Virginia’s Original Arlington: John Custis II's Labor of Love - Later a Refuge from Lousy Marriage
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Love and Marriage – Love and Marriage
Make You Want to Ride Your Horse and Carriage
(Right into the Chesapeake Bay)
Northampton County on the southern half of Virginia’s Eastern Shore is one of the earliest explored pieces of real estate in North America. It makes sense. The primarily English sea captains and adventurers who were looking to expand the empire came by ship and the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula makes up the right-hand shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The first major creek that cuts in to the Eastern Shore from the bay is called Plantation Creek and the land south of it is amazingly tied to Virginia and this nation’s history.
First inhabitants were the Accawmack Indians. The English examined the area in 1603. About 15 years later, Ensign Thomas Savage used his skills at communicating with the Indians to set up a trading operation and an English foothold. The English planters and settlers followed quickly by 17th Century standards and within 20 years the population of newcomers neared 400.
The Original Arlington in America
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities once noted that Old Plantation Creek was the hub of the activity with numerous farms and estates springing up. James B. Lynch, in his book “The Custis Chronicles: The Virginia Generations,” described how John Custis II arrived in the new world with his sister Ann Custis, who had just married an established Eastern Shore planter, Argoll Yeardley, in 1649.
Young Mr. Custis married Elizabeth Eyer in 1652 and they had a son John Custis III. His wife died shortly thereafter and Custis, only 28 years old, married Alicia Travellor Burdett Walker, who had been widowed three times and accumulated considerable land and wealth in the process.
By 1659, Custis possessed nearly 1,000 acres and his political connections grew in kind. Wife number two also died and he remarried into wealth and power again, this time to the daughter of Col. Edmund Scarburgh II, a similarly influential Eastern Shore planter. Custis built a brick mansion that was unrivaled on the Eastern Shore. He named it Arlington. Lynch reports that the namesake was likely a great benefactor of the family, Lord Arlington, or the English village of Arlington-Bilbury. The house reportedly was three stories tall, surrounded by orchards and gardens.
The plantation was the site of an important event in 1676 related to “Bacon’s Rebellion,” a tumultuous period when Virginia was very much divided in terms of how to best proceed with relations with local Indian tribes. Nathaniel Bacon, the brash leader of a militia set on fighting the Indians, rebelled against the established English government and Governor Sir William Berkeley, resulting in his expulsion (twice) from the governor’s council.
Declared a rebel, Bacon and his army (and small navy) of followers warred with Berkeley, eventually locating the governor and his loyalists at Custis’ Arlington Plantation. Berkeley prevailed, capturing Bacon’s ships and crews. Five rebel leaders were hung. Bacon, who wasn’t there for the battle, died in October from typhus and dysentery. The rebellion was largely quelled by January 1677.
Love and Marriage
When John Custis II died in 1696, he bequeathed Arlington to his grandson John Custis IV. His son was already a rich plantation owner.
John Custis IV apparently had neither his grandfather’s luck nor skill at selecting mates. He had spent much of his growing years in York County and was known as an eccentric. He courted and married Frances Parke of Williamsburg. She was the daughter of Col. Daniel Parke, a man with a reputation for violence, arrogance, and less than faithful adherence to some of the 10 Commandments.
According to historic accounts, he wore out his welcome in the New World and left for England, leaving his daughters in Virginia. He was eventually murdered by a mob in the Leeward Islands, where he was serving as Chief Governor, having redeemed himself in England.
Frances, besides inheriting her father’s violent temper, also had the admirable traits of being “tart, shrewish and curst.” Apparently Custis loved a challenge, won his perceived reward and then spent the rest of his life regretting it. The marriage was a disaster. They grew to dislike each other so much that they quit speaking and would communicate only through the servants, even when sitting at the same dinner table.
Locals on the Eastern Shore love to tell the story of how a depressed Mr. Custis ordered his horse hitched to his carriage, approached his wife, bowed, and respectfully asked if she would like to take a drive with him. She responded that she would love to ride with him.
He drove to the shore of the bay and instead of stopping, continued into the water. She demanded, "Where are you going, Mr. Custis?" "To Hell, Madam!" he replied. "Drive on, Sir!" she said.
This loving dialogue continued as the horse began to swim, the carriage was almost floating, and water was up to the seats. Finally, he reportedly said something to the effect of, “If I was to go to Hell and the devil was to come out an meet us, I do not believe you would be frightened.” She replied, “No sir. I know you so well that I am always willing and not afraid to go where you go.” He turned the horse and headed the carriage back to shore.
Supposedly, things improved for a short while and then fell back into discord. They separated, dividing their assets. She died shortly afterward and was buried in York County. The inscription on her grave contained no reference to her husband.
John Custis IV lived on at Arlington for a number of years. He was entombed next to his grandfather on the estate when he died. Many believe he was buried in a standing position. His carved grave marker is the work of London sculptor William Colley and the tomb is considered one of the “finest examples of Virginia funerary art,” according to the APVA.
Inscribed on his tomb are the words, “Aged 71 years, and yet lived but several years, which was the space of time he kept a bachelor's house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia."
Yes, he sure despised her. The only years of his adult life that he thought worth living were the years he finally spent away from his wife. Still, they had children. Their daughter Fannie Parke Custis supposedly was similar to her mother and married a man against her father’s wishes. Their son Daniel Parke Custis was Martha (Dandridge) Washington’s first husband. Their grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, established the estate of Arlington on the Potomac. His daughter Mary Ann married Robert E. Lee.
Today, the Custis Tombs are the only remnants standing where the great Arlington plantation stood along the Eastern Shore’s Old Plantation Creek. A low brick wall encloses the two graves and a couple of massive trees shade the site. A boat ramp to the creek is less than 100 yards away. The tombs are just a few minutes off the main road and a visit takes about 15 minutes.
So, if a little marital strife and struggles have you down, and you want to appreciate your marriage more, or want confirmation that life is too short to live in abject misery, grab your partner and “Drive On” to the Custis Tombs.