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The Custis family in America can trace its roots to the late seventeenth century, when the family split into three distinct branches. Some members remained in Ireland, while others immigrated to Belgium, and others to the Virginia colony. The Custis family has become somewhat less well-known over time, but it include one very famous member: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. Two years prior to her marriage to George Washington in 1769, Martha Washington was married to a wealthy Virginian named Daniel Parke Custis, whose death left her a young widow. The Custis family became intertwined with the Washington family, as George Washington adopted and raised two generations of Custis children. Martha Washington's ties to the Custis estate brought George Washington wealth, property, and influence upon the couples' marriage.
Origins of the Custis Family in Virginia
In the mid-seventeenth century, four members of the Custis family immigrated to the colony of Virginia: Anne, John II, William II, and their uncle John I. John II was the most successful at establishing the family name into prominent society, advancing into the Virginia ruling class by serving as a sheriff, justice of the peace, surveyor, coroner, militia officer, member of the House of Burgess, and Councillor. John II also built a large mansion that he called Arlington. His descendants included his son John III and grandson John IV, who was born in August 1678. John IV was the father of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington's first husband.
Daniel Parke Custis was thirty eight years old when he fell in love with the seventeen year old Martha Dandridge and married her on May 15, 1750. During their seven years of marriage, Martha and Daniel Custis had four children. Daniel Parke Custis II and Frances Parke Custis II both died very young, while John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis both survived their father. Daniel Parke Custis fell gravely ill and passed away in July of 1757. Shortly thereafter, Martha Dandridge Custis met George Washington.
The Custis Children
George and Martha had no children of their own, but their family life was dominated by the Custis children. Washington served as a father figure for his two step-children, John "Jacky" Parke Custis and Martha "Patcy" Parke Custis. Patcy was an epileptic and passed away following a seizure when she was only seventeen years old in 1773. Washington noted her death in his diary in a simple statement, "About five oclock poor Patcy Custis Died Suddenly."1
Washington described the last day of the "Sweet, Innocent Girl" in a letter to a friend the day after her death.2 Patcy Custis' passing was a terrible loss for the family, but may have provided Washington with the money to renovate Mount Vernon for the second time. A few months after her death, Washington wrote his London agent Robert Cary to order supplies to make "some Repairs to, and alteration in my House," including nails and lead for window weights.3 Washington's relationship with Cary was also inherited from Daniel Parke Custis. Custis had ordered goods from Cary from as early as 1750.
Portrait miniature of Martha Parke Custis by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.
When Jacky Custis reached maturity, he married Eleanor Calvert, with whom he had four children. He died in 1781 and his wife remarried the Alexandria physician David Stuart in 1783. The Washingtons adopted Jacky's two youngest children, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. George and Martha also maintained a close relationship with their other two grandchildren from Jacky’s marriage to Eleanor, Elizabeth "Betsey" Parke Custis and Martha "Patty" Parke Custis, who was born in one of the bedrooms at Mount Vernon.
The Custis Grandchildren
Surviving letters from George Washington to his step-grandchildren indicate close relationships. He wrote Betsey letters of advice about love and marriage. Washington wrote to Betsey describing the qualities she should look for in her husband and the essential components of a successful marriage.4 In a follow up letter written after she announced her surprise engagement to Thomas Law, Washington wrote, "You know how much I love you—how much I have been gratified by your attentions to those things which you had reason to believe were grateful to my feelings."5
Washington also wrote grandfatherly letters of advice and often admonishment to George Washington Parke Custis. In a letter from 1798, Washington scolded his step-grandson for rumors alleging he was engaged when he should be focusing on his education.6 Custis was eventually married in 1804 to Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Their daughter Mary married Robert E. Lee, tying the two prominent Virginian families together.
George Washington University
1. "Diary Entry: 19 June 1773," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
2. "George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 20 June 1773," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
3. "George Washington to Robert Cary & Company, 6 October 1773," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
4. "George Washington to Elizabeth Parke Custis, 14 September 1794," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
5. "George Washington to Elizabeth Parke Custis and her fiancé Thomas Law, 10 February, 1796," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
6. "George Washington to George Washington Parke Custis, 13 June 1798," and "George Washington Parke Custis to George Washington, 17 June 1798," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
"About the Custis Family." The Paper of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Thomas J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.
Dalzell Jr., Robert and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. "Interpreting George Washington’s Mount Vernon." George Washington Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001
Lynch Jr., James B. The Custis Chronicles: The Virginia Generation. Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1997.