Art of a Patriot

The First “First Family”

George Washington Parke Custis liked to highlight his close connections to George Washington throughout his life. He was referred to as the “Child of Mount Vernon” as he grew up at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington. While he promoted George Washington and his deeds in the Revolutionary War, Custis was not the only person related to the first “First Family.”

George Washington had no children of his own. Thus, there are no direct descendants of George Washington. However, he had numerous siblings and half-siblings and there are many descendants of the Washington family. George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, inherited Mount Vernon. The last private owner of Mount Vernon was John Augustine Washington III, who sold the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1860. The next year, John Augustine Washington III would be killed serving as an aide-de-camp to General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in present day West Virginia.

While the Washington family claimed the history of George Washington, so too did the Custis family. Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis in 1750. They had two children that survived into young adulthood: Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”) and John Parke Custis (“Jacky”). Patsy died during an epileptic seizure when she was 16 years old. Jacky had four children before he died during the Revolutionary War of disease at just 26 years old. His two older daughters (Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Martha Parke Custis Peter) continued to live with their mother, while the two younger children (Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis and George Washington Parke Custis) went to live with George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. All of Martha Washington’s grandchildren took great pride in their association with George and Martha Washington and used artifacts and relics from Mount Vernon to display their connections. These were displayed in their homes at Tudor Place and Woodlawn. However, no one did this more than George Washington Parke Custis who had Arlington House built to serve not just as a family home, but a physical memorial to the memory of George Washington. Many of the Washington heirlooms were hidden by the Lee family or stolen by Union troops during the Civil War. Some of them have found their way back here.

It was in this house that a young Robert E. Lee married into the Custis family in 1831. Lee would have been imbued with the sights and stories of George Washington constantly here. George Washington Parke Custis died here in 1857. Less than four years later, it was here where Lee made the decision to resign from the U.S. Army. Did the memory of Washington and the stories passed down by Custis influence Lee’s decision at all? Would Lee have made the same decision had Custis been still alive? We don’t know, but we do know the many descendants of the Custises and Washingtons ended up taking many different paths.

The Custies, Lees, Laws, Peters, and Lewises though were not the only descendants of Martha Washington. Maria Carter Syphax is a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. She was born enslaved in 1803, a daughter to George Washington Parke Custis. Her mother, Arianna Carter, was enslaved by George Washington Parke Custis. Maria Carter Syphax was raised in bondage, serving her free half-sister Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee.  Though Custis never admitted paternity to Maria, oral traditions in the Syphax family suggest he was the father. Custis also treated Maria differently, which may suggest he considered her his child. In 1821 she married Charles Syphax in the Dining Room at Arlington. Charles Syphax grew up enslaved alongside the free George Washington Parke Custis and was one of the 57 enslaved people brought to Arlington plantation from Mount Vernon. Maria was sold in 1826 to Edward Stabler, an anti-slavery Quaker in Alexandria, for $1. This was to allow Stabler to manumit her and give her freedom. Custis then gave Maria 17 acres of land on the Arlington plantation to live and raise her family. Though she and her children were freed, Charles Syphax, her husband, remained enslaved until the Civil War.

Last updated: June 8, 2021

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