William Costin (1780-1842) was a respected figure in early Washington, DC’s free black community, serving as a porter for the Bank of Washington for over twenty years and raising a large family in the Capital Hill neighborhood. However, both he and his wife, Delphy Judge, had been born into slavery and owned by the Custis estate. He is best known to Washington scholars as the possible son of Martha Washington’s son John Parke Custis and an enslaved woman.  

William Costin was born in 1780, but further details about his background have been challenging for scholars to pin down. Several recent accounts of William Costin and his family have been published, but none have had access to the full range of documents cited here.[1] A key source for unraveling this story, unseen by other scholars, is an 1805 deed filed by a woman alternatively referred to as Nancy or Ann Holmes who identifies her son as William Costin and her husband as Joseph Holmes.[2] She appears in various documents with the last names Costin and Holmes, although largely with Holmes in the nineteenth century. Nancy/Ann was identified in an 1871 report, based upon what the author claims were Costin’s and his mother’s own accounts, as Ann Dandridge. This report says that Ann Dandridge’s grandfather was a Cherokee Chief, her father was Martha Washington’s father John Dandridge, and her mother was enslaved by the Dandridge’s; notes from around the late 1860s from a discussion with William’s daughter Harriet say Ann’s father was a Pamunkey chief. The 1871 account says that Ann Dandridge grew up with Martha, then lived at Mount Vernon, had a son named William with a white man from “a prominent family in Virginia,” and later married an enslaved man at Mount Vernon with the last name Costin. William, the report says, was born free because of his mother’s Indian ancestry.[3]

However, there are numerous problems with this story when matched against the historical documentation. The 1871 and c. late 1860s documents are from long after both Nancy/Ann and William had died, so while the 1871 report’s author testified to his subjects’ “great precision” and “scrupulousness,” it is quite possible that the story had become distorted over the years. First, there is no record of an Ann Dandridge or an enslaved man with the last name Costin in any of the copious records from Mount Vernon.[4] Second, Nancy/Ann Costin/Holmes was born around 1760, after John Dandridge had already died and making her much younger than Martha Washington. The 1871 report never says that Ann Dandridge was a free person, but this is implied from its claim that William was born free. However, there is a clear record of the manumission of William Costin’s mother Nancy Holmes by Martha Washington’s grandson-in-law Thomas Law in 1802.[5] Further testifying to both Nancy and William’s enslaved status is that the same day Nancy Holmes was freed, a “Negro William now aged about twenty two years” was also manumitted.[6] This lines up precisely with William Costin’s birth in 1780, the date calculated from his published obituary.[7]

The true story of William Costin’s mother Nancy/Ann is that she was an enslaved woman owned by the Custis family. She may have had some distant relationship to the Dandridge family and/or had some native ancestry; historian Mary Thompson points out that John Dandridge’s brother William had visited a Nottaway Indian village and had sexual relations with women there, so that may be the origin of the native connection.[8] While the 1871 account identifies Nancy/Ann’s grandfather as a Cherokee Chief, the 1860s account says her mother was “an Indian squaw of the Pamunkey tribe below Richmond.”[9] This Pamunkey identification is the most likely given where Nancy/Ann probably grew up, but if her mother was truly a native woman, Nancy/Ann should not have been enslaved.

Nancy/Ann was likely on one of the large Custis estates southeast of Richmond. In the early nineteenth century, the Custis plantation on Smith’s Island had an overseer named William Costin; perhaps he or a male relative were the father of Nancy/Ann’s four children who shared the last name Costin born between 1788 and 1795. [10] According to the 1860s account, young William took the last name Costin because that was his stepfather’s name.[11] By 1799, Nancy/Ann was no longer with Costin and had married Joseph Holmes, bearing him two children with that last name in 1799 and 1801.[12] Nancy/Ann and all of her children, including William, were apparently inherited by Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eliza Parke Custis Law, presumably as part of her dowry in her 1796 marriage to Thomas Law.[13] The clearest proof of Eliza’s ownership of them is her husband’s manumission of first Nancy/Ann and William, and then the other Holmes & Costin children, along with William Costin’s wife Delphy Judge Costin (whom Eliza inherited from Mount Vernon after Martha’s death in 1802) and their two young daughters, in 1807.[14]

When it comes to the identity of William Costin’s father, the evidence is less direct. His father was almost certainly not the Costin who fathered four other children with Nancy/Ann; William was born in 1780, while the next child was not born until 1788, and his daughter said a man named Costin was William’s stepfather.[15] The 1871 report merely says the father was of a “prominent family.” John Parke Custis, sole heir of the Custis estate and Martha Washington’s only child to survive into adulthood, certainly came from a “prominent family.”[16] But the 1860s account from Harriet Parke Costin says that “Mrs. Washington’s son Jno. Park Custis was her grandfather.”[17] Family stories also identify Jacky Custis as William’s father.[18] Jacky Custis also appeared to have owned Nancy/Ann and had access to her when he visited his southern plantations. But perhaps most suggestive is the continuing and very close relationships that Jacky’s four children maintained with William Costin and the family names Costin chose for his own children.

The Custis siblings—particularly Eliza and her brother George Washington Parke Custis—kept in close touch with William Costin (whom they called “Billy”) long after his manumission. Costin worked as a hack driver in the new capitol city, using his own carriage and slowly amassing both money and respect in the community. He ran errands for the Custises, conveying family members and making deliveries in his carriage, and he also lent both Eliza and her sister Nelly small sums of money.[19] Nelly addressed a letter to him with “My friend Billy” and closed with “I hope you & your family are well, I will ever be your friend.”[20] Eliza referred to him as “my faithful ‘tho humble friend Billy—who has evinced his attachment through every change of my destiny.” Soon before her death in 1831, Eliza entrusted Costin with taking her most treasured Mount Vernon relic—John Trumbull’s portrait of George Washington—to her brother George at Arlington House and expected that Costin would “consult with” George about where best to hang it.[21] Her trust in Costin (understandable if indeed he was her half-brother) was so deep that she stored her will with him and left him “some bequest for his grateful conduct.”[22]

But perhaps the most important evidence of Costin’s paternity is that William Costin’s choice of names for children. He and Delphy had seven children, five daughters and two sons, all with a particular middle name: Parke.[23] There was a tradition going back several generations in the Custis family, tied to a clause in ancestor Daniel Parke’s early eighteenth century will, of using Parke as a middle name.[24] Both of Martha Washington’s children with her first husband Daniel Parke Custis had this name, as did all four of her grandchildren. Many but not all the Custis grandchildren’s own children had Parke in their names, whereas Costin was entirely consistent. Why would Costin do this unless he believed himself to be a Custis? He went a step further with one of his sons, giving him the middle name “Custis Parke,” and Eliza referred to him as Costin’s “Son Custis,” suggesting William Custis Parke Costin was known as Custis.[25] Using the Custis name for his son implies a desire to pass down the name in the family line.

At Costin’s death, he left behind three houses on Capitol Hill for his surviving children. His primary residence on A Street and its contents went to his daughters, with his eldest surviving daughter in charge. Someone scrawled a rough inventory of his belongings on a scrap of paper, now hard to decipher from fading, fold lines, and idiosyncratic spelling. But the very first item on the list is “5 mintle ornamen[ts].”[26] Were these all of one set or assorted? Most importantly, was one of these the porcelain ornament owned by George Washington whose provenance shows it passed down through the Costin family? It is most likely that this piece was part of the bequest that Eliza Custis left for her old friend and very possibly half-brother.

It seems that both the Parke Costin children and the Custis descendants knew the story of their shared ancestry. In the 1860s, William’s daughter Harriet Park Costin recounted that when George Washington Parke Custis had died in 1857, Mary Custis Lee took her and one of her sisters to see Custis in his coffin “when she would permit no one else to see him.” This was because, as Harriet said, her father and Mary were “first cousins” and Mrs. Lee knew it.[27] The relationship is not quite right—Mary Custis Lee would have been William Costin’s niece. Nonetheless, the anecdote offers the only surviving evidence of the Custises recognizing the family connection with the Costins.

Pieced together, the evidence strongly suggests that William Costin was indeed half-sibling to the Custis grandchildren and the son of Jacky Custis. His mother was owned by the Custis family and William was born during the same period Jacky was fathering children with his white wife. One written account only a few decades after his death said so outright, while another said he had a prominent white father. The family history also identifies Jacky Custis as the father. Costin himself signaled a Custis connection by using the traditional Custis middle name of Parke for all his children, and even used Custis in one son’s name. He kept in close contact with the Custis family, and they trusted and relied upon him. Eliza Custis Law also appears to have given him a prized Washington porcelain piece, while her niece Mary Custis Lee apparently recognized she was related to the Costins. None of these facts on their own would be strong proof of Costin’s paternity, but together they build a powerful case.

 

Footnotes

[1] Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and the Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 194–96; David O. Stewart, “The Mount Vernon Slave Who Made Good: The Mystery of William Costin,” Journal of the American Revolution, December 22, 2020; 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), 142–45.

[2] Nancy Holmes deed, April 1805, District of Columbia Land Deeds, Liber O14, p. 18, District of Columbia Courthouse; transcription in research files, MVLA.

[3] Moses B. Goodwin, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools in the District of Columbia: Submitted to the Senate June, L868, and to the House, with Additions, June 13, 1870 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1871), 203–4. This story has been repeated in numerous publications, including Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2017); Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves (University of Chicago Press, 2017); Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).

For the circa late 1860s account, see Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, VMHC. The entry in the album titled “Harriet Parke Costin” appears to be notes from a discussion with Harriet about her life story; while it is undated, Harriet references her father’s 1842 death as have been “about 25 yrs. ago”. On Van Lew, see Elizabeth R. Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[4] Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret", 144.

[5] Thomas Law to Nancy Holmes, 28 July 1802, District of Columbia Land Records, Book H8, p. 413, District of Columbia Courthouse; see Helen Hoban Rogers, Freedom & Slavery Documents in the District of Columbia (Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, 2007), 20. Nancy’s birth date is based on a record age of “about forty one” in the manumission.

[6] Thomas Law to Negro William, 27 July 1802, ibid.

[7] Daily National Intelligencer, June 1, 1842.

[8] Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret", 144.

[9] Goodwin, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, 203.; Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, VMHC

[10] For this William Costin, see e.g. Costin to George Washington Parke Custis, October 2, 1807, MCLP, Mss1 L5144 a 43-52, VMHC. The four Costin children are listed in the 1807 manumissions; see Thomas Law to Margaret Costin and others, 5 May 1807, District of Columbia Land Records, Book R17, p. 220, District of Columbia Courthouse.

[11] Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, VMHC

[12] Based upon the ages of the Holmes children in their manumission; see Thomas Law to Margaret Costin and others, 5 May 1807, District of Columbia Land Records, Book R17, p. 220, District of Columbia Courthouse. Proof of her marriage to Joseph Holmes comes from the 1805 deed, above.

[13] While there is no record of her dowry, given that these names do not appear on the list of people she inherited from Mount Vernon in 1802, this is the most likely way she acquired them (see “List of the different Drafts of Negroes, [1802],” PFP, MVLA).

[14] Thomas Law to Delphy Costin and Others, 26 June 1807, District of Columbia Land Records, Book R17, p. 309-310, District of Columbia Courthouse;  Delphy Judge, sister of the self-emancipating Ona Judge, appears on the 1799 slave list as working in the mansion house at Mount Vernon, and then is listed among the people Eliza Law inherited in 1802. As a married woman, any property Eliza acquired would be owned by her husband.

[15] Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, Mss5:5 V3257:1, VHS

[16] Goodwin, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, 203–4.

[17] Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, Mss5:5 V3257:1, VHS

[18] A Costin family tree shared by descendant Marcia W. Carter in 1981 with MVLA staff had Jacky Custis as Costin’s father; see curatorial files, MVLA

[19] Eliza Custis Law to John Law, October 12, 1808 and August 8, 1809; Lawrence Lewis to William Costin, October 6, 1813; Eleanor Custis Lewis to William Costin, June 12, 1816, PFP, MVLA.

[20] Eleanor Custis Lewis to William Costin, June 12, 1816, PFP, MVLA.

[21] Eliza to GWPC, July 15, 1830, MCLP, VMHC

[22] Thomas Law to Lloyd Rogers, Undated (likely early 1832), PFP, MVLA

[23] The complete names are spelled out in the manumissions and William Costin’s will; they are Louisa Parke, Ann Parke, Charlotte Parke, Frances “Fanny” Parke, Harriet Parke, William Custis Parke, and George Calvert Parke. See Rogers, 1: 52 and Will of William Costin, Washington, D.C., District and Probate Courts. Wills, Boxes 0014 Quinlin, Tasker C - 0018 Degges, John, 1837-1847, accessed on Ancestry.com.

[24] “Virginia Gleanings in England,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 20, no. 4 (1912): 372; Kathryn Gehred, “The Dunbar Lawsuit: How a Decades-Long Scandalous Court Case Threatened George Washington’s Estate,” February 26, 2018; Joseph McMillan, “Changes of Arms in Colonial North America: The Strange Case of Custis,” The Coat of Arms, 3rd, 11, no. 230 (2015): 130–33.

[25] Eliza to GWPC, July 15, 1830, MCLP, VMHC

[26] Will of William Costin, Washington, D.C., District and Probate Courts. Wills, Boxes 0014 Quinlin, Tasker C - 0018 Degges, John, 1837-1847, accessed on Ancestry.com.

[27] Album, 1845-1897, Elizabeth Van Lew Papers, VMHC

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