Born in 1781, George Washington Parke Custis was the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington through her first marriage. After his natural father, John Parke Custis, died in 1781, G.W.P. Custis went to live at Mount Vernon where George and Martha Washington raised him as their own son. During his childhood, Custis became very attached to his stepfather, George Washington. In 1802, Custis started the construction of Arlington House on land that he had inherited from his natural father. When completed in 1818, he intended the house to serve as not only a home but also a memorial to his stepfather, George Washington. In 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. The two had four children, but only one, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived.
Custis derived his living from large inherited estates, worked by many slaves, though he was a poor manager and his properties were not very profitable. He devoted most of his energies to other activities, many and varied including painting, playwriting, music, oratory, and promoting the improvement of American agriculture. None of his endeavors were marked by great or lasting success. He frequently held celebrations, special programs and other social events which attracted thousands of visitors to the Arlington estate over the years. Regarding himself as the heir to the Washington tradition, Custis collected and displayed, a large number of Mount Vernon relics at Arlington. He was always eager to comment on the collection and the Washington legacy for famous guests and curious strangers.
Custis saw his daughter marry Lt. Robert E. Lee at Arlington in 1831. Robert and Mary Anna came to call Arlington home and Custis was a prominent figure in the lives of the seven Lee children. In his later years, Custis did not stray far from Arlington. He made his will in 1855, and he increasingly relied on his son-in-law, Col. Lee, to handle his tangled business affairs. Until his death, Custis retained his old bedchamber in the north wing of the mansion, where he died after a short illness on October 10, 1857.