On this day in 1781, George Washington’s stepson passes away. It had been less than three weeks since Washington’s victory over British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown.
What an odd mixture of emotions? Washington had been celebrating America’s miraculous victory after a long, brutal war. Now he was mourning the death of his only stepson.
George Washington never had any children of his own. Historians speculate that an early case of smallpox, apparently followed by tuberculosis, may have left him infertile. Nevertheless, his marriage to Martha brought him two stepchildren: John “Jacky” Parke Custis and Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis.
Jacky and Patsy were the very young heirs to their father’s extensive estate. Sadly, Patsy would die tragically early, leaving Jacky as the sole heir.
Washington was cognizant of the great responsibility that would fall on Jacky’s shoulders when he came of age, and he ensured that his stepson received a good education. At 14 years of age, Washington described Jacky as a “boy of good genius . . . untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners.” However, he also seemed worried about the boy’s work ethic.
He wrote to the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, head of a nearby school for boys, wondering if it “woud be convenient for you to add him to the number of your Pupils”? “[H]e is a promising boy,” Washington wrote Boucher, “the last of his Family—& will possess a very large Fortune—add to this my anxiety to make him fit for more useful purposes, than a horse Racer.”
Jacky was a good-natured boy, but he never seemed to take his studies very seriously.
“He does not much like Books,” Boucher sighed to Washington, “& yet I have been endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou’d think of.”
In the end, Jacky quit college early, marrying the young Eleanor Calvert when he was just 19 years old. Washington was resigned to the situation, but not exactly pleased.
“I could have wish’d he had postpond entering into the engagement till his Studies were finishd,” he wrote his brother-in-law, “not that I have any objection to the Match, as she is a girl of exceeding good Character.”
Nevertheless, the two were married, and they would have seven children during the course of their nearly 8-year marriage. Only four of these children would survive.
Jacky made many financial decisions as an adult that would cause great strain on his family, and he often left Washington disappointed. Nevertheless, the two maintained a good relationship.
“It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father,” Jacky wrote Washington not long after his marriage, “but I can not sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir; Few have experience’d such Care and Attention from real Parents as I have done. He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one.”
For his part, Washington trusted Jacky to help him care for Martha during the Revolution. “[M]y great concern upon this occasion,” he wrote Jacky early in the war, “is the thoughts of leaving your Mother under the uneasiness which I know this affair will throw her into; I therefore hope, expect, & indeed have no doubt, of your using every means in your power to keep up her Spirits . . . .”
Jacky was with Washington at Yorktown during the final weeks of the war. Unfortunately, he contracted camp fever and passed away soon afterwards. His death cast a pall over the final American victory.
Yet another little-known sacrifice that the Father of our Country made during the American fight for liberty.
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: Victory with the Help of France (1948) (Vol. 5)
Frank E. Grizzard Jr., George Washington: A Biographical Companion (2002)
John Parke Custis (George Washington’s Mount Vernon website)
Letter from George Washington to Burwell Bassett (April 20, 1773)
Letter from George Washington to John Parke Custis (June 19, 1775)
Letter from George Washington to Jonathan Boucher (May 30, 1768)
Letter to George Washington from John Parke Custis (June 10, 1776)
Letter to George Washington from Jonathan Boucher (December 18, 1770)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)