Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis was born on March 31, 1779, at Mount Airy, her maternal grandfather’s estate in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She was the daughter of Eleanor Calvert Custis and John Parke Custis, a planter and member of the House of Delegates who died in November 1781. Two years later she and her younger brother, George Washington Parke Custis, were informally adopted by their grandmother Martha Custis Washington and stepgrandfather George Washington when the latter returned to Mount Vernon, in Fairfax County, at the close of the American Revolution (1775–1783). Her two elder sisters, Elizabeth Parke Custis (later Law) and Martha Parke Custis (later Peter), remained with their mother and stepfather, David Stuart, a physician and member of the Convention of 1788.
Nelly Custis was educated at Mount Vernon by tutors, including Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear, as well as by music and dancing masters. After Washington’s inauguration as president of the United States, Martha Washington and the Custis children joined him in May 1789 in New York City, the nation’s temporary capital. Custis attended private schools and studied music with the composer and performer Alexander Reinagle and art with William Dunlap. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, she continued her studies there.
At Mount Vernon and Woodlawn
As she grew to be a beautiful young woman and a talented musician, dancer, and artist, Custis helped entertain guests at the presidential mansion and accompanied her adoptive parents to social events. After Washington retired in March 1797, she continued in that role at Mount Vernon. A flood of uninvited visitors came to see the retired hero at his estate, and Custis was invaluable in helping her grandmother entertain guests while allowing George Washington time for his own projects. She was introduced to society at balls in Alexandria and Georgetown. Late in 1797 Washington’s nephew Lawrence Lewis, a widower, joined the family at Mount Vernon as a deputy host and occasional secretary. He and Custis married on Washington’s birthday, February 22, in 1799.
The couple remained at Mount Vernon, where their first three children were born. Of their four sons and four daughters, only one son and two daughters lived to adulthood. George Washington died on December 14, 1799, and bequeathed the Lewises about 2,000 acres of the Mount Vernon plantation, as well as a gristmill and whiskey distillery. They continued to live with Martha Washington while beginning to build a house on their property, but after her death on May 22, 1802, the Lewis family was obliged to move because the Mount Vernon mansion and home farm had been left to Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington.
The central block of their house was not yet inhabitable, so in 1802 the Lewises moved into one of the small dependencies. Completed in 1805, their new home was named Woodlawn, probably for the estate in one of Martha Washington’s and Nelly Custis’s favorite novels, The Children of the Abbey. Designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol and a friend of George Washington, Woodlawn was an elegant red-brick Georgian manor house flanked by one-and-a-half-story dependencies connected by hyphens. There Lewis managed her extensive household and lavishly entertained numerous guests.
As agricultural land in eastern Virginia became less productive and Alexandria declined as a port, profitable farming at Woodlawn became impossible for the Lewises. Their surviving son moved to Audley plantation, in Clarke County, which became the family’s major source of income. Their two daughters married men who settled in Louisiana, and beginning in the mid-1830s the couple divided their time between Louisiana and Virginia. Lawrence Lewis died on November 20, 1839, following a daughter’s death two months earlier. Nelly Custis Lewis went to live permanently at Audley. A noted needlewoman and artist, she completed numerous needlepoint and embroidered keepsakes for her relatives and friends.
Keeper of Washington’s Legacy
Throughout her life, Lewis regarded herself as the keeper of George Washington’s legacy. She shared memories and mementos, entertained and corresponded with those seeking information, and verified or debunked new accounts. Her husband had been one of Washington’s executors and was instrumental in having a grand tomb erected at Mount Vernon, completed in 1835. At the time of Lewis’s death, she had little fortune to leave but her remaining Mount Vernon artifacts, which she distributed among her grandchildren. Woodlawn was sold in 1846, and after numerous vicissitudes, in 1951 the house and a portion of the grounds became the first property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Nelly Custis was the delight of George and Martha Washington’s lives and the most accurate purveyor of information about them. During her long life, stretching from the American Revolution until the crucial decade leading up to the American Civil War (1861–1865), she was a living point of connection with the most important of the founding fathers. Nelly Custis Lewis suffered partial paralysis during the last two years of her life. She died at Audley on July 15, 1852, and was buried at Mount Vernon in an enclosure adjoining George Washington’s tomb. In 1915 Lunt Silversmiths designed a Nellie Custis silver pattern, and her name also appears in various guises on the landscape of Northern Virginia, including Nelly Custis Park, in Arlington County, and the Nelly Custis Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, in Fort Belvoir, Fairfax County.