This Day in History: The Daughter of Mount Vernon

On this day in 1779, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis is born. She has been called the “Daughter of Mount Vernon,” because she was raised by Martha and George after her father passed away. Nelly’s birthday offers an opportunity to get a glimpse into the softer side of General Washington. Nelly was his step-granddaughter.

George Washington never had any children of his own. As a young man, he’d caught smallpox, apparently followed by tuberculosis. Modern doctors speculate that the tuberculosis may have left Washington infertile—surely a source of disappointment! He did, however, have stepchildren. When George married Martha, she was a wealthy widow with two young children, John Parke Custis (“Jacky”) and Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”). Washington once wrote that a man should be “just, generous, and attentive” to his stepchildren. By all accounts, he took his own advice and was a loving stepfather to Jacky and Patsy.

Unfortunately, neither of his stepchildren would live long lives. Patsy suffered from seizures (possibly epilepsy), and she passed away when she was only 17 years old. Jacky lived long enough to get married and father six children (four of whom lived). Unfortunately, Jacky passed away just after Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. He was only 26 years old.

Nelly met her step-grandfather for the first time in September 1781, when she was 2.5 years old. Remember, Washington was busy fighting a war. He was away from Mount Vernon throughout most of the American Revolution. Needless to say, their September 1781 meeting was the beginning of a long relationship! Nelly and her brother George Washington (“Wash”) Parke Custis would permanently reside with Martha and George after their father passed away in November 1781.

The Washingtons were devoted to their grandchildren. Nelly adored her grandmother and called George the “most affectionate of Fathers.” She later recalled that she “sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits.”

Nelly married Lawrence Lewis on Washington’s final birthday: February 22, 1799. She gave birth to her first child only 17 days before George passed away.

Did you know that there was a new baby at Mount Vernon in the weeks before Washington’s death? In fact, the night before George fell ill, he went to Nelly’s bedroom to see his step-great-grandchild. Once there, he “gave [the baby] the last blessing he ever gave to anyone.”

To the country, Washington’s passing was painful because he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” To Nelly, the loss of her grandfather, followed shortly by the loss of her grandmother, was heartbreaking because they were “affectionate Parents, whose loss can never be repair’d.”

The painting is of the First Family during Washington’s presidency. The children are Wash and Nelly.