Named Elizabeth Washington Cheves for an aunt who was a relative and friend of General George Washington, Elizabeth W. Cheves grew up among her siblings in rural eastern Virginia. Her mother died when the children were still very young. Although her father remarried, his second wife died soon thereafter and he oversaw many aspects of his children's upbringing and education.
As an unusually intelligent and curious child, Elizabeth Cheves was eager to learn, but her father dismissed the thought of sending his daughters to school to receive formal education. He hired private tutors to teach his daughters at home while they were young, and at the age of twelve Elizabeth, lacking further educational opportunities, decided to teach herself the subjects that young women of the day would have learned in school. She practiced Latin, French, drawing, and painting, and she composed poetry within the privacy of her study.
In 1830 she married Virginia physician F. Thornton Cheves, and his death in 1844 left her with few remaining assets with which she could support herself and her children. Compelled by financial need, she published her Sketches in Prose and Verse in 1849.