By Mary V. Thompson
December 4, 2013
Eleanor Parke Custis (known as “Nelly”) was the youngest of Martha Washington’s three granddaughters. Custis was born at Abingdon, the home of her parents, John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert, on March 31, 1779, at the mid-point of the American Revolution. With George Washington leading the Continental Army and her grandmother spending much of her time at his military headquarters, Nelly did not see George and Martha Washington often during the war years. However, despite George and Martha’s absence from Mount Vernon, Nelly Custis and her siblings paid many visits to Mount Vernon during the Revolution.
The Custis children, who also included a brother, George Washington Parke Custis, met George Washington for the first time in September 1781, when he made a brief stop at Mount Vernon on the way to the siege at Yorktown. The meeting would begin a significant connection between Nelly and the Washingtons. Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis came to live at Mount Vernon with the Washingtons following the death of their father and their mother’s remarriage to family friend Dr. David Stuart. George and Martha Washington became Nelly’s second family, while her two sisters continued to live with their mother. The two households remained close and visits back and forth were common.
Profile Portrait of Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis by James Sharples (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Nelly’s schooling began in earnest when she was about six years old. George Washington described the two children under his care as “very promising,” and hired a series of tutors to provide instruction for both. Within a few years, Nelly’s life and education underwent a major change when her step-grandfather became the first president of the United States. The family moved to the seat of government in New York City in the spring of 1789 and eventually to Philadelphia in late 1790, where they would remain until Washington’s retirement in 1797. Martha Washington reported that Nelly was quite taken with life in New York, describing her granddaughter as “a little wild creature,” who “spends her time at the window looking at carriages &c passing by which is new to her and very common for children to do.”
The new First Lady was especially pleased with the educational opportunities available in both cities, writing to a friend that the two grandchildren “enjoy advantages in point of education.” Ten-year old Nelly soon began music lessons, a skill she mastered due to the strict discipline of her grandmother. George Washington Parke Custis later recalled that, “The poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.” Nelly attended a school run by Isabella Graham in New York, where the curriculum featured classes in “Reading, English, Spelling, and Grammar, Plainwork, Embroidery, Cloathwork [sic], and various works of fancy, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, Drawing, Paintng, Japanning, Philigree, Music, Dancing, and the French language,” and also received private lessons in music, dance, and drawing. As a result of all this study, Nelly won praise from those who met her as a young woman. Polish nobleman Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon in the summer of 1798 and found Nelly to be"one of those celestial figures that nature produces only rarely, that the inspiration of painters has sometimes divined and that one cannot see without ecstasy. Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, [and] draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe."
Nelly's Harpsichord (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
At the age of sixteen Nelly wrote a letter to her step-grandfather, in which she related her adventures at a ball in Georgetown and commented that she found the available young men particularly uninspiring. George Washington wrote back, teasing her about her self-professed "apathy" concerning the men at the ball, offering: "A hint here; men and women feel the same inclinations to each other now that they always have done, and which they will continue to do until there is a new order of things, and you, as others have done, may find, perhaps that the passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. Do not then boast too soon or too strongly of your insensibility to, or resistance of, its powers." After giving the teenager advice regarding marriage, Washington closed the letter wishing her "every blessing, among which a good husband when you want and deserve one, is bestowed on you by yours, affectionately."
Nelly would find a husband within just a few years. On George Washington’s final birthday, February 22, 1799, she married his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, who had become part of the Mount Vernon household shortly after the family returned at the end of the presidency. The young couple had their first child at Mount Vernon only seventeen days before her step-grandfather died. Many years later, that child would record that the night before his death, George Washington had come to Nelly’s bedroom in order to see the baby, when he also “gave me the last blessing he ever gave to anyone,” a story that she undoubtedly heard many times from her mother. Following Martha Washington’s death in May 1802, Nelly Custis and Lawrence Lewis moved to nearby Woodlawn Plantation, which remained their home until Lawrence’s death in the fall of 1839. Of the couple’s eight children, only three survived to adulthood. Nelly herself would die on July 15, 1852, at Audley Plantation near Berryville, in Clarke County, Virginia.
Like her siblings, Nelly spent much of the remainder of her life, keeping alive the memory of the beloved grandparents she described as “affectionate Parents, whose loss can never be repair’d” and preserving the physical objects associated with their lives. Looking back at her youth when she was in her fifties, Nelly remembered the special role that she played in George Washington’s life, warmly recalling that she was one of the few people who could make him laugh out loud, noting that she "sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits."
Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon Family (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1968), 63; David L. Ribblett, Nelly Custis: Child of Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1993), 4-5.
Riblett, Nelly Custis, 10-12.
Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, [Summer 1789], “Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 217.
Martha Washington to Mercy Otis Warren, December 26, 1789, “Worthy Partner,” 224.
George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, By His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis (originally published, New York, NY: Derby & Jackson, 1860; reprinted, Bridgewater, VA: American Foundation Publications, 1999), 408n.
Riblett, Nelly Custis, 17-18.
Ibid., 18, 24.
Metchie J.E. Budka, editor, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some further account of life in New Jersey (Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), 97.
George Washington to Eleanor Parke Custis, January 16, 1795, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 2745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 34:91-93.
Patricia Brady, ed., George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794-1851 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), xx, 7-9. For Frances Parke Lewis Butler’s story about the night before Washington’s death, see Mary V. Thompson, In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 170 & 224n3. For Nelly death date and location, see Riblett, Nelly Custis, 102.
Nelly Custis Lewis to Eleanor Bordley, December 4, 1804, Ibid., 65.
Nelly Custis Lewis to Jared Sparks, February 26, 1833, in Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Published by Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), 522.