The Martha Washington connection

The connection to Martha Washington

Every amateur genealogist worth his salt hopes to find some famous or infamous character climbing the family tree. Societies exist for people who say they can trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror or Charlemagne. Helpful souls have established genealogical websites so Australian researchers can trawl for links to convicts transported from Mother England. Other links can tie one in to the crowned heads of Europe, to the mutineers on HMS Bounty or to Titanic victims and survivors. A television commercial for a family history research product shows an excited mother shouting out to a child: "Hey, your great-great aunt was Annie Oakley." Fortunate indeed is the lucky family researcher who can indeed prove that cowgirl Annie was her auntie or that Prince Vlad the Impaler was a 13th cousin twice removed.

So keen is the wish to have glamorous kin that genealogy even becomes poetically inventive. Alleged pedigrees consultable on the World Wide Web humorously trace ancestry in one case back to the Norse gods Odin and Frigg and in another to Adam and Eve, the putative mother and father of us all. In a recent book, "The Seven Daughters of Eve", genetics Prof. Bryan Sykes of Oxford University posited descent of most Europeans from seven ancient females whose lives he reconstructed. It can't be long, surely, before these characters, invented and named by Sykes, start showing up on family trees.

The temptation to hitch big wheels to the family wagon is understandable, perhaps. Most family researchers find their ancestors are an unprepossessing litany of agricultural laborers, servants and working-class nobodies. Finding a duchess, or inventing one, polishes self esteem. And it may not be a lie exactly: Arithmetic tells you that all humanity is related in the end. You have two parents and four grandparents. Double the number of ancestors every generation and soon you realize that Julius Caesar probably was one of your granddads. Respected genealogists have pointed out that every one living today with any English blood whatsoever may well be a descendant of King Edward III. The arithmetic makes it likely.

All of that said, tracing the Hunt family tree in the villages of Oxfordshire/Berkshire has not yet uncovered any ancestor of notoriety or sanctity. There is, though, a far-distant link through marriage to two of the great men of American history, George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Our connection is through Washington's wife, Martha. She also was great-grandmother of Lee's wife by her first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Because colonial Virginia family ties were tangled, Martha also is related to the Harrison family, which produced two presidents of the United States.

Here's how we are related:

On Nov. 29, 1836, at the age of 16, Mary Hunt of East Hendred married Daniel Dandridge of the same village. Mary was a Hunt of the same family that descends from Thomas Hunt of the 1600s to the present day. She was the daughter of Joseph Hunt and Sarah Smith. The writer of this piece is a descendant of her brother Charles. Another brother, John Hunt, was progenitor of a large branch of the clan that extends to New Zealand.

Daniel was born in 1812, the son of Francis Dandridge and Elizabeth Smith, who were married in East Hendred on Nov. 23, 1803. Both Mary's mother, Sarah, and Daniel's mother, Elizabeth, were surnamed Smith and lived in the same small village. They may even have been sisters, which would make the bride and groom first cousins. Such marriages were not unusual. Witnesses at their marriage were Daniel's sister Ann Dandridge and John Allin Hunt, a relative of the bride. Mary and Daniel had six children and their descendants live today in Britain and South Africa.

Daniel's father Francis was born in the village of East Hagbourne, a few miles from East Hendred. His Dandridge family is descended from a John Dandridge who married Mary Cate in Culham, Oxfordshire on Dec. 8, 1670. That John Dandridge was the son of another John Dandridge, born 1606, whose parents were Bartholomew Dandridge (1580-1618) and Agnes Wilder (1580-1638) of the village of Drayton St. Leonard, near Culham.

Bartholomew and Agnes were great-great grandparents of Martha Washington through their son William Dandridge. Through their son John, they were the great-great-great-great-great grandparents of Daniel Dandridge who married our kinswoman.

Martha Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove, Virginia, a plantation in New Kent County, near Williamsburg. Her father, John Dandridge (1700-1756), had immigrated to the colony with his older brother William when John was either 13 or 14 years old. John and William, who likely both were born in London, were among the children of John Dandridge (1655-1731) who had moved to London from Oxfordshire. That John Dandridge, Martha's grandfather, was the son of William Dandridge (1613-1693), who was born in Drayton St. Leonard. William Dandridge was, in turn, the son of Bartholomew and Agnes of Drayton St. Leonard.

Daniel Dandridge was thus a second cousin, three times removed, of Martha Washington. He was descended from family members who chose to till the Oxfordshire soil instead of seeking their fortunes in the new world.

At 18, Martha Dandridge married the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis. Barely eight years later, her husband died, leaving her with two infants. She married Col. George Washington in 1759, when she was 27. She was his comfort and support as he rose to lead the colonial army that won independence. Washington played a critical role in sculpting the new United States of America, then became its first president under the Constitution.

As the first, first lady of the United States, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington lived as private a life as she could. She set a standard of grace and style for her successors to match. In one of her few surviving letters, Martha told a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first lady. "Many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her place, she wrote; but she would "much rather be at home."

Besides Martha's illustrious descendants and family connections by other names, Dandridges related to her are now to be found across America. Descendants of her cousins founded the city of Dandridge, Tennessee. A large group of English Dandridges also exists to this day.

Martha died May 22, 1802, three years after her famous husband. Both are buried in the unpretentious tomb that Washington had built for them on his estate at Mount Vernon, just outside the city that bears his name.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, the husband of Martha's great-granddaughter, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, was, of course, the noble leader of the Confederate army in the War Between the States. Union forces seized the estate surrounding his Arlington, Virginia family home, known as the Custis-Lee mansion, and buried the war dead there. It is known today as Arlington National Cemetery.

So, can we members of the Hunt family bask in the reflected glory of George Washington? Is it time to petition the U.S. government for the return of Arlington, or for reparations? Daniel Dandridge was Martha's second cousin, three times removed, remember. She left him nothing in the will. So don't count on bounty from Uncle Sam.