Custalow was the son of Norman C. Custalow and Adeline Custalow (whose maiden name is unknown). He was born on January 17, 1865, in King William County, probably on the reservation that had been set aside for the Mattaponi by an act of the General Assembly in March 1658. Although largely self-taught, he may have attended the Pamunkey school with other Mattaponi children for several months after it began in 1877. In the city of Richmond, on May 23, 1889, he married Emma L. “Water Lily” King, who had grown up in Hanover County. They lived on the Mattaponi Reservation, where they reared six daughters and at least four sons, including Otha Thomas “Blue Wing” Custalow, also called Hos-Ki-No-Wa-Na-Ah, and Daniel Webster “Little Eagle” Custalow, who each later served as Mattaponi chief.
A farmer and fisherman by trade, Custalow was best known to Virginia sportsmen as a fishing guide. On March 24, 1914, he was elected chief of the Mattaponi, an office he held until his death. The Mattaponi had been officially recognized as a separate tribe only since 1894, and there was a mistaken belief at the time that they were a branch of the Pamunkey. Custalow played a central role in delineating the Mattaponi as a separate tribe in the Powhatan nation. He worked to forge this identity by instituting reforms, including establishing a separate Mattaponi school. Custalow met with thelate in 1914 to discuss opening a public free school for Mattaponi children, who had been attending school on the Pamunkey reservation ten miles away. A Mattaponi school opened for the 1916–1917 school year and operated directly under state supervision, as did the Pamunkey school. A decrease in the number of Pamunkey children on the reservation caused the two schools to be consolidated into the Mattaponi Indian School in 1950.
About 1916 the tribe established a shad hatchery on the Mattaponi River to increase jobs available on the reservation. Custalow framed the Mattaponi tribal laws and asserted that violations of law on the reservation were subject to his council’s authority, rather than that of King William County officials. Beginning in 1917 he engaged in an ongoing dispute with the Chesapeake Paper and Pulp Company, whose employees trespassed on the reservation grounds and stacked cordwood on the wharf to await removal along the Mattaponi River.
As the county, state, and federal tax systems were refined and codified early in the twentieth century, Virginia’s Indian tribes again came under scrutiny. In June 1917 the Virginiaruled that the Mattaponi and Pamunkey who lived and worked on their reservations were legal wards of the state and thus exempt from state and local taxation. In 1919, however, the county attempted to tax Custalow for operation a store on the Mattaponi Reservation. He successfully sued the county, and the circuit court reiterated the decision specifically for the Mattaponi tribe. In 1924 King William County tried once more to tax the reservation store, and Custalow once again had to appeal to the attorney general, who broadened the earlier decision by determining that neither reservation property nor reservation businesses could be taxed.
After the United States entered World War I, both Mattaponi and Pamunkey were drafted into military service. To prove their separate status, several Pamunkey brought suit against the King William County draft board. They maintained that because they were noncitizens and wards of the state—status that had been legally determined earlier that year—their draft notices were invalid. In December 1917 Virginia’s attorney general rendered a decision that the Pamunkey on the reservation were indeed wards of the state and could not be drafted into the armed forces. The Mattaponi decided to test the specificity of the ruling, and in 1918 the new state attorney general, the Provost Marshal General’s Office, and the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs examined the ruling’s application to the Mattaponi and determined that Pamunkey and Mattaponi men living on their respective reservations were exempted from compulsory military service. Once they had proved the principle, members of the two tribes enlisted voluntarily.
Custalow also viewed religious reform as important in fostering Mattaponi autonomy. In the first half of the nineteenth century, some members of the tribe had joined a white church in King William County. In 1865 the Pamunkey and Mattaponi organized a new Baptist church on the Pamunkey reservation, but the ten miles separating the two reservations caused attendance to decline among the Mattaponi. Wanting to encourage his tribe to participate more fully in the Christian life, Custalow began leading a Sunday school on the Mattaponi Reservation in 1922. Ten years later the members formally organized as the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church. The congregation completed its church building in 1935, with the chief’s son Harvey Nathaniel Custalow as its first pastor.
Custalow recognized the need for a distinct Mattaponi public image. Each autumn he ensured that the Mattaponi presented their tribute to Virginia’s governor alongside, but separate from, the Pamunkey tribe. In 1931 Custalow used the weeklong sesquicentennial celebration of the British surrender at Yorktown as an opportunity to gain publicity. He saw to it that the Mattaponi performed war and ceremonial dances and demonstrated their work in the commemoration’s Indian exhibitions. He also delivered a speech in which he explained the pivotal role of Virginia’s Indians in the American Revolution.
Mattaponi tribal identity, like that for all other Native Americans in the state, was challenged in March 1924 with the passage of the Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. That statute, promoted by, state registrar of vital statistics, classified all Virginians in rigid categories of white and colored and consequently subjected those defined as nonwhite to discriminatory racial segregation laws. The following year Custalow spoke out forcefully against the measure. Rather than lose their distinct designation as Indians and be categorized with African Americans, he asserted, the Mattaponi “would prefer to be banished to the wilds of the forest, there to let the wild fowls of the air and the wild animals of the field devour our bodies and leave our bones to bleach white in the sunlight of the Great Spirit.” Along with George Major Cook, chief of the Pamunkey, and other Indian leaders, Custalow successfully campaigned to quash more-restrictive legislation in 1926 and 1928, but in 1930 the General Assembly adopted an amendment that specified that any ascertainable African ancestry officially classified a person as colored.
As Custalow grew older, he maintained his reform efforts. He called for electrification and rural mail delivery for the reservation and requested paved state roads to aid an incipient tourist trade. Custalow’s wife died on April 30, 1936. Early in the 1940s he began sharing his duties with his son O. T. Custalow, who became assistant chief. George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow died on the Mattaponi Reservation on March 18, 1949. His funeral, conducted at the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church, included both Christian elements and Indian chants and prayers. The casket, draped with an Indian blanket, was escorted to the grave in the church’s cemetery by the other Powhatan chiefs.