May 22, 1802 – Death of Martha Washington

On this day in history, the wife of first U.S. President George Washington died of a severe fever at age 70. She was a wealthy 27-year-old widow when she married Washington, and had two children by her first husband, Patsy and Jacky, who were adopted by Washington.

This miniature portrait, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, is the earliest depiction of Martha after her marriage to George Washington 
(Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

This miniature portrait, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, is the earliest depiction of Martha after her marriage to George Washington 
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

When George Washington died in December of 1799, he had 317 slaves, 124 of whom belonged to him outright and according to his will were to be freed when Martha Washington died; 153 who were Martha Washington’s dower slaves and at her death would go to the Custis heir-at-law, her grandson George Washington Parke Custis; and 40 others who were leased by Washington from his neighbor.

Shortly after Washington’s death, his nephew Bushrod recommended to Martha that she get “clear of her negroes” at Mount Vernon. In the months after George’s death, the slaves had apparently become restive, knowing they would be free if only Martha died. Rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon that may have been set by slaves.

Fearing for her life, Martha took Bushrod’s advice and decided to free her deceased husband’s slaves immediately. On January 1, 1801, a bit more than a year after George’s death, Washington’s slaves gained their liberty.

The Washington Family, painted in stages from 1789 to 1796 by Edward Savage.

The Washington Family, painted in stages from 1789 to 1796 by Edward Savage.

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