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George Washington Parke Custis

George Washington Parke Custis

Adopted son of George Washington
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Adopted son of George Washington
Countries United States of America
Occupations Writer
Gender male
Birth 30 April 1781 (Maryland, U.S.A.)
Death 10 October 1857 (Arlington County, Virginia, U.S.A.)
Mother: Eleanor Calvert
Father: John Parke Custis
Siblings: Elizabeth Parke Custis LawEleanor Parke Custis LewisMartha Parke Custis Peter
Spouse: Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis
Children: Mary Anna Custis Lee
Education Princeton University, St. John's College
George Washington Parke Custis
The details

George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781–October 10, 1857) was a Virginia plantation owner, antiquarian, author and playwright. The grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson and ward of George Washington, he and his sister Eleanor grew up at Mount Vernon and in the Washington presidential households.

Upon reaching age 21, Custis inherited a large fortune from his late father, John Parke Custis, including a plantation in what is now Arlington, Virginia. High atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., he built the Greek Revival mansion Arlington House (1803-18), as a shrine to George Washington. There he preserved and displayed many of Washington's belongings. Custis wrote historical plays about Virginia, delivered a number of patriotic addresses, and was the author of the posthumously-published Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington (1860).

His daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Robert E. Lee. They inherited Arlington House and the plantation surrounding it, but the property was confiscated by the federal government during the Civil War.

Arlington House is now a museum, interpreted by the National Park Service as the Robert E. Lee Memorial. The remainder of Arlington plantation is now Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery.

Early life

Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art
"The Washington Family" by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant (probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels).

Custis was born on April 30, 1781, at his mother's family home, Mount Airy, which survives in Rosaryville State Park in Prince George's County, Maryland. He initially lived with his parents John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert Custis, and his sisters Elizabeth Parke Custis, Martha Parke Custis and Nelly Custis, at the Abingdon Plantation (part of which is now the location of Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington County), which his father had purchased in 1778. However, six months after Custis's birth, his father died of "camp fever" at Yorktown, Virginia, shortly after the British army surrendered there.

Custis' grandmother, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, had been widowed in 1757, and married George Washington in January 1759. His father had grown up at Mount Vernon. Following John Parke Custis's death, George Washington adopted G.W.P Custis, and he and his sister, Nelly Custis, also grew up at Mount Vernon. G.W.P. Custis' two oldest sisters, Elizabeth and Martha, remained at Abingdon with their widowed mother, who in 1783 married Dr. David Stuart, an Alexandria physician and associate of George Washington.

The Washingtons brought George and Nelly, 8 and 10 years old, respectively, to New York City in 1789 to live in the first and second presidential mansions. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia, the original "First Family" occupied the President's House from 1790 to 1797.

G.W.P. Custis (nicknamed "Wash") attended (but did not graduate from) the Germantown Academy in Germantown (now in Philadelphia), Pennsylvania, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. George Washington repeatedly expressed frustration about young Custis, as well as his own inability to improve the youth's attitude. Upon young Custis' return to Mount Vernon after only one term at St. John's, George Washington sent him to his mother and stepfather (Dr. David Stuart) at Hope Park, writing "He appears to me to be moped and Stupid, says nothing, and is always in some hole or corner excluded from the Company."


In January 1799, Custis was commissioned as a cornet in the United States Army and was promoted to second lieutenant in March. He served as aide-de-camp to General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and was honorably discharged 15 June 1800.

When G.W.P. Custis came of age, he inherited large amounts of money, land and property from the estates of his father (John Parke Custis) and grandfather (Daniel Parke Custis). Upon Martha Washington's death in 1802, he received a bequest from her (as he had upon George Washington's death in 1799) as well as his father's former plantations because of the termination of her life estate. However, her executor, Bushrod Washington, refused to sell to G.W.P. Custis the Mount Vernon estate on which Custis had been living and which Bushrod Washington (George Washington's nephew) had inherited. Custis thereupon moved into the four-room, 80-year-old house on land inherited from his father, who had called it "Mount Washington."

Almost immediately, G.W.P. Custis began constructing Arlington House on his land, which at the time was within Alexandria County (now Arlington County) in the District of Columbia. Hiring George Hadfield as architect, he constructed a mansion exhibiting the first example of Greek Revival architecture in America. He located the building on a prominent hill overlooking the Georgetown-Alexandria Turnpike (at the approximate location of the present Eisenhower Drive in Arlington National Cemetery), the Potomac River and the growing Washington City on the opposite side of the river.

Using slave labor and materials on site, and interrupted by the War of 1812 (and material shortages after the British burned the American capital city), G.W.P. Custis finally completed the mansion's exterior in 1818. Custis intended the mansion to serve as a living memorial to George Washington, and included design elements similar to Mt. Vernon. He then gained a reputation for inviting many guests for various celebrations and social events at the mansion, where he also displayed relics from Mt. Vernon, although the interior was not completed (and renovated) until occupancy by Robert E. Lee's family (including Custis' grandsons/heirs) in the 1850s.

During the War of 1812, Custis assisted in the firing of an artillery piece to help defend Washington, D.C. from the British during the Battle of Bladensburg. He also delivered and published an address condemning the death of Revolutionary War General James Lingan who was killed by a Baltimore mob for defending an anti-war publisher's right to oppose the war.

Custis was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1815.

One biographer claimed Lafayette and his son Georges Washington de La Fayette visited Custis at Mount Vernon in 1825, although Custis was then living at Arlington House.

During the 1820s, Custis was an active member of the American Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization of free blacks in Africa, particularly in Liberia. Colonization was unpopular with African American slaves. Of the Arlington slaves, only William Burke and his family chose to move to Liberia. Custis lost interest in the Society, but his wife and daughter continued to support it for many years. In 1854, William and Rosabella Burke and their children left Arlington House for Monrovia, Liberia, with their children. Rosabella continued to write to Mrs. Lee and named a new daughter "Martha" in tribute to the family.

In 1846, the federal government retroceded to the state of Virginia the portion of the District of Columbia that was south and west of the Potomac River, which at the time contained the city and county of Alexandria (see District of Columbia retrocession). G.WP. Custis initially opposed the retrocession, but later spoke in support of it. Alexandrians then elected Custis to represent the area before the Virginia General Assembly when the legislature considered the retrocession. The General Assembly approved the retrocession on March 13, 1847.

On July 4, 1848, Custis attended the ceremony that celebrated the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument by Freemasons. Supervised by President James K. Polk. the ceremony also attracted 20,000 other spectators. On July 4, 1850, Custis dedicated a stone that the people of the District of Columbia had donated to the Monument at a ceremony that President Zachary Taylor attended, five days before Taylor died from food poisoning.

In 1853, the writer Benson John Lossing visited Custis at Arlington House.

Custis achieved some distinction as an orator and playwright. In addition to the Lingam eulogy, he delivered The Celebration of the Russian Victories, in Georgetown, District of Columbia; on the 5th of June, 1813 (1813). Two of Custis's plays, The Indian Prophecy; or Visions of Glory (1827) and Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830), were published during his lifetime. Other plays included The Rail Road (1828), The Eighth of January, or, Hurra for the Boys of the West! (ca. 1830), North Point, or, Baltimore Defended (1833), and Montgomerie, or, The Orphan of a Wreck (1836). Custis wrote a series of biographical essays about his adoptive father that were compiled and published in 1859 and 1860 as Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington after his death in 1857.

Founding of the Washington Jockey Club

In 1802 the Club sought a new sight for the tract, as the current one that lay the rear of what is now the site of Decatur House at H Street and Jackson Place, crossing Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to Twentieth Street-today the Eisenhower Executive Office Building-was being overtaken be the growth of the Federal City. With the leadership of John Tayloe III and Charles Carnan Ridgely and support of Gen. John Peter Van Ness, Dr. William Thornton, G.W. P. Custis, John D. Threlkeld of Georgetown and George Calvert of Riversdale, Bladensburg, Maryland, the contests were moved to Meridian Hill, south of Columbia Road between Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets, and were conducted at the Holmstead Farm's one mile oval track.

Family ties

The arms of the Barons Baltimore

G.W.P. Custis descended from a number of aristocratic colonial era families, as well as, through his mother, the British nobility and, very distantly, from the royal House of Hanover and the House of Stuart. His mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis Stuart, descended from Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, and Henry Lee of Ditchley, one of whose descendants was Edward Lee, first Earl of Litchfield, who married Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, an illegitimate daughter of Charles II by one of his mistresses, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland. It is believed he is descended from George I by his natural daughter Melusina von der Schulenburg, Countess of Walsingham, whose extra-marital liaison with the 5th Baron Baltimore produced a son, Benedict Swingate Calvert, his maternal grandfather. His father, John Parke Custis, was the son of Martha Washington through her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis.

Custis' sister, Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Nelly Custis) married George Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis. As a wedding present, Washington gave Nelly a section of Mount Vernon's land, on which the Lewises established the Woodlawn plantation and constructed the Woodlawn Mansion. The National Park Service has listed Woodlawn on the National Register of Historic Places.

Coat of Arms of George Washington Parke Custis

Another sister of G. W. P. Custis, Martha Parke Custis Peter (Martha Custis) married Thomas Peter. Using Martha's inheritances from George and Martha Washington the Peters purchased property in Georgetown within the District of Columbia. The couple then constructed the Tudor Place mansion on the property. Tudor Place and its grounds, which the National Park Service has listed on the National Register of Historic Places, contain features that resemble those of Arlington House and Woodlawn.

On July 7, 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Of their four children, only one daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived to maturity. She married Robert E. Lee at Arlington House on June 30, 1831. Lee's father, Henry Lee III (Light-Horse Harry Lee) had earlier eulogized George Washington at Washington's December 18, 1799, funeral.

In 1826, Custis admitted paternity of Maria Carter, who had been born in 1803 to Arianna (Airy) Carter (1776-1880), an African American slave maid at the Arlington estate who had earlier resided at Mount Vernon as a slave of Martha Washington. Maria lived and worked at Arlington as a slave until 1826, when she married Charles Syphax, a slave who oversaw the dining room of Arlington House. Soon after Maria's marriage, Custis freed her and gave her a 17-acre (7-hectare) plot in the southwest corner of the Arlington estate. Maria subsequently raised ten children on her property. Tall trees and stretches of grassland reportedly surrounded Maria's white cottage. He is also believed to have fathered a girl named Lucy with the slave Caroline Branham.


Arlington House from a pre-1861 sketch, published in 1875
Arlington House in the 2000s

Custis died in 1857 and was buried at Arlington alongside his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, who had died four years earlier. Custis's will provided that:

  • Arlington plantation (approx. 1100 acres) and its contents, including Custis's collection of George Washington's artifacts and memorabilia, would be bequeathed to his only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis (wife of Robert E. Lee) for her natural life, and upon her death, to his eldest grandson George Washington Custis Lee;
  • White House plantation in New Kent County and Romancoke plantation in King William County (approx. 4000 acres each) would be bequeathed to his other two grandsons William Henry Fitzhugh Lee ("Rooney Lee") and Robert Edward Lee, Jr., respectively;
  • Legacies (cash gifts) of $10,000 each would be provided to his four granddaughters, based on the incomes from the plantations and the sales of other smaller properties; (Some properties could not be sold until after the Civil War and it was doubtful that $10,000 each was ever fully paid.)
  • Certain property in "square No. 21, Washington City" (possibly located between present day Foggy Bottom and Potomac River) to be bequeathed to Robert E. Lee "and his heirs."
  • Custis's slaves, numbered around 200, were to be freed once the legacies and debts from his estate were paid, but no later than five years after his death.

Custis' death influenced the careers of Robert E. Lee and his two elder sons on the cusp of the American Civil War. Then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, named as the will's executor, took leave from his Army post in Texas for two years to settle the estate. During this period Lee was ordered to lead troops to quash John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. By 1859, Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, transferred to an Army position in Washington, D.C. so that he could care for Arlington plantation, where his mother and sisters were living. Lee's second son, Rooney Lee, resigned his army commission, got married, and took over farming White House and Romancoke plantations near Richmond. Robert E. Lee was able to leave for Texas to resume his Army career in February 1860.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Union Army forces seized the 1,100-acre (4.5 km2) Arlington Plantation for strategic reasons (protection of the river and national capital). The United States government then confiscated the Custis estate for non-payment of taxes. In 1863, a "Freedman's Village" was established there for freed slaves.

In 1864, Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the US Army, appropriated some parts of Arlington Plantation for use as a military burial ground. After the Civil War ended, George Washington Custis Lee sued and recovered the title for the Arlington Plantation from the United States government in 1882, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Lee in United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196. Lee then sold the property back to the United State government for $150,000. Arlington House, built by Custis to honor George Washington, is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial. It is restored and open to the public under the auspices of the National Park Service, while the Department of Defense controls Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery on the remainder of the Arlington Plantation.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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