He was most likely born at White House, his parents’ plantation on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia, the son of Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy planter with approximately 300 slaves and thousands of acres of property.
After his father died in 1757, about 18,000 acres (73 sqkm) of land and 285 black slaves were held in trust for him until he reached the age of majority. His mother married George Washington in January 1759. At Mount Vernon, he and his younger sister Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis (1756–1773) were nurtured by the Washingtons.
Washington was appointed as his legal guardian and executor of the Custis Estate. Custis became the only heir of the Custis estate after his sister died in 1773 at the age of seventeen. His family referred to him as “Jacky,” a troublesome, lethargic, and “free-willed” boy who was uninterested in his schoolwork.
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John Parke Custis announced his engagement to Eleanor Calvert, a daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert and granddaughter of Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore, to the Washingtons in 1773, when he was eighteen years old.
Because the pair was so young, George and Martha were taken aback by their decision to marry. Custis began attending King’s College (later Columbia University) in New York City during that year but departed shortly after his sister died.
Custis married Eleanor at her family’s Mount Airy mansion on February 3, 1774. Rosaryville State Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is named after its restored home. The couple moved to the White House property after their marriage.
Custis bought the Abingdon farm in Fairfax County, Virginia, after the couple had resided at the White House for more than two years (now in Arlington County, Virginia). During the winter of 1778–1778, the couple made their home there.
Custis found the terms of Abingdon’s purchase to be highly disadvantageous. Custis’ zeal and inexperience prompted Abingdon’s owner, Robert Alexander, to take advantage of him in the transaction, which forced Custis to pay the purchase price plus compound interest over the course of 24 years.
Custis would have to pay approximately £48,000 in interest on the £12,000 purchase price over the next 24 years, based on compound interest. Custis would have to pay almost £2,000 every year for the duration of the deal to achieve this.
“No Virginia Estate (save a handful under the best management) can stand simple Interest, how then can they sustain compound Interest,” George Washington told Custis when he learned of the terms of the purchase.
“I am concerned Jack Custis, in spite of all of the warning and advice I gave him about selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate,” George Washington wrote in 1778 concerning Custis’ actions in this and other things. Custis had nearly gone bankrupt due to the financial difficulties of the Abingdon acquisition by 1781.
According to one account, Custis served on Washington’s staff during the Siege of Boston in 1775–1776 and served as an emissary to the British forces there.
During the siege of Yorktown, John Parke Custis worked as a civilian aide-de-camp to Washington. Custis, on the other hand, developed “camp fever,” which could have been epidemic typhus or dysentery while at Yorktown.
Custis died on November 5, 1781, in the residence of Colonel Burwell Bassett, Martha Washington’s brother-in-law, in New Kent County, Virginia, shortly after Cornwallis’ surrender. He was laid to rest in his family’s plot near Queen’s Creek, in York County, Virginia, not far from Williamsburg.
Custis’ widow moved her two youngest children (Eleanor and George) to Mount Vernon to be raised by the Washingtons after his untimely death at the age of 26. She married David Stuart of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1783, and they had 16 additional children together.
Custis’ financial affairs were in turmoil because of his bad business judgment and wartime taxation, despite the fact that he had established himself at Abingdon.
After Custis’ death in 1781, it took the administrators of the Custis Estate more than a decade to reach an agreement to discontinue the purchase of Abingdon by Custis. His fortune was not entirely liquidated until his widow died in 1811, because he died intestate. More than 600 slaves were passed down to his four children.
The Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport now owns a portion of the Abingdon estate. Custis also bought a neighboring property when he bought Abingdon, which became Arlington Plantation and then Arlington National Cemetery following his death.