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Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852)

Rufus W. Griswold, The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed. (New York, 1856), plate opposite 313. First ed., 1855.


Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis, the third of the four children of John Parke Custis and his wife Eleanor Calvert, was most likely born in Fairfax County, Virginia.[1] Her father was the only surviving adult child of Martha Dandrige Custis Washington’s first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, and her mother was a descendant of Lord Baltimore of Maryland.[2] Nelly was sent to live with her grandparents, Martha and George Washington, because of her mother’s poor health at the time of her birth. She was soon joined by her younger brother George (“Washy”). After their father died in 1781 and their mother subsequently remarried, Nelly and Washy remained at Mount Vernon and were raised by their doting grandparents.[3]

Nelly would come to be regarded as “the most brilliant and beautiful young woman of her day, the pride of her grandmother and the favorite of Washington.”[4] She was tutored at Mount Vernon until 1789, when George Washington became president, and the family followed him first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Nelly “studied spelling and grammar, arithmetic, geography, embroidery, dancing and French” at the best private schools in the cities.[5] She was an eager student, sometimes getting up at a quarter to five in the morning to start her studies.[6] Moreover, she was said to be a talented musician, dancer and artist, with a lifelong love of reading.[7]

Nelly was introduced to society when she turned eighteen years old. She attended elaborate tea parties, horse races, and balls in fashionable Georgetown and Alexandria, and often accompanied the Washingtons to social events.[8] In 1799 she met and married George washington’s favorite nephew Lawrence Lewis (1767-1839), a widower twelve years her senior. The couple lived at Mount Vernon until Martha Washington’s death in 1802 because Nelly believed she would be too lonely apart from her “beloved Grandmama.”[9] The Lewises subsequently moved four miles away to Woodlawn, an impressive mansion in late Georgian style that they built on Dogue Farm, a property that had been a wedding gift from Washington.[10] The couple raised eight children, but only one, their daughter Frances, would survive them.[11]

Nelly became known for her personal style and elegant home, and carried on the tradition of entertainment commenced by her grandmother. She had acquired her hostessing skills while in residence at the presidential mansions in New York and Philadelphia, and when her grandfather retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, she helped her grandmother entertain a constant stream of guests. Later, she regarded herself as the keeper of the legacy of George Washington, and often verified facts and other information about him.[12]

After her husband’s death, Nelly sold Woodlawn and moved to Audley Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she resided until her death in 1852.[13] She is buried with her husband and grandparents at Mount Vernon.[14]

Written by Janet Hallahan.

[1] “Martha (Dandridge Custis) Washington,” in American First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacy, ed. Lewis L. Gould (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 3, 7; Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, s.v. “Lewis, Fielding.”

[2] Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. “Custis, George Washington Parke.”

[3] Frank Grizzard Jr., George Washington: A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 193.

[4]  Appletons’ Cyclopaedia, “Lewis.”

[5] Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: An American Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 171.

[6] Brady, Martha Washington, 202-03.

[7] Ibid., 202; Appleton’s Cyclopaedia, “Lewis.”

[8] Dictionary of Virginia Biography, s.v. “Custis, Eleanor ‘Nelly’ Parke”; American First Ladies, 12-13.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Virginia Historical Society and Garden Club of Virginia Collection, “Woodlawn Plantation” http://vhs3.vahistorical.org/vhsimages/woodlawn.htm (accessed November 19, 2008.)

[11] Grizzard, George Washington, 194-95.

[12] Dictionary of Virginia Biography, “Custis.”

[13] “Audley Farm History,” http://www.audleyfarm.com/history.html (accessed November 19, 2008).

[14] Doug Wead, All The Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families (New York: Atria Books, 2003), 20.


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