s father gave the couple a £5,000 dowry. Compared with true elites, Martha’s own dowry would be paltry.
Securing Permission to Marry
Yet Martha seemed to have truly captured Daniel’s fancy. When Daniel pursued the match over his father’s objections, family friends intervened with his father on their behalf. Most significantly, Martha herself arranged a meeting with the elderly patriarch where she made her case. This seems to have done the trick. Her future father-in-law concluded that Martha was “beautifull & sweet temper’d”* and gave his consent for the marriage.
Martha Dandridge and Daniel Parke Custis married on May 15, 1750. Almost nineteen years old, Martha was slightly younger than the average Virginia bride, who married at age 22. At 38, Daniel Parke Custis was nearly twenty years older than his new wife, and significantly older than the average Virginia man who married for the first time at age 27. Yet by waiting until he found a woman of whom his father approved, Custis guaranteed his own financial future as well as that of his future heirs--and of Martha herself.
*John Custis IV to Daniel Parke Custis, The Letterbook of John Custis IV of Williamsburg, 1717-1742 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 15.