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Courtship and Marriage in Old Virginia


Some stories in our early history are not particularly pleasant.  This one however is a joyful time for one of our greatest heroes. 


It was in 1758, that an officer, a colonel, attired in a military undress, and attended by a body-servant, tall and militaire as his chief, crossed the ferry called Williams's, over the Pamunkey River.  On the boat the soldier's progress was arrested by one of those personages, a Virginia gentleman, the very soul of kindliness and hospitality.  The soldier in vain urged his business at Williamsburg but Mr. Chamberlayne, on whose domain the militaire had just landed, would hear of no excuse. 


The Colonel was a name and character so dear to all the Virginians, that his passing by one of the old castles of the commonwealth, without calling and partaking of the hospitalities of the host, was entirely out of the question.  The colonel, however, stoutly maintained his ground, till Chamberlayne bringing up his reserve, intimated that he would introduce his friend to a young and charming widow, then beneath his roof.  The soldier capitulated, on condition that he should dine, "only dine," and then leave.  Orders were accordingly issued to Bishop, the colonel's body servant and faithful follower who raised his hand to his cap, as much as to say, "Your honor's orders shall be obeyed." 


The colonel now proceeded to the mansion, and was introduced to various guests (for when was a Virginian domicil of the olden time without guests ?).  One, above all, was the charming widow.  Tradition relates that they were mutually pleased, nor is it remarkable.  The lady was fair to behold, of fascinating manners, and splendidly endowed with worldly benefits.  The hero, redolent of fame, and with a form on which "... God did seem to set his seal..".


The morning passed pleasantly away.  Evening came, with Bishop, true to his orders and firm at his post, holding his favorite charger with one hand, while the other was waiting to offer the ready stirrup.  The sun sank in the horizon, and yet the colonel appeared not.  And then the old soldier marveled at his chief's delay.  "Twas strange, 'twas passing strange," for he was the most punctual of all men.


Meantime, the Mr. Chamberlayne, in the parlor; was proclaiming that no guest ever left his house after sunset.  His military visitor was, without much difficulty, persuaded to order Bishop to put up the horses for the night.


The sun rode high in the heavens the ensuing day, when the enamored soldier pressed with his spur his charger's side, and speeded on his way to the seat of government, where, having dispatched his public business, he retraced his steps, and, at the White House, county of New Kent, the engagement took place, with preparations for the marriage. 


And much hath been heard of that marriage, January 6, 1759, from gray-haired domestics, who waited at the board where love made the feast and Washington was the guest.  And rare and high was the revelry, at that balmy period of Virginia's festal age; for many were gathered to the marriage of Martha Parke Custis, of the good, the great, the gifted, and the gay, while Virginia, with joyous acclamation hailed in her youthful hero a prosperous and happy bridegroom. 


"And so you remember when Colonel Washington came a courting of your mistress?" said the biographer to old Cully, in his hundredth year. 


"Ay, mister, that I do," replied this ancient family servant, who had lived to see five generations.


"Great times, sir, great times!  Shall never see the like again!"


"And Washington looked something like a man, a proper man; hey, Cully?"


"Never see'd the like, sir.  Never the likes of him, tho' I have seen many in my day; so tall, so straight! and then he sat a horse and rode with such an air!  Ah, sir, he was like no one else!  Many of the grandest gentlemen, in their gold lace, were at the wedding, but none looked like the man himself.".


A short time after their marriage, Colonel and Mrs. Washington removed to Mount Vernon, on the Potomac, and permanently settled there (except for a few years during the war and, later, during Washington’s presidency) .


Quoted from "Recollections and Memoirs of Washington, G.W. Parke Custis (Washington’s adopted grandson), American Foundations Pub., 1999, (first edition, 1860) pp. 499-502.

Question:  Who, in 1749, was "the Honorable John Custis, of Arlington, who wanted a "connection [for his son] with the Byrd family, of Westover."  You will be surprised. 


Answer:  At seventeen years of age (in 1749), Miss (Martha) Dandridge was married to Colonel Daniel Parke Custis.  The father of the bridegroom, the Honorable John Custis, of Arlington, a king's counselor, had matrimonial views of a more ambitious character for his only son and heir, and was desirous of a connection with the Byrd family, of Westover, Colonel Byrd being, at that time, from his influence and vast possessions, almost a count palatine of Virginia.  


Consenting to the marriage of his son with Miss Dandridge, they were married.  Colonel Custis became an eminently successful planter.  The fruits of this marriage were, a girl, who died in infancy, and Daniel [who died in childhood], Martha, and John.  John Custis, husband of Martha, perished while in the service of his country, under Washington, in 1781, aged twenty seven.


At the death of his father [above], John was adopted by George Washington.  His name was George Washington Parke Custis, the biographer of the above and of the story of Washington’s courtship of Martha Dandridge Custis.

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