Dr. Cassandra Good explores what it was like to grow up at Mount Vernon.
Dr. Cassandra Good, assistant professor of history at Marymount University, discuss George Washington's step-children and grandchildren with Dr. Joe Stoltz. Below is a transcript of only part of their conversation. You can hear the full interview in an episode of Conversations at the Washington Library.
Who were the Washington children?
Martha was a widow when George married her. She had four children with her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Two children survived Jackie (John) and Martha (Patsy). Although George stayed hands off, when Jackie went to college, Washington tried to get him into shape. It’s the dynamic of a son who doesn’t want to apply himself and his stepfather tells him that he expected better things from him.
Then it is Jackie who, against the wishes of his mother and stepfather, gets married extremely young to Eleanor Calvert of the Calvert family in Maryland. And then they very quickly have four children. Those are the four Custis grandchildren that we know about: Eliza, Martha, Nelly, and George Washington Parke Custis. They all are Parke Custis in their name.
Did George Washington officially adopt Martha’s children?
There’s not a way to officially adopt children in America until the mid-19th century. Adopted children don’t necessarily get your inheritance due to English laws, an obsession with full blood descendants and an unwillingness to have family wealth go to non-blood relations. Through the court, you could become a child’s guardian. George became their guardian and managed Martha’s money, and she turned over many rights to her husband. He seems to have felt like she was their mother; it was her estate, and she called the shots with the children.
Jackie was four or five when Martha and George married. He had his first daughter in 1776 at the war’s beginning, and his last son, Wash, towards the end. He died soon after, I believe at Yorktown. He doesn’t see fighting. He gets camp fever and dies. Jackie’s widow, Eleanor, has four young children. The youngest two, Nelly and Wash, are raised at Mount Vernon by George and Martha. The most official thing in terms of guardianship is that when Nelly is going to get married, George Washington is the one who as her guardian is the one who gives permission.