John Custis (ca. 1629–1696)

John Custis was a member of the governor's Council (1677–1692) and the founder of the Custis family in Virginia. He was raised in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1649 or 1650. Custis became wealthy through land speculation, tobacco planting, and facilitating trade between Virginia and the Netherlands and its colonies. Early in the 1670s he built a mansion in Northampton County and named it Arlington; the house was the namesake of Arlington House, the nineteenth-century home of the Washington and Custis families. Custis supported Governor Sir William Berkeley during Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) and was appointed to the governor's Council in 1677. He retired in 1692 and died in 1696. MORE...

 

Early Years

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 Governor Sir George Yeardley and a prominent planter 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 of servants and 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, John Custis (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 House of Burgesses. 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 George Washington Parke Custis, 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. Sir John Berry 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."

Later Years

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 John Custis (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.

Time Line

  • ca. 1629 - John Custis is born to Johanna Wittingham Custis and Henry Custis, possibly in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. His father, an Englishman, operated a Rotterdam victualling house, or tavern, that served as the hub of the city's English expatriate community.
  • 1649 or 1650 - John Custis moves to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where his sister Ann Custis Yeardley lives with her husband, Argall Yeardley.
  • January 15, 1652 - John Custis marries the widow Elizabeth Robinson Eyer (or Eyre).
  • ca. 1654 - John Custis is born in Northampton County to John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) and Elizabeth Robinson Eyer (or Eyre) Custis.
  • 1655 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) is nominated for sheriff of Northampton County, but does not receive the appointment because of his foreign birth.
  • ca. 1656 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) marries the thrice-widowed Alicia Travellor Burdett Walker. They will have no children who survive to adulthood.
  • 1658 - The General Assembly passes a law naturalizing John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) and William Custis, thus allowing the foreign-born colonists to hold political office in Virginia.
  • 1659 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) becomes county sheriff of Northampton County.
  • 1660 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) is appointed to the Northampton County Court. He remains a justice of the peace until 1677, except for the years 1665 and 1666, when he serves as sheriff.
  • 1664 - By this year, John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) has accumulated more than 1,000 acres of land. He also becomes a captain in the Northampton County militia.
  • Early 1670s - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) builds a three-story brick mansion on the south bank of Old Plantation Creek, in southwestern Northampton County, and names the house Arlington.
  • 1673 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) is commissioned a colonel in the Northampton County militia.
  • Spring 1676 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) probably wins election to the House of Burgesses.
  • 1676–1677 - During Bacon's Rebellion, John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) is as a major general in Governor Sir William Berkeley's army. After Berkeley flees Jamestown, he makes Custis's house his temporary headquarters.
  • September 1, 1676 - Nathaniel Bacon's small navy locates Governor Sir William Berkeley's hideout on the Eastern Shore and bottles up the loyalists at the Arlington plantation of John Custis in Northampton County.
  • July 5, 1677 - Sometime before this date, John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) is appointed to the governor's Council.
  • ca. 1679 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) marries the twice-widowed Tabitha Scarburgh Smart Browne. They will have no children who survive to adulthood.
  • October 1683 - Rumors that John Custis (ca. 1629–1676) is dead or dying result in the Privy Council omitting his name from the list of members of the governor's Council.
  • 1685 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1676) petitions the Crown for reinstatement to the list of members of the governor's Council.
  • 1692 - John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) ends his military career as commander in chief of all forces on the Eastern Shore.
  • April 15, 1692 - "Extreame violent Sicknesses," "Extreame fitts," and "the faileing of his Memory and hearing" force John Custis (ca. 1629–1696) to retire from the governor's Council.
  • January 29, 1696 - John Custis dies, almost certainly in Arlington in Northampton County, and is buried near his mansion.

References

Further Reading
Luccketti, Nicholas M., Edward A. Chappell, and Beverly A. Straube. Archaeology at Arlington: Excavations at the Ancestral Custis Plantation, Northampton County, Virginia. [Richmond]: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1999.
Lynch, James B., Jr. The Custis Chronicles: The Years of Migration. Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1992.
Pagan, John Ruston. "John Custis (ca. 1629–January 29, 1696)." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 633–635. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Pagan, J. R., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Custis (ca. 1629–1696). (2013, September 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Custis_John_ca_1629-1696.

  • MLA Citation:

    Pagan, John Ruston and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Custis (ca. 1629–1696)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Sep. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: August 5, 2013 | Last modified: September 23, 2013


Contributed by John Ruston Pagan and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography