George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow (1865–1949)


George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow was the chief of the Mattaponi Tribe from 1914 until his death in 1949. Born in King William County in 1865, Custalow instituted educational and religious opportunities in his community and helped forge Mattaponi tribal identity. Prior to his efforts, it was mistakenly believed that the Mattaponi were a branch of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, rather than a separate Powhatan tribe. Under his leadership, a Mattaponi school opened on the Mattaponi Reservation and tribal members founded the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church. Custalow also campaigned with Pamunkey chief George Major Cook against legislation that further restricted Virginia Indians’ civil rights following the passage of the 1924 Virginia 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. He died on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation on March 18, 1949.




Custalow was the son of Norman C. Custalow and Adeline Allmond Custalow. He was born on January 17, 1865, in King William County 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, and he later advocated educational opportunities for the tribe’s children. 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 raised six daughters and four sons, including Otha Thomas “Blue Wing” Custalow, also called Hos-Ki-No-Wa-Na-Ah, who served as Mattaponi Chief from 1944–1969, and Daniel Webster “Little Eagle” Custalow, who later served as Mattaponi Chief from 1977–2003.

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. There was a mistaken belief at the time that the Mattaponi were a branch of the Pamunkey. In 1894 the General Assembly had instituted separate trustees (mediators between the tribe and state and local governments) for the Mattaponi, although the tribe had been governed separately by its own chief and headmen prior to that date. Custalow played a central role in delineating the Mattaponi as a separate tribe from the Pamunkey. He worked to forge this identity by forcing state and local governments to acknowledge the tribe’s autonomy and instituted reforms, including establishing a separate Mattaponi church and school. Custalow met with Governor Henry Carter Stuart late 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 formalized the authority of chief by framing the Mattaponi tribal laws and asserting that violations of law on the reservation were subject to his council’s authority, rather than that of King William County officials. He tirelessly fought efforts to encroach on Mattaponi land. 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. The company agreed to pay a usage fee to the tribe, but continued to trespass without compensation.

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 Virginia attorney general ruled 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 operating 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 Indian identity and 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 joined Lower College Baptist Church (now Colosse Baptist Church). 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 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 as part of the Dover Baptist Association. 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 Natives in the state, was challenged in March 1924 with the passage of the Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. That statute, promoted by Walter Ashby Plecker, 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. The efforts of Custalow and others preserved tribal identities even as tribes continue to grapple with the act’s effects in the twenty-first century.

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. Custalow died on the Mattaponi Reservation on March 18, 1949. His funeral, conducted at the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church, included both Christian elements and traditional Indian prayers. The casket, draped with an Indian blanket, was escorted to the grave in the church’s cemetery by the other Powhatan chiefs and family members.

January 17, 1865
George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow is born to Norman C. Custalow and Adeline Custalow in King William County, probably on the Mattaponi reservation.
May 23, 1889
George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow and Emma L. "Water Lily" King marry. They will raise six daughters and at least four sons.
March 24, 1914
George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow is elected chief of the Mattaponi Tribe, an office he holds until his death in 1949.
Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow meets with the governor to discuss opening a public school for Mattaponi children. Such a school opens for the 1916–1917 school year and operates directly under state supervision.
Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow engages in an ongoing dispute with the Chesapeake Paper and Pulp Company, whose employees trespassed on the reservation grounds.
After King William County attempts to tax George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow for operating a store on the Mattaponi reservation, Custalow successfully sues the county based on a 1919 ruling that Mattaponi and Pamunkey who live and work on their reservations are wards of the state and therefore tax-exempt.
Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow begins leading a Sunday school on the Mattaponi reservation.
March 20, 1924
Governor E. Lee Trinkle signs "An act to Preserve Racial Integrity," a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, defines a white person as someone who has no discernible non-white ancestry, and requires that birth and marriage certificates indicate people's races.
April 30, 1936
Emma L. "Water Lily" King Custalow, wife of Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow, dies.
Early 1940s
George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow begins to share his duties as Mattaponi chief with his son O. T. Custalow.
March 18, 1949
George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow dies on the Mattaponi reservation.
  • Watkinson, Patricia Ferguson. “Custalow, George F. “Thunder Cloud.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 622–623. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
APA Citation:
Watkinson, Patricia & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow (1865–1949). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/custalow-george-f-thunder-cloud-1865-1949.
MLA Citation:
Watkinson, Patricia, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow (1865–1949)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 24
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