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John Custis II (1629-1696): He may have been born in Rotterdam, in the He was the son of Johanna Wittingham Custis and Henry Custis, a native of Gloucestershire, England living in Rotterdam where he operated a tavern—the hub of the city’s British expat community. Henry was a member of an extended family engaged in international commerce, and it is possible that as a young man John II worked in one of the family’s commercial houses.
About 1649 or 1650 John II moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where his sister Ann Custis Yeardley lived with her husband Argall Yeardley (son of VA Governor Sir George Yeardley*, who was a prominent planter & member of his father’s Governor’s Council.
*(Sir George Yeardley (1587–1627) was three-time Colonial Governor of the British Colony of Virginia. He was also counted among the first slaveholders in what would eventually become the United States. A survivor of the Virginia Company of London’s ill-fated “Third Supply Mission,” whose flagship, the Sea Venture, was shipwrecked in Bermuda for 10 months (1609-10) he is best remembered for presiding over the initial session of the first representative legislative body in the Commonwealth of Virginia (1619). With representatives from throughout the settled portion of the colony, the group became known as the House of Burgesses, and that representative body has met continuously since, and today is known as the Virginia General Assembly.)
Several other members of the Custis family also lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland at the time John II lived there, including another John Custis—probably an uncle or cousin—who has sometimes been misidentified as the father of the immigrant founder of the Custis family of Virginia.
The Custis workforce of indentured servants and slaves grew into one of the largest on the Eastern Shore. His commercial activities centered on New Amsterdam: He assembled cargoes of tobacco for shipment to the Dutch colony and acted as the Virginia agent for merchants from New Netherland and Rotterdam, as well as New England. Custis’s facility in the Dutch language enhanced his value as an intermediary in international commerce. When Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland, corresponded with the Governor and Council of Virginia on an important admiralty matter in 1663, Virginia officials relied on John II to translate the documents.
Sometime before January 15, 1652, John 2 married a widow, Elizabeth Robinson Eyer (or Eyre). Before she died two or three years later they had one son, John Custis III (ca. 1654–1714), who also served on the Governor’s Council. After his first wife’s death (1655?) John 2 married the thrice-widowed Alicia Travellor Burdett Walker (whose maiden name is unknown, and who also died early). About 1679 he married the twice-widowed Tabitha Scarburgh Smart Browne, a daughter of Edmund Scarburgh (d. 1671) one of the Eastern Shore’s leading planters and a former Speaker of the House of Burgesses.
With his second and third wives, John 2 had no children who grew to adulthood. Early in the 1670s he built Arlington, a three-story brick mansion on the south bank of Old Plantation Creek, in southwestern Northampton County. He named the plantation after the Custis family’s ancestral village in Gloucestershire. With a foundation measuring fifty-four feet by forty-three-and-a-half feet, the structure was perhaps the finest mansion erected in the seventeenth-century, rivaled only by Governor Sir William Berkeley’s Green Spring, near Jamestown.
(Early in the nineteenth century, the name of the mansion inspired Custis’s descendant, George Washington Parke Custis to give the same name to his estate outside Washington, DC—More about G.W. Parke Custis below.)
John 2 became a captain in the county militia in 1664, was commissioned a colonel in 1673, and ended his career in 1692 as commander in chief of all forces on the Eastern Shore. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 (see more below*), he was a major general in Governor Sir William Berkeley’s army. After the governor fled Jamestown and took refuge on the Eastern Shore, he made his temporary headquarters at Arlington. John Custis II’s loyalty to the government won plaudits from two of the commissioners the king sent to investigate the rebellion, and John II was praised for his courage and generosity in offering to lend the Crown 1,000 pounds sterling to provision the king’s ships. Francis Moryson once addressed him as “Honest Jack.”
*Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion in 1676 by Virginia settlers led by Nathaniel Bacon against the dismissive rule of Governor William Berkeley. His policy surrounding the political and safety challenges of the colony’s western frontier, Bacon’s jealousy for having been left out of Berkeley’s inner circle, the governor’s refusal to allow Bacon to participate in his fur trade with the Native American population, and his dismissal of attacks by the Doeg* people—all motivated the popular uprising against Berkeley.
*The Doeg (also called Dogue, Taux, Tauxenent) were an indigenous people living in the Eastern Shore area, which spoke an Algonquian language. They may have been a branch of the Nanticoke tribe, historically based there. The Nanticoke considered the Algonquian Lenape as “grandfathers.” The Doeg are primarily known for the raid in July 1675 that helped spark Bacon’s Rebellion.
The antagonists were thousands of Virginians from all classes and races (including indentured servants and both enslaved and freed African Americans. They took up arms against Berkeley, attacking Native Americans, chasing Berkeley from Jamestown, and ultimately torching the capital. The rebellion was first suppressed by a few armed merchant ships from London whose captains sided with Berkeley and the loyalists. Government forces from England arrived shortly and spent several years defeating pockets of resistance and reforming the colonial government so it was once again under direct royal control.
It was the first rebellion in the American Colonies in which discontented frontiersmen took part (a similar uprising in Maryland involving John Coode and Josias Fendall took place shortly afterward). The alliance between European indentured servants and Africans—united by their bond-servitude—disturbed the ruling class, who responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery (enacted with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705) in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings. While the farmers did not succeed in their initial goal of driving the Native Americans from Virginia, the rebellion did result in Berkeley being recalled to England.
John Custis II’s son, John Custis III a.k.a. John Custis of Wilsonia (the name of his Northampton plantation) was born in 1654 and died in 1714. He did not live at Arlington plantation, rather staying farther north in Northampton County at Wilsonia Neck. He was father to John 4, who was buried at Arlington Plantation.
John 3 replaced his father as a justice of the peace in the summer of 1677 when his father was elevated to the Governor’s Council. He served as sheriff of the county in 1682, 1684, and 1688. In the summer of 1691, John 3 advanced from captain to colonel in the county militia. Evidence suggests that he often appeared in court in the role of an attorney, employing his considerable ability and self-confidence in the interest of his clients.
On the recommendation of Virginia Governor Francis Nicholson, King William III (William of Orange) appointed Custis to the governor’s Council (December 26, 1699), and attended the Council for the last recorded time on April 30, 1713. His tenure spanned two politically contentious periods, including the final years of Nicholson’s second administration and the first years of the administration of Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood—as well as the initial construction of the capitol and governor’s mansion at Middle Plantation, which became Williamsburg.
John 3 wrote his will in December 1708. In a letter to his namesake son in June 1713, he mentioned crippled hands, which might have been the consequence of gout or arthritis. John Custis III died in Northampton County on January 26, 1714, and was buried on his plantation at Wilsonia Neck.
John Custis IV (1678 – 1749) like his father and grandfather before him, was a politician and a member of the Governor’s Council of the Virginia Colony. Often he is designated as John IV or John Custis of Williamsburg to distinguish him from his relatives of the same name. His mother was Margaret Michael Custis. John 4 was born at Arlington Plantation. In May 1706 he married Frances Parke, the elder daughter and heiress of Daniel Parke, Jr., Governor of the Leeward Islands.
John 4 had moved to Williamsburg, VA by 1717. There he created a magnificent 4-acre garden and corresponded with many celebrated horticulturists and naturalists of his time. He served on the Governor’s Council from 1727 until increasingly ill health forced him to request to be suspended in August 1749.
John 4 and his wife had two daughters and two sons and divided their time between Arlington and a former Parke family plantation on Queen’s Creek in York County (near Williamsburg). Their marriage was a stormy one between two strong-willed people who were not well-suited for each other. In June 1714 they drew up but never formally executed articles of agreement in which Custis promised to provide a plentiful maintenance for his wife and children and not to interfere with her running of their household if she forbore calling him vile names or using ill language. After Frances Parke Custis died of smallpox on March 13, 1715, their surviving daughter grew up under the care of her maternal grand-aunt. Custis’s surviving son, Daniel Parke Custis, (1711 — 1757) became a successful planter but did not marry until he was almost forty.
John 4 died soon after completing his will on 14 November 1749. At his request, he was buried on the at the Arlington plantation’s Custis Tombs, and he instructed Daniel Parke Custis, on pain of being cut off with only one shilling, to place on his marble tomb the wording that John had written: “Aged 71 Years and Yet lived but Seven years which was the Space of time he kept a Bachelors House at Arlington on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This Inscription put on this Tomb by his own positive Order.”
John 4’s only surviving son, Daniel Parke Custis, began courting Martha Dandridge, aged 17 (20 years Daniel’s junior), daughter of a local planter and county clerk, in 1748. She was the elder sister of Bartholomew Dandridge, who served in the Convention of 1776, on the Council of State, and on the Virginia Court of Appeals. Daniel’s father objected strenuously to the Dandridge family’s inability to provide a substantial dowry and to what he perceived as her inferior social status. Eventually, the young woman persuaded Custis’s father to relent and they married on May 15, 1750, at Chestnut Grove, her New Kent County residence.
They had four children, all given the middle name Parke to preserve their eligibility to inherit as descendants of his great-grandfather, Daniel Parke (d. 1679). Their first son and first daughter died early in childhood. The younger son, John Parke Custis, lived to adulthood and became heir; his second daughter, Martha Parke Custis, died at age seventeen after an epileptic seizure.
Daniel Custis died without a will. Martha inherited the property and managed the large estate for the benefit of their children, becoming one of the wealthiest young widows in Virginia.
She married George Washington in 1759, who then took over as manager of the Custis property for the benefit of the children and gained additional wealth and social stature as a consequence of the marriage.
Martha Washington (nee Dandridge; 1731 – 1802) is best known as the wife of George Washington. Although the title was not coined until after her death, Martha Washington served as the inaugural First Lady of the United States. During her lifetime she was often referred to as “Lady Washington.”
First married at 18 years old to Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had four children (Daniel, Frances, John, and Martha), she was widowed by the age of 25. Two of her children by Daniel Custis survived to young adulthood.
She brought her vast wealth to her marriage with Washington, which enabled him to buy land to add to his personal estate. She also brought nearly 100 dower slaves for her use during her lifetime, and who reverted to her first husband’s estate (as well as their descendants) upon her death, and were inherited by the Custis heirs. Her large inheritance also included 17,500 acres of land, and investments as well as cash. According to her biographer, “she capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices.”
She and Washington did not have children together but they did rear her two children by Daniel Parke Custis, including son John/Jack Parke Custis (1754 – 1781). John/Jack overcame initial resistance by stepfather, George Washington, to marry Eleanor Calvert at her father’s estate in Maryland (1774). They had 6 daughters and one son. Notable among the daughters were Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis. The son was named George Washington Parke Custis.
Notably, after John/Jack Parke Custis’s death in 1781, his widow remarried and had at least 7 more children.
As the only male in his family and as his mother’s only surviving child, John/Jack Custis faced determined opposition from his mother and stepfather and did not join the Continental army at the beginning of the Revolution. The danger to his native state and the direct threat to his property along the Pamunkey River, however, later spurred him to action.
In September 1781 as the French and American armies moved to Yorktown, John/Jack persuaded his stepfather to allow him to serve as a civilian aide-de-camp. Custis put his affairs in order, but shortly before he was to leave for camp he became ill with one of the occasional fevers that were a regular part of life in the Tidewater. Finally, at the end of the month, he left for Yorktown. He served with his stepfather during the siege of Yorktown but in the fetid environment of smallpox and camp fever, he fell ill again and died in November of 1781, as the British were surrendering.
George Washington Parke Custis (1781 — 1857) was still a young child when his mother, (Eleanor Calvert Custis, widow of Jack Parke Custis) married Dr. David Stuart in 1783, and began a second (large) family. GW and his sister, “Nelly” were raised in the household of their paternal grandmother, Martha Custis Washington and step-grandfather, George Washington. Still Dr. Stuart, as GW’s stepfather, retained his role as official guardian.
GW became a plantation owner in his own right, as well as being an author and playwright. When his grandmother, Martha Washington died in 1802, GW Custis unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Mount Vernon from George Washington’s nephew and heir.
Custis moved to a 1,100-acre Alexandria County estate inherited upon his majority (21 years) from his father, Jack Parke Custis, which he eventually named Arlington for the ancestral property on the Eastern Shore (that we visited in our travels of April 2019). His Arlington estate lay in the area that Virginia had ceded to the federal government to become part of the District of Columbia. (GW also owned two other large plantations totaling approximately 9,000 acres of land.)
High atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River and Washington DC, he built the Greek Revival mansion called Arlington House (1803-1818) as a shrine to his step-grandfather, George Washington. In it were displayed many of Washington’s belongings and writings. GW’s book, Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington was published posthumously (1860).
In 1804 GW Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, daughter of William Fitzhugh (a member of the Convention of 1776 and of the Continental Congress) and sister of William Henry Fitzhugh (a member of the Convention of 1829–1830). A prominent Episcopal lay leader and supporter of manumission and colonization, Mary Lee Custis died on April 23, 1853.
Of GW & Mary Lee’s four daughters, only Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1807 — 1873) survived infancy.
With a Custis family slave (Airy Carter), GW Custis had a daughter, Maria Carter, whom he educated and informally freed and to whom he gave about seventeen acres of the Arlington estate. She married and became the matriarch of a distinguished family that included her sons John B. Syphax, a member of the House of Delegates, and William Syphax, a prominent educator in Washington, DC.
GW’s only surviving legal daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Robert E. Lee and inherited Arlington House and the plantation surrounding it. But the property was confiscated by the federal government during America’s Civil War. Arlington House is now a museum interpreted and managed by the National Park Service as the Robert E. Lee Memorial. The remainder of Arlington’s Northern Virginia land is now Ft. Myer and Arlington National Cemetery.