Whose Land? Claims at Arlington Estate

A Drawing of an American Indian
A 16th century drawing of an American Indian in the mid-Atlantic.

British Museum

On the land which is presently the estate of Arlington House, who lived on the land, who laid claim to the land, and who owned the land has changed many times. Exploring these changes in land use provides us a window into the past.

Prior to the early 1600s, American Indians occupied the Commonwealth of Virginia for at least 12,000 years. By the early 1600s, the area that is now Virginia was inhabited by Native Americans from three primary language groups, Algonquian-speaking tribes, Iroquoian-speaking tribes, and Siouan-speaking tribes.

European colonizers established the colony of Virginia in 1607 and laid claim to the land that American Indians had been living on for more than 12,000 years. In 1619, the first ship landed carrying enslaved people from Africa to be sold in the new colony of Virginia. Colonizers also enslaved American Indians, passing laws which defined enslavement based on the condition of assigned racial status. This legislation was leveraged to place many American Indians in Virginia into permanent enslavement. Racialized chattel slavery was different from other types of enslavement. In systems of indentured servitude, freedom could eventually be earned; in chattel slavery, a person was cast into enslavement based on their perceived race for life.

By 1669, colonizer John Alexander acquired 6,000 acres and willed it to the next generation. By 1778, John Parke Custis purchased 1,100 of these acres from Gerrard Alexander. When John Parke Custis died in 1781, the land was placed in trust for his son, George Washington Parke Custis who was born the same year. George Washington Parke Custis was largely raised by his grandparents, George and Martha Washington.

The community of people at Mount Vernon were mostly enslaved. Connections were forged, people fell in love, married, raised children, all under the constant threat and frequent reality of family separations. When George Washington died, he emancipated the enslaved people who were part of his estate to be freed upon his wife Martha's death; this accounted for less than half of those enslaved at Mount Vernon. The enslaved people who were claimed as part of Martha Washington’s estate passed at her death to her grandchildren, including George Washington Parke Custis.

Fifty seven enslaved workers were brought to Arlington plantation in the summer of 1802 and were forced to build a house for Custis as an homage to his step-grandfather and adoptive father, George Washington. By 1818, the house was complete. Custis willed the 1,100 acres to his only surviving acknowledged daughter, Mary Anne Custis, later Mary Custis Lee. Another daughter, Maria Carter, later Maria Syphax, grew up at Arlington plantation as well and lived a very different life. She was born enslaved in 1803 taking on the condition of her enslaved mother, Arianna Carter. Though we cannot know the nature of the relationship between Arianna Carter and Custis, the nature of enslavement negates the possibility of consent.

Maria Syphax was raised in bondage at the estate, a maid to her half-sister Mary Anne Custis. Custis gave 17 acres to Maria Syphax, in 1825 after he sold her and two children to Alexandria Quaker Edward Stabler. The land, called by some modern historians “Syphax Corner,” is located in the southwestern corner of the 1,100-acres of what was then the Arlington plantation.

Between 1861 and 1865, the Arlington plantation was occupied and used as a headquarters for the Army of the Potomac. The Union Army built forts and encampments around Washington DC to protect the capital. In December of 1862, Robert E. Lee manumitted all of the people who had been enslaved by George Washington Parke Custis. A few days later, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free all people enslaved within the Confederate states. There was an exodus of people declared newly freed who were able to escape, and designated areas were quickly overwhelmed. A low-lying section of former Arlington plantation was designated to be the location for the new Freedman’s Village. This area of property was not at the time considered desirable for other purposes.

The Freedman’s Village and Syphax Corner were situated near the military complexes. There was significant activity between local residents and these locations. Some emancipated Arlington residents became early paid laborers on the military complexes, and members of the Syphax family were granted passes to sell good and wares at Camp Casey, an encampment of the United States Colored Troops.

The Syphax property was confiscated in 1863 along with the surrounding Arlington plantation then owned by Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, for failure to pay taxes. The entire property was taken by the Federal Government.

The entire landscape changed dramatically during and after the Civil War, as the “Freedmen” were working to create lives for themselves and the cemetery was expanding. Claims to land were unequal with the cemetery as well. Burial sites were segregated, with the famous Section 27, where, prior to desegregation, more than 1,000 Black service members were buried in what was known at the time as the “Lower Cemetery.”

After the Civil War, Thornton Gray appealed to Congress for a claim to some of the land at Arlington estate, where he, his wife Selina Gray, and their children had survived enslavement and were working to establish their lives post-emancipation. Congress denied this appeal. However, the Gray family successfully established themselves, as evidenced in a letter Selina Gray wrote to Mary Custis Lee, in which she details the salaries her children are being paid for their labor.

An 1882 Supreme Court decision declared the federal government had confiscated Arlington House from the Lees without due compensation, and the property was returned. George Washington Custis Lee sold the house and 1,100 acre estate back to the government for $150,000.

Maria Syphax’s son William Syphax, who was a career employee of the Department of the Interior, advocated for the return of the plot of land originally granted by George Washington Parke Custis to his daughter, Maria Syphax. In June 1866, the 17-acre property ownership was returned to Maria Syphax through a Congressional Relief Act that was passed and signed by President Andrew Johnson. Syphax family ownership was reaffirmed by a subsequent act of Congress in 1884.

Syphax Corner marks the intersection on the landscape where the Syphax compound touched the western edge of Freedman's Village and the expanding Arlington National Cemetery. Claim to the land was again challenged in 1944, when the federal government condemned the 17-acre parcel to extend the boundary of the Fort Myer military installation.

Syphax Corner is the location where the lives of Syphax family members who died and were buried in the family cemetery on the compound and whose remains subsequently, without acknowledgement of their connection to either the land or the Custis-Lee families, were exhumed, taken out of the State of Virginia and reinterred in Suitland, MD in 1944.

Last updated: June 22, 2021

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