Charles Syphax was the son of an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon and a free black preacher. After being inherited by George Washington Parke Custis in 1802, he oversaw the dining room at Arlington House. In 1821, Charles Syphax married Maria Carter, the daughter of a Mount Vernon enslaved woman 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.

George Washington Parke Custis was commonly believed to have fathered children by enslaved women in his possession; those children were often freed or otherwise singled out for special care by Mr. Custis. An 1865 newspaper article even indicated that Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (Mrs. Robert E. Lee), who was Custis’s only legitimate daughter, had forty mixed-race half-siblings in the Washington, DC area. Another article written 23 years later, included an interview with Maria Syphax, then an elderly woman, who had served as a maid to her half-sister, Mrs. Lee. According to Mrs. Syphax, George Washington Parke Custis told her “face to face” that he was her father and she noted that he was kind to me.1

Ariana

According to Mount Vernon records, the Syphax family are believed to descend from an enslaved spinner named Alce or Alice, who was a Custis dower slave and member of a prominent family on the plantation. Alice was married to a free black man named Charles and had several children. One of whom was a daughter named Ariana, she was mentioned in a letter dated April 22, 1778, from farm manager Lund Washington to his employer, George Washington. Lund mentioned that Ariana was very sick with a bad case of intestinal worms, from which it was expected that she would soon die. After that date, she did not appear in any of the other records from Mount Vernon, at least by that name.

In a slave list compiled in February 1786, Alice is shown as the mother of a 13-year-old daughter named Anna (she would have been born about 1772; could her name be a shortened version of Ariana?); a second list done in the summer of 1799, shows Alice still working as a spinner, as was Anna, who was married to a man who lived in Georgetown, who was probably the father of her three children, Daniel (6), Anna (4), and Sandy (1.5). In the initial draft of the 1802 division of the dower slaves among the four Custis grandchildren, Alice and her younger children (including a son named Charles, who was too young to be working in 1799) and Anna/Ariana(?) and her children were slated to go to Martha Washington’s oldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law (Mrs. Thomas Law), who was living in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, we do not have final lists that definitely show which dower slaves went to which Custis grandchild—there is also evidence that the Custis grandchildren were negotiating with one another, in regard to who inherited which dower slaves.

Mount Vernon's Enslaved Community

In his will, Washington ordered that his enslaved people be freed at his wife’s death. Unfortunately, this applied to fewer than half of the people in bondage at Mount Vernon. Those owned by the Custis estate, known as "dower" slaves, were inherited by Martha Washington’s grandchildren after her death. Many Washington and Custis enslaved people had married and formed families together. 

The “dower” slaves came to Mount Vernon upon the marriage of George and Martha Washington in January 1759. They belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s late first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), whose unexpected death left an estate of more than 17,000 acres of land and almost 300 enslaved people. Because Custis died before writing a will, both British common law and Virginia law directed that his widow get lifetime use of one-third of his estate (including the enslaved people and their offspring), while the other two-thirds would be divided among Custis’s other heirs. In this case, the heirs were the surviving two Custis children, who would receive their share of their father’s estate upon reaching either their legal majority or got married. Upon the death of their mother, the children would receive their mother’s one-third share of the Custis estate. If their mother remarried, her new husband would get control of the Custis estate, but his actions would be subject to oversight by the court, in order to protect the property rights of the Custis heirs and ensure that they were properly cared for.

In this case, Martha’s daughter died in 1773 at the age of 17; her share of the estate was then divided between her brother and mother. Martha’s son died in 1781 at the age of 27, also without drawing up a will, so his estate, too, was divided, with one-third share going to his widow, with the remainder to be divided among his four minor children, when they either reached their majority or were married.

Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, was raised by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. As an adult, early in the 19th century after George Washington’s death, he built Arlington. The death of Martha Washington in May of 1802 brought her grandson approximately one-fourth of the 153 dower slaves living at Mount Vernon, who came to him from the estate of his grandfather, Daniel Parke Custis. It was through this inheritance that the Syphax family ended up at Arlinton House. 

Footnote

1. This information is based on sources cited in Mary V. Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), pages 146 & 402n94-95.

Bibliography 

To George Washington from Lund Washington, 22 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 14, 1 March 1778 – 30 April 1778, ed. David R. Hoth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004, pp. 588–590.]

Schoelwer, Susan. Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon exhibition manual. Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 2016.

Thompson, Mary V. “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”:  George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

Some of 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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