John Parke Custis

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John Parke Custis
Portrait of John Parke Custis by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1774
BornNovember 27, 1754
DiedNovember 5, 1781(1781-11-05) (aged 26)
Cause of death"Camp fever" (either epidemic typhus or dysentery)
Resting placeQueen's Creek
Alma materColumbia University
SpouseEleanor Calvert
Children7, including:
Elizabeth Parke Custis Law
Martha Parke Custis Peter
Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis
George Washington Parke Custis

John Parke Custis (November 27, 1754 – November 5, 1781) was an American planter. He was a son of Martha Washington and stepson of George Washington.

Early life[edit]

A son of Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy planter with nearly three hundred enslaved persons and thousands of acres of land, and Martha Dandridge Custis, 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".[1][2]

Following his father's death in 1757, almost 18,000 acres (73 km2) of land and about 285 enslaved persons were held in trust for him until he came of age.[1] In January 1759, his mother married George Washington who became his legal guardian and the administrator of the Custis Estate. The Washingtons raised him and his younger sister Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (1756–1773) at Mount Vernon. Upon his sister's death in 1773, aged 17 years, Custis became the sole heir of the Custis estate.[2]

His stepfather was not overly fond of Custis and considered him to be a troubled, lazy and "free-willed" child who took no interest in his studies.[2]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1773, at the age of eighteen, Jacky announced to the Washingtons his engagement to Eleanor Calvert, a daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert and granddaughter of Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore.[2] George and Martha were greatly surprised by the marriage choice due to the couple being so young.[2][3] During that year, Custis began to attend King's College (later Columbia University) in New York City, but left soon afterwards when his sister died.[2]

On February 3, 1774, Custis married Eleanor at her family's home at the Mount Airy estate. Its restored mansion is the center of Rosaryville State Park in Prince George's County, Maryland.[2][4][5] After their marriage, the couple settled at the White House plantation.[2] After the couple had lived at the White House for more than two years, Custis purchased the Abingdon plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia (now in Arlington County, Virginia). The couple settled there during the winter of 1778–1779.[2][6]

The terms of Abingdon's purchase were extremely unfavorable to Custis. His eagerness and inexperience allowed Abingdon's owner, Robert Alexander, to take advantage of him in the transaction, which required Custis to pay the principal of the purchase and compound interest over a 24-year period. The compound interest on the £12,000 purchase price would require Custis to pay over £48,000 during the 24 years. To accomplish this, Custis would need to pay over £2,000 each year during the period of the agreement.[2][7] When he learned of the terms of the purchase, 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".[7]

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."[8] By 1781, the financial strains of the Abingdon purchase had almost bankrupted Custis.[2]

According to one account, Custis served on Washington's staff during the Siege of Boston in 1775–1776 and served as an emissary to the British forces there.[9]

In 1778, Custis was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses as a delegate from Fairfax County.[10] George Washington was not pleased with Custis' reported performance in the legislature. Washington wrote to Custis:

I do not suppose that so young a senator as you are, so little versed in political disquisition, can yet have much influence in a popular assembly, composed of various talents and different views, but it is in your power to be punctual in attendance.[11]

John and Eleanor had seven children, three of whom died in infancy:


Custis served as a civilian aide-de-camp to Washington during the siege of Yorktown. However, Custis contracted "camp fever", which could have been an illness now described as epidemic typhus,[12] or dysentery[13] while at Yorktown.[2] Shortly after the surrender of Cornwallis, Custis died on November 5, 1781, in New Kent County at Eltham, Virginia, in the home of Colonel Burwell Bassett, brother-in-law of Martha Washington.[1][2] He was buried at his family's plot near Queen's Creek, in York County, near Williamsburg, Virginia.[1][2]

With Custis's premature death at 26, his widow sent her two youngest children (Eleanor and George) to Mount Vernon to be raised by the Washingtons.[2] In 1783, she married David Stuart of Alexandria, Virginia, with whom she had 16 more children.[14]

Although Custis had become well-established at Abingdon, his financial matters were in a state of disarray because of his poor business judgement and wartime taxation.[2] After his death in 1781, it took the administrators of the Custis Estate more than a decade to negotiate an end to the transaction through which Custis had purchased Abingdon.[7] Because he died intestate, his estate was not fully liquidated until the 1811 death of his widow. His four children inherited more than 600 slaves.[2]

Part of the Abingdon estate is now on the grounds of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.[6] When he purchased Abingdon, Custis also bought a nearby property that after his death became Arlington Plantation and later, Arlington National Cemetery.[6]



  • Grizzard, Frank E. Jr. (2002). "Custis, John Parke ("Jacky"; 1754–1781)". George Washington: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc. pp. 67–70. ISBN 1-57607-082-4. OCLC 53275803. At Google Books.


  1. ^ a b c d John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:639–640. ISBN 0-88490-206-4
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q 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.
  3. ^ Helen Bryan (2002). Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 9780471212980. Retrieved March 1, 2008.
  4. ^ Maryland Historical Society (June 17, 2008). ""Mount Airy" marker". The Historical Marker Database.
  5. ^ Maryland Historical Society. Maryland Historical Magazine, p. 389.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b c Grizzard, p. 69.
  8. ^ 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. At Google Books.
  9. ^ Lossing, Benson J. (February 22, 1881). "The Weeping-Willow". Harper's Young People: An Illustrated History. New York: Harper & Brothers. 2 (69): 259–260. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  10. ^ Grizzard, p. 70.
  11. ^ "Site of Abingdon Plantation House – History Alexandria Virginia". Norglobe, Inc. June 10, 2008. Retrieved June 24, 2011. Adapted by localKicks from Madison, Robert L. (2003). Walking with Washington: walking tours of Alexandria, Virginia; featuring over 100 sites associated with George Washington. Alexandria, Virginia: Gateway Press.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Wead, Doug (2004). All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780743446334.
  14. ^ 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.

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