Author: Sara B. Bearss

senior editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography and author of The Story of Virginia, an American Experience (1995). She died in 2012
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Eastham, John B. (ca. 1828–1869)

John B. Eastham represented Louisa County at the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. A physician, Eastham was a Unionist during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and allied with the conservative faction of the Republican Party after the war. A local official from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands noted him as a potential office holder for Louisa County in March 1867. Later that year Eastham emerged as a compromise choice when county Republicans nominated a candidate to represent Louisa at the convention called to rewrite the state constitution. He unsuccessfully attempted to resign his seat three days after winning his election, citing reasons of party unification. Eastham voted for enfranchising African Americans but voted with Conservatives on issues involving restrictions on voting or officeholding by former Confederates. He ultimately voted against adopting the new Virginia constitution in 1868 and died the following year.

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Custis, William H. B. (1814–1889)

William H. B. Custis was a member of the House of Delegates (1842–1846) and the Convention of 1861 and a member-elect of the House of Representatives. Born in Accomack County and educated in Indiana, he served in the House of Delegates as a Democrat known for his eloquence and speaking skills. At the state convention called to consider secession in 1861, Custis strongly supported remaining in the Union as the best means of protecting slavery and twice voted against the Ordinance of Secession; he nevertheless signed the document. His activities during the American Civil War (1861–1865) are unknown. In 1865, he was elected to represent the First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives but Radical Republicans prevented members from former Confederate states from being seated. Thereafter, he served as clerk of the Accomack County Court and of the circuit court. He died in 1889.

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Custis, John (1678–1749)

John Custis was a member of the governor’s Council and a tobacco planter often referred to as John Custis, of Williamsburg, to distinguish him from his grandfather, father, and other relatives of the same name. He is best known as Martha Dandridge Custis Washington‘s first father-in-law. The Northampton County native studied the tobacco trade in London in his early years, which helped him acquire a better economic understanding compared with his contemporaries. Custis married Frances Parke, and their relationship became known in Virginia lore for its quarrelsomeness, immortalized on his tombstone. The couple produced the heir Daniel Parke Custis, but after her death he fathered a son, John, with his slave Alice. Custis freed his son and gave him gifts of money, land, and slaves.

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Custis, John Parke (1754–1781)

John Parke Custis was a planter and member of the House of Delegates (1778–1781). After the death of his father, Daniel Parke Custis, his mother, Martha Dandridge Custis, married George Washington and moved the family to Mount Vernon. Washington became Custis’s guardian and the administrator of his large inheritance. Custis was never a strong student (one of his teachers described him as “exceedingly indolent”) and left King’s College in New York City without earning a degree. Back in Virginia he managed his extensive landholdings and served in the House of Delegates, where during the American Revolution (1775–1783) he criticized the conduct of the war but often did not attend the assembly’s sessions. Custis served with his stepfather at the siege of Yorktown (1781) and died of illness a few months later.

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Custis, George Washington Parke (1781–1857)

George Washington Parke Custis was a writer and orator who worked to preserve the legacy of his stepgrandfather, George Washington. Born in Maryland, Custis moved to Mount Vernon after the death of his father in 1781. He was expelled from college, served in the army, and lost election to the House of Delegates before moving to an inherited estate he called Arlington. In addition, Custis owned two other large plantations and property in four other counties. He promoted agricultural reform and commercial independence and disapproved of slavery on economic grounds, supporting gradual emancipation and colonization. During the War of 1812, Custis manned a battery, helped Dolley Madison save Washington’s portrait at the White House, and delivered well-received orations on a variety of topics. In the years after the war, he began writing essays, often about Washington’s family and career. He later turned to the penning of historical plays and operettas. Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia, from 1830, was dedicated to John Marshall and remains his most durable work. The patriotism of his plays fed into his work to preserve the legacy of his stepgrandfather. Custis curated a collection of Washington relics made available for public view and sometimes distributed as gifts. He arranged for portraits of Washington and painted his own scenes of life during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Custis died at Arlington in 1857.

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Constitutional Convention, Virginia (1864)

The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1864, called by the loyal Restored government meeting in Alexandria during the American Civil War (1861–1865), adopted the Constitution of 1864, which finally accomplished a number of changes that reformers had agitated for since at least the 1820s. It abolished slavery, provided a way of funding primary and free schools, and required voting by paper ballot for state officers and members of the General Assembly. It also put an end to longstanding friction over regional differences by recognizing the creation of West Virginia as a separate state. Members of the convention proclaimed the new constitution in effect, rather than submitting it to voters for approval in a popular referendum. Initially only the areas of northern and eastern Virginia then under Union control recognized the authority of the Constitution of 1864, but after the fall of the Confederacy in May 1865 it became effective for all of Virginia and remained in effect until July 1869.

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Chilton, Samuel (1805–1867)

Samuel Chilton was a lawyer, a member of the House of Representatives (1843–1845), and a member of the Convention of 1850–1851, the purpose of which was the revision of the Virginia constitution. He is best known for sitting on a committee appointed during the convention to report on the apportionment of the General Assembly. Chilton supported calculating legislative representation on the basis of population and property holding, but proposed a key compromise with western delegates who held opposing views. His plan for apportionment passed, and on July 31, 1851, Chilton voted with the majority in favor of the final version of the state constitution. Chilton moved to Washington, D.C., by 1853, when he joined the American (Know Nothing) Party. In 1859 he and Hiram Griswold represented John Brown for the final two days of the treason trial that followed Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Though Chilton tried to appeal the guilty verdict, he was unsuccessful, and ultimately was forced to testify before a Senate committee about the circumstances surrounding his hiring and subsequent payment. After the trial, Chilton reportedly was offered and refused a position on Abraham Lincoln’s administration. He died in Warrenton on January 7, 1867.

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Byrd, Mary Willing (1740–1814)

Mary Willing Byrd was the wife of William Byrd III and, after his death, the inheritor and protector of the Byrd family estate of Westover, in Charles City County. Born in Philadelphia and the goddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, she married Byrd in 1761; he was then serving in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During the American Revolution (1775–1783), William Byrd, in debt and accused of loyalty to the British, committed suicide. Mary Willing Byrd spent much of the war settling his massive debts and attempting to stay on the right side of both British and American forces. Although charged by the Americans in 1781 with trading with the enemy, she was never tried. Byrd died in March 1814, still in control of Westover.

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Chilton, Samuel (1805–1867)

Samuel Chilton was a lawyer, a member of the House of Representatives (1843–1845), and a member of the Convention of 1850–1851, the purpose of which was the revision of the Virginia constitution. He is best known for sitting on a committee appointed during the convention to report on the apportionment of the General Assembly. Chilton supported calculating legislative representation on the basis of population and property holding, but proposed a key compromise with western delegates who held opposing views. His plan for apportionment passed, and on July 31, 1851, Chilton voted with the majority in favor of the final version of the state constitution. Chilton moved to Washington, D.C., by 1853, when he joined the American (Know Nothing) Party. In 1859 he and Hiram Griswold represented John Brown for the final two days of the treason trial that followed Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Though Chilton tried to appeal the guilty verdict, he was unsuccessful, and ultimately was forced to testify before a Senate committee about the circumstances surrounding his hiring and subsequent payment. After the trial, Chilton reportedly was offered and refused a position on Abraham Lincoln’s administration. He died in Warrenton on January 7, 1867.

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