Women’s History Month: Local Museums Celebrate Martha Washington, Catheryna Rombout Brett, and Janet Livingston Montgomery
Ladies first: In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate the contributions of a diverse trio of Valley females
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The first First Lady, Martha Washington
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress
In 1781, George Washington had already defeated the British Army at Yorktown — but he knew that the Revolutionary War was far from over. The enemy still had 13,000 troops in New York City, and another 17,000 in Charleston and Savannah. A peace treaty would not be signed until 1783. That made the years in between rather perilous for the colonists. In fact, Washington later admitted that, during this time, the war came as close to being lost as at any time since it began.
Between April 1782 and August 1783, Washington made his headquarters in Newburgh. It was there that some of his most important decisions regarding the end of the war and the beginning of the new republic were made. And he did all this with his beloved wife, Martha, at his side.
Martha Washington spent a total of 12 months in the Hudson Valley, says Kathleen Mitchell, interpretive programs assistant at the Washington Headquarters State Historic Site. “She came here on April 1, 1782, left in July to manage their home in Mount Vernon, and returned in November,” Mitchell says.
Martha was a major influence on the events of the time. “Their personal life is not recorded much, but she must have been his sounding board,” Mitchell says. She was also a trusted assistant, performing clerical duties such as copying military orders; maintaining George’s personal correspondence and expenses; and managing the household, which included entertaining the important military officers, political figures, and guests who visited constantly.
And she did it all with an amiability that belied her difficult living conditions. “This was a very stark environment, and she was very wealthy and could have wanted to go home,” Mitchell says. “But she was willing to make any sacrifice to be there for him.”
Martha’s time here was critically important to the Valley and the country. She supported her husband as he negotiated with a contentious Congress, dealt with his troops, and defused a potential mutiny among his officers. Even though Washington could have anointed himself king, he rejected any suggestion of an American monarchy. He understood the direction the country should take — and so did his wife. “They were very conscious of not being royalty,” Mitchell says. “They were American, not aristocratic.”
Visiting Washington Headquarters State Historic Site:
The nation’s first publicly owned historic site (it opened July 4, 1850), the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site includes Washington’s office, Martha’s bedchamber (which she used as her office), and their dining room and dressing rooms. The grounds offer sweeping views of the river and Newburgh-Beacon Bridge; the museum will bring in new exhibits this year.
Open from mid-Apr.-Oct. on Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m. $4, $3 seniors & students, under 13 free