Custis may have been born in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, about 1629. He was the son of Johanna Wittingham Custis and Henry Custis, a native of Gloucestershire, England, who operated a Rotterdam victualling house, or tavern, that served as the hub of the city’s English expatriate community. Custis’s father was a member of an extended family engaged in international commerce, and it is possible that as a young man Custis worked in one of the family’s commercial houses. About 1649 or 1650 he moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where his sister Ann Custis Yeardley lived with her husband Argall Yeardley, son of Governorand a and member of the governor’s Council. Several other members of the Custis family also lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, including another John Custis, probably an uncle or cousin, who has sometimes been misidentified as the father of the immigrant founder of the Custis family of Virginia.
Rise to Power and Military Career
With his family’s trading connections and his brother-in-law’s help, Custis grew wealthy through trade, land speculation, and tobacco planting. He had accumulated more than 1,000 acres of land by 1664 and an additional 10,000 acres during the next quarter century. The Custis workforce ofand slaves grew into one of the largest on the Eastern Shore. His commercial activities centered on New Amsterdam, a logical trading destination for a man with his background. He assembled cargoes of tobacco for shipment to the Dutch colony and acted as the Virginia agent for merchants from New Netherland and Rotterdam, as well as New England. Custis’s facility in the Dutch language enhanced his value as an intermediary in international commerce. When Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland, corresponded with the governor and Council of Virginia on an important admiralty matter in 1663, Virginia officials relied on Custis to translate the documents.
Sometime before January 15, 1652, Custis married a widow, Elizabeth Robinson Eyer (or Eyre). Before she died two or three years later they had one son,(ca. 1654–1714), who also served on the governor’s Council. About 1656 Custis married the thrice-widowed Alicia Travellor Burdett Walker (whose maiden name is unknown), and about 1679 he married the twice-widowed Tabitha Scarburgh Smart Browne, a daughter of Edmund Scarburgh (d. 1671), one of the Eastern Shore’s leading planters and a former Speaker of the . Custis and his second and third wives had no children who grew to adulthood. Early in the 1670s he built a three-story brick mansion on the south bank of Old Plantation Creek, in southwestern Northampton County. He named the house Arlington, probably after the Custis family’s ancestral village in Gloucestershire. With a foundation measuring fifty-four feet by forty-three-and-a-half feet, the imposing double-pile structure was perhaps the finest mansion erected in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, rivaled only by Governor Sir William Berkeley’s Green Spring, near Jamestown. Early in the nineteenth century, the name of the mansion inspired Custis’s descendant , who gave the same name to his estate outside Washington, D.C.
Custis’s lordly surroundings and imperious manner, which involved him in several disputes with his neighbors, earned him the sobriquet King Custis. As his wealth grew, so did his political power. During the 1650s, before he became a legal denizen of the colony, he held such offices as surveyor and appraiser of estates. Although nominated for sheriff in 1655, Custis did not receive the appointment because of his foreign birth. The assembly removed that obstacle to political advancement in 1658 by passing a law naturalizing him and his brother William Custis. In 1659 Custis became county sheriff, and the following year the governor appointed him to the Northampton County Court. Except for another term as sheriff in 1665 and 1666, he remained a justice of the peace until 1677.
Custis became a captain in the county militia in 1664, was commissioned a colonel in 1673, and ended his career in 1692 as commander in chief of all forces on the Eastern Shore. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, he was a major general in Governor Sir William Berkeley’s army. After the governor fled Jamestown and took refuge on the Eastern Shore, he made his temporary headquarters at Arlington. Custis’s loyalty to the government won plaudits from two of the commissioners the king sent to investigate the rebellion.praised Custis’s courage and generous offer to lend the Crown £1,000 sterling to provision the king’s ships, and Francis Moryson once addressed him as “Honest Jack.”
Custis probably won election to the House of Burgesses in the spring of 1676 when the rebellion broke out, but the sparse surviving records of the assembly session that met in June of that year do not include his name. He was present at the next session, which met at Green Spring in February 1677, after the conclusion of the rebellion. On an unrecorded date before July 5 of that year the lieutenant governor appointed Custis to the Council. As a councillor he often sat as an additional member of the Accomack and Northampton County Courts. Rumors that Custis was dead or dying resulted in the Privy Council omitting his name from the list of Council members when Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, was appointed governor in October 1683. Custis petitioned the Crown for reinstatement in 1685 and continued to serve until “Extreame violent Sicknesses,” “Extreame fitts,” and “the faileing of his Memory and hearing” forced him to retire on April 15, 1692.
Custis achieved dynastic as well as financial and political success. He established a family that remained prominent in Virginia for two centuries. When he prepared his will in 1691, he provided handsomely for his grandson(1678–1749), who later became the third man of that name to serve on the governor’s Council. Custis died, almost certainly at Arlington in Northampton County, on January 29, 1696, and was buried near his mansion.