Topic: Washington or Custis Family

“Poore Billy”: Apprenticeships in Late 18th-Century Virginia

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
August 17, 2018

Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.

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Rehabilitating Mary Ball Washington’s Importance as George Washington’s Mother

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
November 17, 2017

In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered. There is little basis to claim that she played a central role in George’s accomplishments and fame. The absence of such evidence gives greater salience to Mary’s carping in her old age about lack of money and support from her children.   George’s frustration over these complaints prompted harsh portrayals of his mother in subsequent historical analysis.

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The Circus Comes to Town

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
September 11, 2017

Exterior view of Astley’s amphitheater, engraving by Charles John Smith (1777). © Victoria and Albert Museum.

On Wednesday, April 24, 1793, George and Martha Washington responded to an invitation from Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their letter read, “Mrs Washington is so much indisposed with a cold as to make her fear encreasing it by going to the Circus this afternoon. The President & rest of the family propose to be Spectators at the exhibition of Mr Rickets.” The family members who presumably did attend were Martha’s grandchildren, Nelly and Wash, who were living at the presidential house at the time. The grandchildren living with their mother, Eliza and Patsy, could possibly have attended as well. Martha’s indisposition, however, came at an unfortunate time, as it prevented her from attending a key moment in American entertainment history—the introduction of the modern circus.

Philip Astley created the concept of the modern circus in England in 1768. A skilled horseman, Astley learned to ride standing on a horse’s back. He discovered that riding in a circle helped him balance during the trick, and thus he has been credited with inventing the first circus ring. By 1770 Astley had built an amphitheater and added a clown, musicians, and additional entertainers to his show.

Twenty-five years later, John Bill Ricketts, a Scottish horseman, introduced Americans to Europe’s new form of entertainment. His exhibitions were held in Philadelphia and New York. Though Ricketts offered a clown, tumblers, and other acts familiar to the twenty-first century reader, his horsemanship was the true highlight of the show. The March 27, 1793, issue of the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser invited readers to experience Ricketts’s “unparalleled EQUESTRIAN PERFORMANCE.” Ricketts’s first circus was reviewed in Philadelphia’s Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser on April 4. The reviewer exclaimed that the “upwards of seven hundred Spectators” were treated to a performance “beyond expectation, beautiful, graceful and superb, in the highest extreme.”

Astley’s Amphitheatre in London, as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (c. 1808-11). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington’s attendance at the circus did not go unnoticed. The April 24 issue of the Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser informed readers that, “This Afternoon, The President of the United States and Family will honor the Circus with their Company.” Although it seems that she missed this one, Martha Washington may have had a second chance to witness the first American circus two months later. The July 16 issue of Philadelphia’s General Advertiser noted that at a benefit for the poor thrown by Ricketts, “The President of the United States and his family were among the company who visited the circus.” In his financial papers, George recorded on May 24, 1797, that he had paid 2 shillings, 3 pence for “Circus exp[ence]s going to George Town.”1

Did George and Martha Washington enjoy this new form of entertainment imported from Europe? Although no specific comments from either has been found, an advertisement in the January 23, 1797, issue of the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser stated that Ricketts offered a performance “BY DESIRE OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES,” suggesting that George Washington, at least, was indeed amused.



  1. George Washington’s Financial Papers, Ledger C, 1790-1799, pg.29, line 24.

John Custis vs. Martha Dandridge

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
June 16, 2016

I would go to Law the whole Course of my Life; spend the last penny I have in the world rather than I will pay one farthing of your unjust and unreasonable demand; […] you may give me some trouble; and put me to some Charge; but depend on it; where you put me to one penny worth you will put your self to a pound…1

John Custis IV of Williamsburg, the man who wrote that sentence in the mid-1720s, has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. (Once, in an attempt to keep his tobacco price up, he argued that the white mold covering it was “a good sign and that Tobacco will keep.”2) So, it was only natural that Custis viewed anyone who wanted to marry into his family as a potential “gold-digger.” The fact that Martha Dandridge (later Martha Custis, finally Martha Washington) was able to talk her way into the Custis family is something of a miracle.

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The “Epitome of Navigation”: How Lawrence Washington Steered His Brother George

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
May 27, 2016

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Lawrence, George Washington’s elder half-brother by their father’s first marriage, stayed in Barbados that December of 1751. His condition, presumably tuberculosis, was none improved from their seven-week stay on the island, and he was determined to get better—if not in Barbados, then in Bermuda.1 George, his travel companion, had to get home. A new year’s surveying season was about to begin.2 He also had an important acquaintance to meet: the newly arrived governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, who, within the year (just months following Lawrence’s death in July 1752), would appoint George adjutant for the colony’s southern district with the rank of major.3

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Dutiful or Loving Son?: Reflecting on George Washington’s Relationship with His Mother, Mary Ball Washington

By William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
February 11, 2016


A corner view of Mary Ball Washington’s final home.

My trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in November 2015 to see George Washington’s boyhood home at what is now known as Ferry Farm also allowed me to visit the house in town where George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, lived the final 17 years of her life. Born in 1708, married to the widower Augustine Washington in 1731, and widowed in 1743, Mary Washington never remarried. Until pressured to change by her children (sons George, Sam, John, and Charles, and daughter, Betty, who had married the prosperous Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis), Mary Washington managed Ferry Farm on her own with the help of slaves. Apparently reluctant to move from the farm, she grudgingly agreed only at George’s insistence.

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George Washington on Love and Marriage

By Christine S. Patrick

History classes have given Americans some familiarity with Washington the Revolutionary War general and Washington the first president of the United States, but most people have little knowledge about the more personal aspects of his life. While Washington was not exactly the “cool dude” in the new golden dollar coin ads on television and in the newspapers, neither was he the somewhat grumpy-appearing man on the dollar bill. Washington was a loving husband, a doting father and grandfather to his wife’s children and grandchildren, and a patriarchal benefactor to nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.

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George Washington’s Advice to his Grandson

By Neal Millikan
March 26, 2015

Neal is an Assistant Editor for The Papers of George Washington. She is currently editing volumes for the Presidential Series.

George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857), the youngest child of John Parke and Eleanor Calvert Custis, spent most of his youth with his grandparents George and Martha Washington and in the fall of 1796 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Washington, as he was called by his relatives, was not a particularly diligent student and the family worried that he might not properly apply himself to his studies. While Washington Custis’s letters to his grandfather during his first months away at school have not survived, George Washington’s letters to his grandson provide insight into his role as father figure to the young man. Both the president and the grandson lost their fathers at an early age: George Washington at eleven, and George Washington Parke Custis at only six months. By writing these letters of advice the father of our country was imparting wisdom similar to what he might have received from his own parent.

George Washington, who never attended college, explained to his grandson the importance of making the most of his education. He encouraged Custis to show obedience to his professors and the president of the college and to devote his time to reading serious, not trivial works: “Light reading (by this, I mean books of little importance) may amuse for the moment, but leaves nothing solid behind.” According to his grandfather, the purpose of Custis’s schooling was to “see you enter upon the grand theatre of life, with the advantages of a finished education, a highly cultivated mind; and a proper sense of your duties to God & Man.”[1] George Washington knew the hours Washington Custis spent studying “may feel irksome at first,” but the president advised him that “the advantages resulting from”[2] his education would outweigh the irritations. Washington warned his grandson to avoid acquiring habits that would lead to “idleness and vice,” but equally instructed him not to “deprive yourself in the intervals of study, of any recreation … which reason approves.”[3]

As an adult George Washington had many acquaintances but few whom he considered close friends; this fact explains the guidance he gave his grandson about forming ties with his classmates. While he advised Washington Custis to “Endeavor to conciliate the good will of all your fellow-students, rendering them every act of kindness in your power,”[4] he also counselled him to reserve friendship until he knew his fellow students well, and then to “select the most deserving only,” noting that “True friendship is a plant of slow growth.” He cautioned his grandson against becoming friendly with immoral youths who might become “a stumbling block in your way; and act like a Millstone hung to your neck.” However, he also advised Custis not to form “hasty, & unfavourable impressions of any one: let your judgment always balance well, before you decide.” If adequate time had not yet occurred to form an opinion, the grandfather suggested that “it is best to be silent; for there is nothing more certain than that it is, at all times, more easy to make enemies, than friends.”[5]

George Washington, himself a life-long (albeit laconic) diarist, encouraged his grandson to keep a diary while at school to make a record “of the occurrences which happen to you, or within your sphere.” Writing from personal experience, Washington noted that while the practice may appear “Trifling” at the time, “by carefully preserving” his thoughts Custis would gain more “satisfaction” in returning to these diaries at a future date “than what you may conceive at present.” The grandfather also recommended entering all his expenses into an account book, which would “initiate you into a habit, from which considerable advantages would result. Where no account of this sort is kept–there can be no investigation; no correction of errors; no discovery from a recurrence thereto, wherein too much, or too little has been appropriated to particular uses. From an early attention to these matters, important & lasting benefits may follow.”[6] Washington further instructed Custis to promptly acknowledge receiving letters “to remove doubts of their miscarriage”[7] by the sender, and implored him to “Never let an indigent person ask, without receiving something”[8] if he had the means.

Writing on 27 February 1797, shortly before he left the presidency, George Washington was gratified to hear that Washington Custis seemed to enjoy his studies and hoped his grandson would “reward my cares & anxieties to see you a polished Scholar, & a useful member of society, by persevering with assiduity & steadiness in the course you are now in.”[9] Custis, however, only attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton until October; he subsequently matriculated at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, but left in September 1798 without graduating.

[1]19 December 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[2] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[3] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[4] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[5] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[6] 11 January 1797, ViMtvL.

[7] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[8] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[9] ViHi: Custis Papers.