John Parke Custis

Portrait of John Parke Custis
War & AffiliationRevolutionary War / Patriot
Date of Birth - DeathNovember 27, 1754 - November 5, 1781

John Parke Custis, known as “Jacky,” was born in 1754 to Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge Custis. He was the third of Martha’s four children. His two older siblings, a boy named Daniel and a girl named Frances, both died in early childhood, but his younger sister Martha (known as “Patsy”) survived. All four children bore the name Parke, because the great-grandfather of Daniel Parke Custis had stipulated that that only child whose given names included Parke could inherit any portion of the Custis family estates.

Jacky’s father Daniel died in 1757, making Martha Custis a widow. She married George Washington in 1759, and she moved into his Mount Vernon estate with her two children. Washington became their legal guardian. He was also responsible for managing the Custis estate until the children came of age and inherited it. Washington was determined to provide his stepchildren with the education he lacked. At first, Jacky was taught Latin and Greek by a tutor at Mount Vernon. In 1768, Washington enrolled his stepson in a school in Caroline County, Virginia, run by the Reverend Jonathan Boucher.

George Washington described Jacky as "a boy of good genius,” but he apparently lacked an interest in his studies. Two years after he was enrolled in the school, the Reverend Boucher wrote to Washington that Jacky “does not much like Books." Washington complained that his stepson’s attention was focused on "Dogs Horses & Guns" rather than schoolwork. Yet Jacky continued to attend Boucher’s school until 1773, even following the Reverend when he moved the school to Annapolis, Maryland. In May 1773, Washington enrolled Jacky in King’s College (modern Columbia University) in New York City, but he did not remain for long. His sister Patsy had been suffering from seizures since the age of 11 or 12. They got worse as she got older, until finally in June 1773 she died at the age of 17. Jacky departed King’s College to return to Mount Vernon and be with his grieving mother. In December 1773, George Washington wrote to King’s College and informed them that Jacky would not be returning. In February 1774, Jacky married Eleanor Calvert, the descendant of Maryland’s founder. Over the next seven years, the couple would have seven children, but only four would survive past infancy.

As the last living child of Martha and Daniel Custis, Jacky was the sole heir to his impressive estate – over 17,000 acres of land and nearly 300 enslaved people. Unfortunately, Jacky managed his inheritance poorly. Washington wrote that “in spite of all of the admonition and advice I gave him,” his stepson was “making a ruinous hand of his Estate." In 1778, Jacky purchased the 1,000-acre Abingdon estate, which was close to both Mount Vernon and Mount Airy, his wife’s family home in Maryland. The terms of the purchase were very disadvantageous: Jacky agreed to pay compound interest on the initial purchase price of 12,000 pounds, meaning that he would owe Abingdon’s prior owner a total of over 48,000 pounds, and need to pay over 2,000 pounds a year for more than 20 years. The purchase of Abingdon, as well as other poor business decisions, left the Custis family finances in disarray for a decade after Jacky’s death.

In 1781, George Washington and the Continental Army marched through Virginia on their way to besiege Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. Washington briefly returned to Mount Vernon, his first and only time coming home since he had assumed command of the army. Jacky convinced his stepfather to allow him to join the army and serve as Washington’s aide-de-camp. During the siege of Yorktown, he fell ill with camp fever, like many other soldiers in the crowded and often unsanitary army camp. John Parke Custis died on November 5, 1781. He was buried at Eltham Plantation.

After Jacky died, his widow agreed to let George and Martha Washington raise the two youngest of his children, George Washington Parke Custis (known as “Wash”) and Eleanor Parke Custis (known as “Nelly”). Wash and Nelly grew up at Mount Vernon and accompanied George Washington to New York City and Philadelphia when he served as President. Wash would eventually marry Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and their daughter Mary Anna Custis would marry Robert E. Lee. Among the property that Mary inherited was a house that Wash had built on a piece of land that Jacky Custis had purchased, called Arlington.