John Parke Custis
Portrait of John Parke Custis by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1774
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates for Fairfax County
In office
May 4, 1778 – March 22, 1781
Serving with George Mason
Preceded byPhilip Alexander
Succeeded byposition eliminated
Personal details
BornNovember 27, 1754
White House Plantation,
New Kent County,
Virginia, British America
DiedNovember 5, 1781(1781-11-05) (aged 26)
Eltham Plantation,
New Kent County,
Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death"Camp fever" (either epidemic typhus or dysentery)
Resting placeQueen's Creek
SpouseEleanor Calvert
Children7, including:
Elizabeth Parke Custis Law
Martha Parke Custis Peter
Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis
George Washington Parke Custis
Alma materColumbia University
OccupationPlanter, politician

John Parke Custis (November 27, 1754 – November 5, 1781) was an American planter and politician, only son of Martha Washington before her marriage to George Washington. He is now known for his progeny, especially those raised by President Washington.[1][2]

Early life

The only acknowledged son of Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy planter with nearly three hundred slaves and thousands of acres of land in five Virginia counties, and the former Martha Dandridge, he was most likely born at White House, his parents' plantation on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia. To his family, he was known as "Jacky" as a boy, then "Jack", especially after attaining his inheritance.[1][3]

Following his father's death in 1757, under Virginia's laws concerning intestacy (dying without a will), almost 18,000 acres (73 km2) of land and personal property including about 285 enslaved persons (worth £30,000) were held in trust for Custis until he came of age.[1] However, the estate prompted a transatlantic legal battle with relatives in the Leeward Islands, which prompted Martha Custis to seek assistance from John Robinson.[1] In January 1759, when Custis was four years old, his mother married George Washington, who thereupon became his legal guardian and the administrator of the Custis Estate. The Washingtons raised Jacky and his younger sister Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (1756–1773) at Mount Vernon. When his sister died of a seizure in 1773, aged 17 years, Custis became the sole heir of the Custis estate.[3][1]

His stepfather was not overly fond of Custis, and considered the child troubled, lazy and "free-willed" for taking no interest in his studies.[3][1] Martha Washington had supervised the boy's earliest education, but by 1761 the family hired Scotsman Walter Magowan as a private tutor. When Magowan returned to England in 1767, Washington sent Custis to a boarding school run by Rev. Jonathan Boucher, initially in Caroline County, Virginia. Although Boucher too considered the boy indolent, the arrangement continued after Boucher moved the school to Annapolis, Maryland.[2] In May 1773 Custis began to attend King's College (later Columbia University) in New York City, but left soon after his sister died.[1]


Not long after reaching the legal age of eighteen, Jacky told the Washingtons of his engagement to 15 year old Eleanor Calvert, a daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert and granddaughter of Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore.[1][3][4] The announcement greatly surprised George and Martha because both Jack and Eleanor were so young.[3][5] Nonetheless, on February 3, 1774, Custis married Eleanor at her family's Mount Airy estate. Its restored mansion is the center of Rosaryville State Park in Prince George's County, Maryland.[3][6][7] As discussed below, the couple would have six daughters and a son, of whom three reached adulthood.


After their marriage, the couple settled at his father's White House plantation in rural New Kent County.[3] However, after two years, Custis sold the Custis family's town lots in Jamestown and Williamsburg, as well as several plantations in King and Queen, Hanover and New Kent counties in order to purchase two plantations in northern Virginia (in then-vast Fairfax County) closer to his step father's Mount Vernon plantation. One tract of 1,100 acres (4.5 km2) acres which Custis named "Arlington" was bought outright for £12,000 (and later became Arlington National Cemetery). The other plantation, 904 acres (3.66 km2) acres called Abingdon (now Reagan National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia), Custis purchased on unfavorable terms: a mortgage at £12 per acre, with substantial annual payments over £2,000 each year, and the principal due in 1802.[1] Washington believed Abingdon's owner, Robert Alexander, took advantage of Custis's inexperience and eagerness. When he learned of the purchase terms, George Washington informed Custis that "No Virginia Estate (except a few under the best management) can stand simple Interest how then can they bear compound Interest".[8]

Nonetheless, the couple settled there during the winter of 1778–1779.[3][9] Custis' behavior in this and other matters prompted George Washington to write in 1778: "I am afraid Jack Custis, in spite of all of the admonition and advice I gave him about selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate."[10] By 1781, the financial strains of the Abingdon purchase had almost bankrupted Custis. He tried to renegotiate the terms before his death, and afterward David Stuart as guardian of Custis' minor children, reconveyed it to its former owner after paying £2,400 in rent for the period the estate had been in Custis hands.[1]

Most historians agree Custis did not join the Continental Army due to the determined opposition of his stepfather, as well as his mother, for Custis was her only son.[1] However, one account claimed Custis served on Washington's staff during the Siege of Boston in 1775–1776 and as an emissary to the British forces there.[11]


In 1778, Custis ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates from both New Kent County and Fairfax County.[1] Custis became one of the two Fairfax County delegates, alongside his stepfather's neighbor and mentor George Mason, and both were re-elected twice before Custis' death, after which only Benjamin Dulaney represented the county for the 1781/2 term.[12] Washington at least once chided Custis concerning his habitual late arrival.[1]

Personal life

Eleanor bore seven children during their marriage, three of whom died in infancy:

Speculation has also linked Custis as the possible father of William Costin (1780-1842), born to Custis slave Ann (Nancy) Dandridge-Costin.[13][14]


In September 1781 Custis persuaded Washington to let him serve as a civilian aide-de-camp to Washington during the siege of Yorktown.[1] En route to Yorktown he also made inquiries about 17 slaves who had reportedly fled to British lines.[15] However, the crowded camps near the battlefield were rife with smallpox and malaria,[16] and Custis contracted "camp fever", which could have been an illness now labelled epidemic typhus,[17] or dysentery[18] while at Yorktown.[1] He was moved 30 miles upriver to Eltham plantation the home of his uncle Colonel Burwell Bassett (Martha Washington's brother-in-law), where Martha Washington as well as his wife Eleanor (both of whom had journeyed to Williamsburg a few weeks before) attempted to help nurse him.[16] Shortly after the surrender of Cornwallis, Custis died on November 5, 1781, at Eltham.[1][3] He was buried at his family's plot at their Queen's Creek plantation, in York County, near Williamsburg, Virginia.[3] However, if any grave marker had been erected, none remained by 1895 when the remaining Custis gravestones were moved to Bruton Parish Church.[1]

With Custis's premature death at 26, his widow sent her two youngest children (Eleanor/Nellly and George/Washy) to Mount Vernon to be raised by the Washingtons.[3] In 1783, she married David Stuart of Alexandria, Virginia, with whom she had at least seven additional children who survived infancy.[1][19][20]

Although Custis had become well-established at Abingdon, his financial affairs were in disarray because of his poor business judgement as well as wartime conditions.[3] After Custis died in 1781, administrators of the Custis Estate negotiated for more than a decade to end the Abington transaction.[1] Because Custis died intestate, his estate was not fully liquidated until the 1811 death of his widow. His four children inherited more than 600 slaves.[3]

Part of the Abingdon estate is now on the grounds of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.[9] When he purchased Abingdon, Custis also bought a nearby property that after his death became Arlington Plantation and later, Arlington National Cemetery.[9]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Sara M. Bearrs, "John Parke Custis 1754-1781" in Dictionary of Virginia Biography Vol.3 (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006) pp. 639–640. ISBN 0-88490-206-4
  2. ^ a b Mary V. Thompson. ""John Parke Custis"". Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington. Retrieved December 27, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Yates, Bernice-Marie (2003). The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee. Fairfax, Virginia: Xulon Press. pp. 34–39. ISBN 1-59160-451-6. OCLC 54805966. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
  4. ^ Good, Cassandra A. (2023). First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America. Hanover Square. ISBN 978-1-335-44951-1. states the couple married when Jack was 20 and Eleanor 18
  5. ^ Helen Bryan (2002). Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 9780471212980. Retrieved March 1, 2008.
  6. ^ Maryland Historical Society (June 17, 2008). ""Mount Airy" marker". The Historical Marker Database.
  7. ^ Maryland Historical Society. Maryland Historical Magazine, p. 389.
  8. ^ Grizzard, p. 69.
  9. ^ a b c Templeman, Eleanor Lee (1959). Arlington Heritage: Vignettes of a Virginia County. New York: Avenel Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. pp. 12–13.
  10. ^ Washington, George (1939). Fizpatrick, John C. (ed.). The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799: Prepared under the direction of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and published by authority of Congress. Vol. 13: October 1, 1778 – January 11, 1779. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office. p. 408. ISBN 9781623764234. OCLC 759772563.
  11. ^ Lossing, Benson J. (February 22, 1881). "The Weeping-Willow". Harper's Young People: An Illustrated History. 2 (69). New York: Harper & Brothers: 259–260. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  12. ^ Cynthia Miller Leonard, The Virginia General Assembly 1619-1978 (Richmond: Virginia State Library 1978) pp. 129, 133, 137
  13. ^ Good, Cassandra A. (2023). First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America. Hanover Square. pp. 18, 29. ISBN 978-1-335-44951-1.
  14. ^ Weincek, Henry (2003). An Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves and the Creation of America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 284–289. ISBN 9780374175269. citing family-held genealogy as well as Elizabeth Van Lew "dossier" concerning Harriett Costin, William Costin's daughter
  15. ^ Good p. 20
  16. ^ a b Good p. 30
  17. ^ Chernow, Ron (2010). Washington: A Life (e-book ed.). Penguin. ISBN 9781101444184. Retrieved February 26, 2018. Amid the unsanitary conditions at Yorktown, Jacky contracted 'camp fever' ... ... 'camp fever' - likely typhus
  18. ^ Wead, Doug (2004). All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780743446334.
  19. ^ Johnson, R. Winder (1905). The Ancestry of Rosalie Morris Johnson: Daughter of George Calvert Morris and Elizabeth Kuhn, his wife. Ferris & Leach. p. 30. ISBN 9780598999665. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
  20. ^ Good p.18 states 7 children died in infancy