“Black Jack” Custis

Martha Washington’s first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, the docile eldest son of the eccentrically cantankerous and demanding, but fabulously wealthy, old SOB, planter John Custis. Daniel lived most of his early life alone (except for the slaves) on the plantation with his father, successfully managing the family properties while his father repeatedly refused to allow him to marry.

When Daniel was 29, his 61-year-old father presented him with a black half-brother named John, whom he had fathered with a young slave woman named Alice.

The elder John was completely attached to this child, whom he nicknamed “Black Jack.” When the little boy was five years old, his father petitioned the governor for his freedom and that of any of his descendants; the petition excluded the information that the child was his own, which fact would have in any case been clear to everyone present.

Custis made no secret of the fact that he preferred Jack whom, although a mixed-race child, he considered to be a true Custis, over Daniel, the son he had fathered early with a much-hated wife. At one point, out of humor with his eldest son, Custis drew up a will which completely disinherited Daniel and gave everything to Jack. Although he later tore up this will, he let it be known that he intended to leave a substantial estate to the little boy.

In his final will, Custis left instructions that Jack was to be given his own large and comfortably furnished house, horses, land, livestock, and enough money and provisions every year to ensure that he would never have to work a day in his life. He also gave the boy four black slaves of his own, along with ownership of Alice, the boy’s own mother, and any of her future offspring. The will carefully reiterated that the boy was to be free, along with any children he might father with any free woman. It also specified that Jack was to live with Daniel until the boy reached the age of seventeen.

Then Daniel met Martha Dandridge. By this time he was thirty-eight and wealthy; she was seventeen and somewhat less so. The elder Custis threw a fit when he learned of their engagement, and refused to sanction the marriage until Martha devised a plan: she sent presents to little Jack (a horse, bridle, and saddle) with a message that they were from Daniel. This apparent kindness between brothers melted Custis’s hard old heart, and he gave his blessing to the union.

The wedding took place a few months after the death of John Custis; Martha, Daniel and “Black Jack” lived together in what must have been a slightly uncomfortable menage for about a year, until the boy contracted meningococcal meningitis and died suddenly.

Most Washington biographers of the past chose to gloss over the issue of Jack Custis’s paternity, portraying John Custis as something like a lunatic, who developed an unexplained “violent fancy” for a random black child.

Of Jack Custis’s story, Wiencek concludes: “Human impulse was the great enemy of the slave system. John Custis put his family’s wealth in danger when he acted out of sentiment, out of common humanity. He lost control of the situation, not in fathering an illegitimate child but in yielding to the fatherly impulse to recognize the child as his own. The legal and social rules of the time were designed to eliminate these dangers caused by human weakness… Slavery’s laws and customs constrained the free as well as the enslaved…”

(Wiencek 72-80)

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