March 14, 2022

Intertwined Stories: Dividing Families

Intertwined Stories: Dividing Families

In Intertwined Stories, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon by bringing you extended versions of some of the interviews with the series' contributors.

In Episode 6 of Intertwined, we began to explore what happened to the enslaved community after January 1, 1801, the day that Martha Washington emancipated the people once enslaved by her late husband.

That day transformed the community forever. While it meant freedom for the people George Washington enslaved, it meant continued enslavement for the people owned by the estate of Martha’s first husband. She had no power to free the latter, and her death a year later fractured the community further still.

To help us understand how and why, and what it meant for families, we turned to Dr. Cassandra Good, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University, and a leading scholar on the Washington and Custis families in the early United States.

Jim Ambuske sat in the host’s chair for our conversation with Dr. Good, and was joined by Intertwined’s co-creator Jeanette Patrick, along with Curt Dhal, our lead producer.

We start off with the events of January 1, 1801, a day of joy, and a day of sorrow, before more about what we know happened to these families, and just how research remains to be done.

Intertwined is narrated by Brenda Parker and is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared. Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies for Intertwined are available at


Intertwined: Stories
 "Dividing Families"

Episode Published March 14, 2022

Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske


  • Brenda Parker, Narrator, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Jim Ambuske, Digital History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Jeanette Patrick, Studio Producer, R2 Studios, George Mason University
  • Dr. Cassandra Good, Assistant Professor of History, Marymount University

BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

JIM AMBUSKE: Hello, and welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jim Ambuske

In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.

In Episode 6 of Intertwined, we began to explore what happened to the enslaved community after January 1, 1801, the day that Martha Washington emancipated the people once enslaved by her late husband.

That day transformed the community forever. While it meant freedom for the people George Washington had enslaved, it meant continued enslavement for the people owned by the estate of Martha’s first husband. She had no power to free the latter, and her death a year later fractured the community further still.

To help us understand how and why, and what it meant for families, we turned to Dr. Cassandra Good, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University, and a leading scholar on the Washington and Custis families in the early United States.

I sat in the host’s chair for our conversation with Dr. Good, and I was joined by Intertwined’s co-creator Jeanette Patrick, along with Curt Dhal, our lead producer.

We start off with January 1, 1801, both a day of joy, and a day of sorrow, before learning more about what happened to these families, and just how research remains to be done.

As it so happens, Dr. Good was the first person we interviewed for Intertwined, and if you listen carefully, you might just hear what helped inspire the name of our show.

AMBUSKE: So who is then freed on January the 1st, 1801?

CASSANDRA GOOD: The only people that are freed on January 1, 1801 are the enslaved people that George Washington had owned, and that is actually fewer than half of the people on the Mount Vernon Estate, more than half the people were owned by the Custis Estate. There had also, before George's death, been people that were hired out from other estates that get returned, so really the only people being freed are the people owned by the Washington Estate.

It's hard to do an exact count of how many families get separated because of the Washington slaves being freed and being intermarried with the Custis enslaved people. My rough count on this is about 18 families that get separated.

AMBUSKE: That suggests there are a number of consequences for this emancipation. Tell us a little bit about what happens to the enslaved community after Martha expires.

GOOD:  Once Martha dies, everything is going to change, because the Custis' are not gonna be living at Mount Vernon anymore. The estate is going to Bushrod Washington. There is some suggestion in one source that George Washington Parke Custis' may have tried to buy Mount Vernon. Even then, we would have seen a huge division of the Custis enslaved people, so there's 159 people at Mount Vernon that are divided mostly evenly among the four siblings and we have handwritten lists that survive of which people go to which of the four Custis grandchildren.

AMBUSKE: Let me follow up on that source question for a second, this will apply, I think, for the rest of the conversation as well, but you have spent a lot of time tracking down the names of people, or at least trying to figure out how many people were where. What kinds of sources are you relying on to reconstruct this history?

GOOD: I'm lucky in reconstructing the history that at Mount Vernon, there's a number of people, especially Jessie MacLeod, who did the slavery exhibit, who have done a lot of research, have sort of compiled lists from things like George Washington's own list of enslaved people. The key one from 1799 gives us a lot of information, and Jessie and I have matched up people from that 1799 list to the people who are divided among the Custis siblings. You can then find mentions of some of these people if they later get freed in what are called the Free Negro registers. If you were a manumitted person of color, you had to register with the municipality, so there are separate books for Fairfax County and for Alexandria and for DC. And so some of the people turn up there, there are tax records, there are estate inventories from when people die, that when it lists all of their property, it usually list the names of the enslaved people, there are runaway ads you can find in newspapers, there are sometimes, although with the Custis grandchildren, unfortunately, very few reports from overseers, if they were anything like the record keepers, George Washington was,those records are gone. So we have so much detail from George Washington on what tasks people are doing and even how many people are there and what their names are. For none of the grandchildren do we have anything like that. You know I've been going into some of these tax records that sometimes list names, sometimes you just get the numbers in the census, you get a number, you don't actually get an itemized... And this sounds terrible saying itemized, but they don't put names. In 1860 census, they start putting you know female and the age, but actually getting the names is incredibly challenging.

CURT DAHL: Can I ask one question? And that you talked about the dividing of families, so if onof the Custis' slaves married one of the Washington slaves, then who would the children belong to, would they belong to the Custis or would they belong to the Washington...And could you just explain that a little bit? 'cause when we talk about the dividing of families... How did that work?

GOOD: So this is a good question. When we're talking about division of families, the children are always going to have the status of the mother, and this had been established in Virginia law for a while at the point that they're manumitted. So most of the cases of inter-marriages are man-owned by the Washington Estate, marrying women owned by the Custis estate, and we still don't know exactly what happens to the people that are freed by the Washington Estate. There are signs that they're living nearby, could they have been living in the quarters at Woodland if their wife and child and children end up there, do they somehow just go and live in the quarters and work for hire? Do they get work on a nearby farm? We know that William Lee is staying and living at Mount Vernon, and some of the other free people seem to be there too, along with the new enslaved people at Bushrod Washington has brought in.

GOOD: But it's incredibly complicated when you have families split this way, and then you also have when the Custis' divide up people among those 160 people... Now, I should know they did not have to do this, they could have avoided this. They split up eight families and over 20 people. So for instance, William Lee's brother Frank was owned by George Washington, Frank Lee is freed. His wife Lucy, and their younger children, Michael and Patty go to... They're all dower slaves, so they go to the Lewis' at Woodland. The older son, who at this time 16 is separated from his parents and sent to Arlington house with George Washington Parke Custis. So this is the kind of thing that the Custis' are doing.

AMBUSKE: Who was actually doing the inheriting here, who's inheriting the enslaved people who were owned by the Custis Estate?

GOOD: So there's four grandchildren and they're all children of Jackie Custis with his wife Eleanor Calvert Custis, later Stewart. They had seven children, four survived, and they are Elizabeth, Martha, Eleanor and George Washington, all then part Custis. So they each are getting a share, I should also know that the girls got a share of at least from the lists we have, we have one of these list from Martha Custis Peter, when she marries in the 1790s. She gets 60 enslaved people as her dowry from the Custis Estates, none of them seem to be coming from Mount Vernon. From the list we have, a lot of them are coming, I assume from the other Custis Estates, and then the Peters sell a bunch of them almost immediately, including selling away young children from their parents.

GOOD: I'm not sure where they end up getting sold. The lists we have that Thomas Peter capped, he just marks who they've sold. At this point, it's not... I don't think it's terribly likely they're going that far. You know at this period, they might have been going to somebody going farther Western Virginia, going to Kentucky, Tennessee. Less likely that they're going to grow cotton yet.

AMBUSKE: What's the relationship if any of the grandchildren to the freed people from Washington's Estate?

GOOD: It's hard to know exactly what the relationship is because there's almost no record of the people who are freed from George Washington's estate, they show up in those Free Negro registers that I mentioned. Occasionally, one of the few cases we know about as a man named Samuel or Sambo Anderson, and we know a little bit about him after he's freed because he shows up in a newspaper article decades later. But his wife and kids were dower slaves, and his son Ralph is inherited by the Peters, and while the Peters have an estate in Georgetown, most of the enslaved people are going to the Peter farms out you know what is now Poolsville in Montgomery County, Maryland, which then was pretty far. Even now, that's probably about an hour drive. And Ralph at a certain point escapes and there's an ad in the newspaper and it says, you know, we think he's probably gone to his father, and eventually the Peters Manu met Ralph, which I assume, although we don't have firm record of this, they haven't seen Ralph in years, probably at the point that they Manu met him, they've probably just decided, You know what, this is not worth it.

AMBUSKE:  What explains then the lack of documentary evidence about the freed people?

GOOD: You know, it's kind of baffling because I've assumed that most people in the area, certainly in the African-American community knew who these people were, knew that they had been owned by George Washington, that could have given them you know some social capital, even fame. I've combed through newspapers from this period, and you do see people who say, I was owned by George Washington. But there's no record any of those people actually were, 'cause we do know pretty well who the people were that were enslaved by Washington. And you know I have not found signs of them, most of them in the newspapers you know, they occasionally show up in these Free Negro Registers. We know some of them end up in the Gum Springs Community, which is near Mount Vernon.

GOOD: I think most of them probably don't go too far because of how many family connections they have in the area. We don't even know their last names though, so it's hard to track them down. As careful as George Washington was in recording names, he just didn't record the last names. And I think people have assumed... Oh, well. They didn't have last names. No, they usually did, from everything I can tell, because when they show up in those Free Negro Registers, they have last names and they're not taking last name Washington, none of them are. And that accords with what other people manumitted in this period, do, none of them have the last name of their enslaver, and that suggests to me they already had last names or they chose unanimously that they didn't want the last name of their enslaver, that would change by the Civil War era. You do see more people with the last name of the enslaver. But yes, without the last name with, you know they were supposed to register as free people, not all of them do, and so we don't have all of them, they are... If any of them moved to other places, there's just no way to find them.

JEANETTE PATRICK: Could you talk about the geographic location of the four grandchildren, and if you have anything you want to like, add about those properties. Especially about Woodland, since I know that you've done a ton of research on that one.

GOOD: So all of the grandchildren stayed pretty close by... Tutor place is the northern most of their Estates, and this is a house on top of a hill above the Port of Georgetown, which was here before DC became the capital, and you know was a port for the trading of enslaved people and other goods grown by enslaved people.

GOOD: So there's Tutor Place, supposedly they could you know wave a flag outside their window and it could be seen way across the river on the hilltop in Arlington... What is now Arlington, at Arlington house, the house that George Washington Parke Custis, built. And that is now the Arlington Custis Lee mansion at Arlington Cemetery. Then Eliza, the eldest daughter, is a little bit trickier because she moves around. She does have a farm very briefly at what is now the Episcopal school in Alexandria, Virginia. The building, the main building there, Hoxton house, she lived in for a few years, but we have almost no record of enslaved people tied to her, and we don't really know, you know, she would have had about 100 enslaved people. She and Thomas Law did free some people, but I have no idea what happens to the other ones. There's a couple that show up that she has to get special permission to bring into Maryland with her, because of Maryland laws about importation, you were not allowed to import slaves into Maryland at this point, and so there's an act of the legislature to allow her to bring some enslaved people with her when she goes to live with her daughter in Baltimore at what is now Druid Hill Park.

GOOD: She lives in Georgetown for awhile. She lives when she's first married in a couple of different houses near Capitol Hill. And then finally, there's Nelly and her husband Lawrence, who are given a chunk of George Washington's farms near Mount Vernon. That, they turn into the state of Woodland, so you could see Mount Vernon from there, which actually was pretty painful for Nelly, she missed Mount Vernon and her grandparents, and I think was wistful being able to see it. So those enslaved people would have had the shortest sort of journey away. And they also would have had enslaved people that Lawrence had inherited from her mother, Betty Lewis. Although, Nelly brought a lot more enslaved people to the marriage then he did, and so they had a pretty decent size estate, they eventually leave Woodland and moved to a place called Audley after Lawrence's death. And that's where Nelly dies in the 1850s. And we do have a list of enslaved people there from when her son Lorenzo dies. We you know have some information, but if Lawrence Lewis kept slave less, they don't survive.

JEANETTE PATRICK: What decisions about slavery do the grandchildren each make?

GOOD: So that's part of what's interesting about Woodland and Nelly, is that two of her daughters end up marrying planters in Louisiana, and so there are enslaved people who were born at Mount Vernon that end up in Louisiana, and it's just sort of wrenching to think about that because these people were likely not literate 'cause they weren't allowed to learn to read and write so they can't communicate with their relatives at home. You occasionally see mentions of pass along a message to so and so from so and so in letters between Nelly and especially her elder daughter Parke.

GOOD: And then there's also a point at which Lawrence himself sells a bunch of people to Louisiana. Again, so this is part of that cotton period there. So the only person that the Lewis' ever free that I can find record of is there is one person that Nelly frees in her will when she dies in 1852, that's it. From the Peters, the only person I've ever found that they freed with Sambo Anderson's son Ralph. Eliza and her husband Thomas do free more people, mostly people who are related to William Costin, who's sort of a complicated figure. His mother and his mother's other children and then probably unclear who these other family members of His are that are being freed, but there's a group of people that Thomas and Eliza Law end up freeing between 1802 and 1807. The largest number of people that gets freed is from George Washington Parke Custis. In his lifetime he frees about 25 people, mostly women and children.

GOOD: How many of those are his children? Is to be determined. Some of them, I think almost certainly were. And then in his will, he frees the rest of his people. He does talk even says in a newspaper article in the 1820s, I have a plan to free my enslaved people in 15 years. But he doesn't do it. His anti-slavery views, such as they were, really are influenced by his wife, Molly, who was a deeply devout evangelical Christian, who believes enslaving people is wrong, who's very involved in the American colonization movement, this idea of sending free people, freed African-Americans to Africa, which is racist in its own way, but that was the solution that she and her husband mostly embraced.

DAHL: You talked about that it was fairly common that a slave owner would father children with his enslaved people, how common was that.

GOOD: We know that it was pretty common for white enslavers and even white overseers, other white hired servants on estates to father children with enslaved women. And we have to understand that when a woman is enslaved, and especially there's a white enslaver involved. There's not a lot of choice here. This is a sexual exploitative relationship. So we have to put that out there. You know Molly never mentions this, but she had to have been aware, she had three babies that died while George Washington Parke Custis seems to have been fathering children with enslaved women, including one who was the clearest cut case, Mariah Syphax who, as an old woman told a newspaper reporter, here's the quote, “I am General Custis' daughter, he told me so face-to-face.” And he leaves her 17 acres a land. And this is a fairly clear-cut case, and he also frees her. You know, in their newspaper articles after George Washington Parke Custis dies one that says he has 15 children with enslaved people, one that says he has 40. So it appears to have been widely known that he had children with enslaved women. Arlington house, George Washington Parke Custis' estate now includes Mariah Syphax and mentions of other possible children of George Washington's with enslaved women.

AMBUSKE: Can you tell us a little bit about William Costin, who you mentioned it a moment ago, is a very complicated figure?

 GOOD: Yeah, William Costin is somebody that I don't think we're anywhere near having all the answers on yet. He was born in 1780 or 1781, and the family story is that his mother was a woman named Ann Dandridge, and that Ann Dandridge was a child of Mr. Dandridge and an enslaved woman. So this was supposedly his mother, the record that we have, we actually have a court document that shows that his mother was Ann or Nancy Holmes. It's possible that she'd had another last name earlier, some of her children seemed to have a last name Costin, and then it switches to Holmes. There's no sign that she was Ann Dandridge, there is no sign that she was related to Martha Washington or was ever at Mount Vernon. When she shows up being freed by Thomas Law, she's sort of coming out of nowhere, and that suggests she was on one of the Custis estates. She could have been in Abingdon. The other part of the family story is that William Costin was a child of Ann Dandridge and one of the first gentleman of Virginia, so a white man from an important family.

GOOD: That has become a story that the father was Jackie Custis. That is possible if his mother, whether she was Ann Dandridge or Ann Costin or Ann Holmes, was owned by the Custis Estate, that's absolutely possible. We don't know yet. And we may not be able to answer that question. Well, we do know is a William Costin, first of all, is freed as his wife, Delphy Judge, the famous Ona Judge's sister, and their children. We know that he becomes a prominent figure in Washington. He amasses property, he owns a house, he works for the bank, he is well-known and respected in Washington, and the whole city comes out for his funeral when he dies. John Quincy Adams holds him up as an example of, Why would you block people of color from voting, look at how much we respect this guy. So he's a respected figure, he also stays in touch with the Custis grandchildren, he runs errands for them, including with the bank and even lends Eliza money at one point. So, you know, that relationship with them suggests that it's possible that he was their half-sibling, and there's also the fact that he gives all of his children the Parke middle name, which is a Custis family tradition. And it is unclear why else he would have done that, and there's also the fact that there's an object, a porcelain object that we know was passed down through their family that have been owned by George Washington. So that's basically the evidence as we have it. We don't really know though, who this guy is, you know, what his status really was obviously, he's a free person as an adult. There was somebody who looks like he may be him that is freed by Thomas Law in 1802, so like right after he would have been inherited... Where is he coming from? Not clear. So still a lot of mystery there, but this was clearly an important and highly respected mixed race figure in early Washington, DC.

GOOD: In terms of the rest of the family, right? What we're saying is that Martha Washington has living black descendants, even now, I have met some of them. And that's been a real honor to do. And it's very exciting because this is new information, at least to the broader public, these people have known in their families, this is not a secret to them. Some of them don't feel comfortable talking about it now, and I think that's totally fair, given the atmosphere around discussions of race and the founders in this country right now, but I do think it's important for us to understand not just enslaved people that the Custis' had children with, 'cause there's also evidence that Martha Peters' son had children with an enslaved woman, there's pretty concrete evidence on that one. We have to understand them as enslavers in the first place, that their lives were completely intertwined, whether genetically or otherwise with slavery, and that we can't understand them fully as people without that, and I think it's the scholarship in the last 20 years that has just made it crystal clear that we can't tell the stories of white enslavers without understanding the enslaver part, we cannot pretend that they're just living their lives separately from enslaved people.

AMBUSKE: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.

I’m Jim Ambuske, your host and producer for this episode.

Jeanette Patrick and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.

Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.

Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.

And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at

Thanks for listening.


Cassandra GoodProfile Photo

Cassandra Good


Cassandra Good is an award-winning historian, writer, and teacher. She serves as Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University and consults for historic sites and museums. Good's first book, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. She has been researching and writing about George Washington's step-grandchildren, the Custises, and the people they enslaved for nearly a decade. Her book First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America, is forthcoming in 2023.