After Roberta and I visited Woodlawn a couple of weeks ago, I got an inkling to look a bit more into the life of its former mistress. Eleanor (“Nelly”) was the third of the four famed Parke Custis siblings. George Washington loved each one of Martha’s four grandchildren, but he seemed to have a special place in his heart for Nelly.
As one writer observed,
She was a favorite of the General, whom, as we have before observed, she delighted with her gay whims and sprightly sallies, often overcoming his habitual gravity, and surprising him into a hearty laugh.
Eleanor was born at Abingdon, a house whose site is preserved in between the two big parking lots at National Airport. Sadly, her father Jacky died just four years later during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Her mother, Eleanor Calvert, remarried and moved to Hope Park in the western part of Fairfax County. The two oldest children, Elizabeth and Martha, went with their mother and step father, Dr. David Stuart.
George and Martha raised Eleanor (1779 -1852) at Mount Vernon, along with her brother, George Washington Parke Custis (“Wash”).
Of their childhood rearing and Washington’s father figure role, Merrow E. Sorley wrote:
…he assuredly could not have been more considerate or attentive to their needs had they been his own children.
Nelly loved her grandparents, and spoke from the heart when she wrote:
For me my prospects of happiness although very great are yet clouded when I think of leaving My Beloved Grandparents who have been everything to me hitherto, & this dear spot — which has been my constant Home, since my first remembrance — to which I must ever feel the strongest attachment.
As far as I can tell, there are only two books about Eleanor — “Nelly Custis, Child of Mount Vernon” by David L. Ribblet and “George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly” by Patricia Brady, who edited Eleanor’s letters to Elizabeth Brodley Gibson. Eleanor Parke Custis wrote almost two hundred letters to her best friend in Philadelphia. They were pen pals for more than fifty years.
Eleanor Parke Custis had an extraordinary childhood. When she was just ten years old, she and her brother accompanied George and Martha for the year and a half in New York, and then on to Philadelphia for the two terms of the Presidency.
Nelly was part of a unique, first, First Family. Educated by a learned tutor, Tobias Lear, she combined her privileged upbringing with a personality that charmed statesmen and socialites. The second half of her life was much quieter. Nelly and Lawrence raised their children at Woodlawn before she watched her final sunsets at Audley, a home west of Leesburg.
I was interested in finding out her footsteps when she visited Alexandria. Ribblett gives us a wonderful look into her life. Unfortunately, for our cause, we find no Alexandria mentions.
Coming to the rescue is Nelly herself. The well is almost dry with her, too, but one letter she wrote to Gibson mentions a visit to Alexandria in February 1798. After eight years of service to the new republic, the retired first family was back in the bosom of their riverside mansion home. Times were good and Alexandria was prospering. For all that he had done for his country, her step grandfather was beloved by many in the seaport.
Nelly, still a single lady, was approaching her 19th birthday. She spent five days in the town, staying “with my friends Mrs Harrison and Mrs. Potts.”
Ann Craig Harrison was the daughter of Dr. James Craik (1727-1914) and Marianne Ewell of Prince William County.
A better friend Washington did not have. Like numerous others in Alexandria, Craik had sailed across the pond from Scotland. As a bronze historical plaque notes at his former residence on Duke Street, Craik was a close personal friend and family physician of Washington, as well as a surgeon in General Braddock’s campaign during the French and Indian War. When bullets brought down the general at a battle near modern day Pittsburgh, Craik tried in vain to keep his wounds from being mortal ones. When Washington slipped away in 1799, the good doctor was at his bedside.
Craik took his last breath in 1814 and was laid to rest in the churchyard Burial Ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. The church lies on South Fairfax Street, one block away from Duke Street. Arguably the most charming part of Old Town, these streets overlook the Potomac and hold homes whose histories go back to some of the city’s most famous residences. Anticipating the arrival of a luxury item they had ordered from London, these citizens could watch with anticipation as the tall-masted ships slip into the seaport. One can still the alleyways that led to the river and made such viewing a breathtaking thrill.
Craik owned a handful of dwellings in this southern part of the town. In “Alexandria Street by Street,” we find his name attached to 210 Duke, 117 S. Fairfax and 307 S. Lee. As mentioned, a historical marker graces the brick front wall of 210 Duke, which is the dwelling most associated with Craik.
Nelly did not mention any specific addresses. It’s our guess that 210 Duke is where Nelly visited and slept over.
In her book, Gay Montague Moore tells us about Dr. Craik.
Of the many quaint historical figures whose memories haunt the old streets and houses of Alexandria, none is more interesting than Dr. Craik.
She goes on to say Dr. Craik sometimes visited the Washington family at least once a month, and sometimes stayed four or five days (I guess the fish lasted longer back then…)
Moore also provides us with a photograph of the rear of the house. One sees a courtyard and the flounder-shaped add on that replaced a frame building. We also get a rare glimpse inside the dwelling. In his will, Washington gave Dr. Craik his circular chair and his bureau.
210 Duke (It’s yours for a cool 4.3M) has been touted for the quality of its Federal style interior and exterior detail.
Nelly also stayed with Mrs. Potts. Brady writes this was probably Eliza Ramsay Potts. Ramsay was another famous Scottish clan in Alexandria. Her husband was John Potts, Jr. George Washington persuaded Potts to move from Philadelphia to Alexandria at the age of 25. He served as secretary of the Potomac Navigation Company, Washington’s never-realized dream of connecting Virginia to the interior.
Potts built two of Alexandria’s best known homes — Colross, a handsome urban mansion at the corner of Henry and Oronoco and 607 Oronoco, the childhood home of Robert E. Lee.
Eleanor wrote that during her four night stay, she danced with several men. This was about a year before she married Lewis.
The details of her stay are lost, but William H. Snowden gives us this description of Eleanor Parke Custis.
She was “as witty as she was beautiful, quick at repartee, highly accomplished, full of information, a good conversationalist, the life of any company whether young or old.”
One of the men she danced with was “a Mr. Fitzhugh.” This was likely none other than William Fitzhugh (1741-1809). A more influential man in the galaxy of northern Virginia there was not. Having established himself at his plantation home, Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, he moved to Fairfax County. His new plantation country home was Ravensworth, whose site is near the Beltway and Little River Turnpike.
Fitzhugh, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia, called Washington a close friend. He owned large tracts of land in the central portions of Fairfax County. His daughter, Mary Lee Fitzhugh, married Nelly’s brother, George Washington Parke Custis.
In 1831, Robert E. Lee married their daughter, Mary Anne Fitzhugh. The home they lived in at 607 Oronoco Street in Alexandria is as famous a residence as they come in the city.
The Virginia Historic Marker out front identifies the brick dwelling as the home of Robert E. Lee. The house is certainly famous that way, but historically it is known as the Potts-Fitzhugh House. Built by Potts, the home was completed in 1795. Fitzhugh was the second owner. The nomination form says, “Washington is said to have visited the Fitzhugh residence more frequently than any other home in Alexandria.”
Eleanor’s correspondence to her best friend fell off in 1798. The princess of Mount Vernon had good reasons not to pick up her pen. The three men in her life at Mount Vernon - her step grandfather, her tutor and Lawrence Lewis, nephew of Washington hired to help the retired President with his papers and management of Mount Vernon - each fell ill. As she would later say, “I, deputy doctor, had my hands full…”
Then, on February 3, 1799, Nelly wrote her friend a long letter.
“Cupid, a small mischievous Urchin, took me by suprise… he slyly called in Lawrence Lewis to his aid and transfixed me with a Dart before I knew where I was.”
The couple were married at Mount Vernon on Washington’s 67th birthday. The newlyweds moved into Woodlawn, a gift from George and Martha, and stayed there for many years. They had three children who lived to adulthood. Thanks to David D. Plater, who wrote "The Butlers of Iberville Parish, Louisiana," we know more about Frances Park Lewis than the other two. Frances married Edward George Butler, a Lieutenant who had graduated from West Point. They moved to a riverside spread of land near Baton Rogue, and built Dunboyne, a plantation house.
After Lawrence died in 1839, Nelly moved to Audley, an exile of sorts far away from family and friends. When she passed away in 1852, Nelly’s death marked the beginning of the end of an era. Elizabeth had died in 1831. Martha and Washy would join her and Nelly in 1854 and 1857. The small circle of those who had known Washington in intimate terms was vanishing as the country began to tear apart.
The unique Parke-Custis pairing of names and then Custis name seemed to fade away when Mary Anna Rudolph Custis, Wash’s daughter, married Robert E. Lee. Arlington was known for many years as the “Custis-Lee Mansion.” That name, however, was co-opted in the 20th-century and changed to “Arlington House - The Robert E. Lee Memorial.”
When the Alexandria Gazette wrote Eleanor's obituary, it’s our guess a few tears dropped. Maybe a gray beard or two recalled that winter day in 1798 when Eleanor Parke Custis rode into town, spent a fun week of dancing and dining, and then returned to her home at Mount Vernon. Wherever she laid her head, Nelly was always something special.