Custis was born on November 27, 1754, probably at White House, the New Kent County plantation of his parents, Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge Custis. After the death of his father in 1757, he inherited more than 17,880 acres of land in the counties of Hanover, King William, New Kent, Northampton, and York; town lots in Jamestown and; two islands, Mockhorn and Smith, in the Chesapeake Bay; personal property and slaves worth £30,000; and liquid assets of £10,000. A convoluted estate battle, dating from 1723, with relatives in the Leeward Islands led his mother to seek assistance from , who agreed to represent Custis and his surviving sister in the transatlantic lawsuit but was unwilling to take on management of all their property. On January 6, 1759, Custis’s mother married George Washington and moved with her children to Mount Vernon, in Fairfax County. In April of that year Washington acquired limited rights to administer his stepchildren’s estates and on October 21, 1761, after posting a £20,000 bond, became their guardian.
Privately tutored at Mount Vernon in classical Latin and New Testament Greek until the end of 1767, Custis (usually called Jack or Jacky) began studying in June 1768 at Jonathan Boucher’s Caroline County boarding school and continued with the Anglican minister after he moved to Annapolis. Critical of Custis’s early interest in the opposite sex, Boucher once exclaimed that he had never had a pupil “so exceedingly indolent, or so surprizingly voluptuous” and concluded that perhaps “Nature had intended Him for some Asiatic Prince.” The schoolmaster hoped that escorting Custis on a grand tour of Europe in 1772 would improve his student’s mind. Instead, Custis entered King’s College (later Columbia University) late in May 1773, but partly because of the death of his sister after an epileptic seizure the following month, he left the school in September.
On February 3, 1774, after overcoming initial resistance from the Washingtons because of his youth, Custis married Eleanor Calvert at Mount Airy, her father’s estate in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They had six daughters, including the social leadersand , and one son, the writer and orator . Until late in 1778 Custis and his family divided their time among White House, Mount Vernon, and Mount Airy. Two years after his death, his widow married David Stuart, a physician and later a member of the Convention of 1788, and had at least seven more children.
Planter and Politician
Not long after his marriage Custis began to consolidate his landholdings. In 1778 he disposed of his 1,980-acre Mount Pleasant estate in King and Queen County and began selling off land in Hanover and New Kent counties, as well as his family’s town lots in Jamestown and Williamsburg. Desiring to own property in northern Fairfax County (after 1801 Alexandria County), he acquired two adjoining estates a few miles above Alexandria. One, an 1,100-acre tract his son later named Arlington, he purchased outright for £12,100. The other, a 904-acre tract called Abingdon, he mortgaged at £12 per acre with compound interest, the entire sum payable at the end of twenty-four years, an injudicious arrangement that would require him to produce £48,000 in 1802. In December 1778 Custis moved his family to Abingdon and during the summer of 1781 attempted to renegotiate the land transaction on more favorable terms. Eleven years after Custis’s death, David Stuart, as guardian of Custis’s minor son, reconveyed Abingdon to its former owner after paying £2,400 in rent for the time the estate had remained in Custis hands.
Custis was a conservative revolutionary and during the early days of the American Revolution criticized several Maryland counties for allowing anyone who bore arms to vote. His dissatisfaction with Virginia’s ineffective conduct of the war eventually moved him to stand for election to the House of Delegates in 1778. Declaring himself “a true Friend to the Independency of America” who had “laid aside every Thought of returning to our former Masters,” he was simultaneously a candidate in both Fairfax and New Kent counties. Custis was elected to represent Fairfax County but arrived late at the session that began on May 4, 1778, and was added to the Committees of Propositions and Grievances and of Religion. He was sometimes lax in attendance, and when the House reconvened in October, it ordered the sergeant at arms to take him and other absent members into custody. Custis won reelection to the assemblies of 1779 and 1780–1781 but missed assignments to important committees because of his habitual late arrival, usually the result of the press of personal business or his wife’s pregnancies.
As the only male in his family and as his mother’s only surviving child, Custis faced determined opposition from his mother and stepfather and did not join the Continental army at the beginning of the Revolution. The danger to his native state and the direct threat to his property along the Pamunkey River later spurred him to action. In September 1781 as the French and American armies moved to Yorktown, Custis persuaded his stepfather to allow him to serve as a civilian aide-de-camp. Custis put his affairs in order, but shortly before he was to leave for camp he became ill with one of the occasional fevers that were a regular part of life in the Tidewater. Finally, at the end of the month, he left for Yorktown. As he rode through the countryside, he made enquiries about a number of his slaves who had absconded but was unable to locate any. Custis served with his stepfather during the siege of Yorktown but in the fetid environment of smallpox and camp fever fell ill again.
Custis was taken to Eltham, the New Kent County plantation of his uncle Burwell Bassett, and died there on November 5, 1781. Two days later he was interred near Williamsburg in the Custis family burial ground at Queen’s Creek plantation, in York County. His grave marker, if he had one, was no longer standing by 1895, when the local camp of Confederate Veterans removed the surviving Custis stones to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.