Best known in his lifetime as the adopted son of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis eventually became a key figure in preserving the memory and possessions of Washington. Born in 1781 to John Parke Custis, Martha Washington's son from her first marriage, George Washington Parke Custis was adopted by George and Martha upon the death of his father when Custis was only six months old.
Custis was raised at Mount Vernon and remained a prominent figure in Washington City and Alexandria until his death in 1857. Known by his grandparents as "Wash," Custis was indulged by his grandmother as a child at Mount Vernon. His sister Nelly recalled that "Grandmamma always spoiled him," and Custis's daughter recounted that public duties kept George Washington from offering the stern presence and discipline that could have benefited the young Wash.1 By the time Custis left Virginia to attend college at Princeton in 1797, his grandfather had retired and took a more active role in shaping his ward. Washington wrote Custis frequently to encourage him to take his studies more seriously. Custis soon left Princeton for St. John's College in Annapolis but never completed his college education.
George Washington died in December 1799, leaving Custis his twelve hundred acre tract of land at Four-mile run in Alexandria and square 21 in the fledgling Washington City. However, Custis chose to build his home on land inherited from his father at Arlington. This thousand acre piece of land was situated just across the Potomac River from Washington City, and Custis built a Greek Revival home atop a hill with expansive views of the river and the city.
In 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. The couple had four children but only one, Mary Anna Custis (later Lee), survived to adulthood. Custis owned landed estates worked by nearly 200 slaves, although he freed some slaves during his lifetime and all upon his death. While not a financially successful plantation manager, Custis promoted American agriculture and was particularly interested in domestic sheep farming and wool production. This endeavor was at the heart of many of the large parties he held on the lawn at Arlington House under George Washington's military tent.
Custis was also known for his literary and oratory skills, authoring several popular plays and having speeches reprinted in newspapers across the country. His 1812 funeral oration for press freedom advocate James Lingan was one of his most well-known pieces. His essays on George Washington were compiled and published by his daughter as Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington in 1860.
Custis's legacy would also live on through Arlington House. His daughter married Robert E. Lee in 1831 and the Lees and Custises resided at Arlington until Custis's death in 1857. During the Civil War, Arlington House was captured by Union troops and the grounds turned into a cemetery, which it remains today as Arlington National Cemetery.
Cassandra Good, Ph.D.
Assistant Editor of the James Monroe Papers
University of Mary Washington
1. George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (J. W. Bradley, 1861), 38.