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After George Washington’s death, Mount Vernon’s enslaved community was divided several times over.

The first division occurred when Martha Washington chose to free her late husband’s enslaved persons early, on January 1, 1801. She may have feared for her safety in a situation where the freedom of so many depended on her death. Like her husband, Martha lacked the legal authority to free the Custis dower slaves, many of whom watched their spouses and relatives go free.

The second division occurred after Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802. At the time of her death, there were about 150 enslaved people at Mount Vernon who were considered Custis property. These people were divided among Mrs. Washington's four grandchildren: Eliza Custis Law, Martha Custis Peter, Eleanor Custis Lewis, and George Washington Parke Custis.

"To emancipate [my slaves] during [my wife’s] life, would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations…"

- George Washington's Will, 1799

Washington's Will

Who were the Custis heirs?

The Custis heirs were the four children of John (Jacky) Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage, who had died in 1781 at age 26. George and Martha Washington had helped raise the children after their father’s death. All four had close relationships with their grandmother and adopted grandfather and spent considerable time at Mount Vernon. As adults, they married and established their own estates in Virginia and the District of Columbia—the ultimate destinations of the enslaved people they inherited.

Mapping Mount Vernon’s Enslaved Community

Many of the enslaved people freed in George Washington’s will settled in free African American communities near Mount Vernon. Those owned by the Custis estate were dispersed to the homes of Martha Washington’s four grandchildren in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Many families were divided in this process. In some cases, relatives continued to live near each other. But many were separated by great distances, making visits difficult—if not impossible.

The Custis Inheritance

When Martha Washington died in 1802, her grandchildren inherited property in the form of land, household objects, and enslaved people. A set of four lists records the division of the Custis slaves among Martha Washington’s three granddaughters and her grandson. Each enslaved person was assigned a monetary value. The strike-throughs and edits suggest this document may be a draft created as the grandchildren divided the enslaved community into four equal lots. The heirs generally kept young children with their mothers, but few families remained intact.

Elizabeth (Eliza) Parke Custis Law

Enslaved dairy maid Kitty was inherited by Eliza Law, along with Kitty’s two youngest daughters, Barbara (age 13) and Levina (age 9). Her six older daughters were dispersed among the other grandchildren. Kitty and her children had already been separated from her husband, Isaac, a carpenter who was emancipated by Washington’s will.

She also inherited this pair of c. 1796 candlesticks.

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Martha (Patty) Parke Custis Peter

Godfrey, a 28-year-old carter, was appraised at £100 and inherited by Martha Peter. He was likely sent to work on the Peters’ rural plantation in Seneca, Maryland. His wife, Mima, and their children, John and Randolph, were also owned by the Custis estate—but they were inherited by Nelly Custis Lewis, whose estate was more than 30 miles away.

Peter also inherited this c. 1785 coffee cup.

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Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis

Godfrey’s 23-year-old brother Hanson, a distiller, was valued at £120 when he was assigned to Nelly Lewis’s lot. At Woodlawn, Hanson became a cook, a skill he may have learned from his mother Betty, who was the cook at Mount Vernon’s Union Farm. Nelly later recorded Hanson’s recipes for chicken broth and breakfast biscuits in her housekeeping book.

Lewis also inherited this argand lamp.

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George Washington Parke Custis

Seventeen-year-old Philip Lee, listed as “Phill” and valued at £90, was the son of Frank Lee, Mount Vernon’s butler, and Lucy, the cook. He was the only member of his family to be inherited by George Washington Parke Custis. At Arlington House, Lee was assigned to be Custis’s valet, a position his uncle William Lee had held for George Washington.

Custis also inherited this soup plate with the Society of Cincinnati patter on it.

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Enslaved Families

The people who remained enslaved on the estates of the Custis heirs continued to show resilience as they faced a future they did not control. Some gained their freedom in the decades after Washington’s death. Others remained in bondage until the Civil War.

Charles and Maria Syphax

Charles Syphax was the son of an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon and a free black preacher. Inherited by George Washington Parke Custis in 1802, he oversaw the dining room at Arlington House. In 1826, Syphax married Maria Carter, the daughter of a Mount Vernon slave named Arianna. According to Syphax family tradition, Maria’s father was George Washington Parke Custis.

Shortly after Charles and Maria married, Custis made arrangements to free Maria. He also gave her a 17-acre plot on his Arlington plantation, where she and her family lived as free people. The Syphaxes would go on to have 10 children, many of whom became leaders in the local community. Their son William Syphax served as Chief Messenger for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Through William’s efforts, his mother was able to retain the rights to her Arlington property when the U.S. government confiscated Custis’s estate after the Civil War.

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Kitty, an enslaved milkmaid and spinner at Mansion House Farm, was deeply affected by George and Martha Washington’s death. Kitty’s husband, Isaac, Mount Vernon’s head carpenter, was owned by George Washington and thus received his freedom in 1801. Because Kitty was a dower slave, her nine daughters and seven grandchildren all belonged to the Custis estate and remained enslaved. In 1802 the family was separated again. After Martha Washington’s death, Kitty and her children were dispersed among Martha’s four grandchildren.

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Delphy Judge and William Costin

Lithograph of William Costin, by Charles Fenderick, ca. 1841, after Samuel M. Charles. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Lithograph of William Costin, by Charles Fenderick, ca. 1841, after Samuel M. Charles. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Philadelphia (Delphy) Judge was an enslaved spinner at Mansion House Farm and the younger sister of Ona Judge (Martha Washington’s personal maid who escaped in 1796). After being inherited by Eliza Parke Custis Law in 1802, Delphy Judge married William Costin, a free black man. Law’s husband Thomas freed Judge and her two children in 1807.

The family lived in Washington, D.C., where William Costin worked as a messenger for the Bank of Washington for 24 years and became a well-known figure in the city. When he died, former president John Quincy Adams declared, “The late William Costin, though he was not white, was as much respected as any man in the District.” Their daughter Louisa Parke Costin founded and ran a school for African American children on Capitol Hill from 1823 to 1831.

Lithograph of William Costin, by Charles Fenderick, ca. 1841, after Samuel M. Charles. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


This ambrotype (ca. 1861-65) depicts Tom, who was possibly enslaved at Mount Vernon and later inherited by the Peter family. During the Civil War, Tom ran away from the Peter home in Maryland and found refuge with a group of abolitionists, who had this image taken.

Sall Twine

Sall Twine, an enslaved field worker at Mount Vernon’s Dogue Run Farm, and her four youngest children were inherited by Martha Parke Custis Peter in 1802. Sall’s husband George was owned by George Washington and thus freed by the terms of his will in 1801. Twine was likely sent to work at the Peters’ plantation in Seneca, Maryland. Her daughter Barbary was assigned to work at the family’s city residence, which after 1816 was Tudor Place in Georgetown (now part of Washington, D.C.). Other members of their family may have worked at the Peter family quarry in Maryland, which supplied sandstone to build the Smithsonian Institution’s original building, now known as the “Castle.”

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Freed People from Mount Vernon

After being emancipated in 1801, many former Mount Vernon slaves settled in free communities near Mount Vernon and in Alexandria.

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The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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