Custis Tombs/ Arlington Plantation

John Custis IV tomb
John Custis II and John Custis IV tombs are enclosed in a brick wall that overlooks Old Plantation Creek.  
The footprint of Arlington mansion is close by. 

If You Go...

The Custis Tombs are open to the public year round and are located on Old Plantation Creek and Arlington Rd. (State Road 644) 4 miles south of Cape Charles or 2157 Arlington Chase Rd, Cape Charles, VA 23310.


  • From U.S. 13 in Cape Charles, travel south for 3.6 miles.
  • Turn right on Arlington Road/ Rt. 644.
  • Follow the signs to Custis Tombs as the road winds for 2 miles (Arlington Rd becomes Custis Tomb Rd).
  • Turn right as Custis Tomb Rd becomes Arlington Chase Rd.
  • Park in the marked parking lot for the Custis Tombs, which is a small, grassy gravel lot bordered by old telephone poles. 

The Custis Family


The brief descriptions that follow are from the Encyclopedia Virginia website. For more information about the Custis family, please click on the links with their names. 

John Custis II 

John Custis (ca. 1629–1696)

"John Custis was a member of the governor's Council (1677–1692) and the founder of the Custis family in Virginia. He was raised in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1649 or 1650. Custis became wealthy through land speculation, tobacco planting, and facilitating trade between Virginia and the Netherlands and its colonies. Early in the 1670s he built a mansion in Northampton County and named it Arlington; the house was the namesake of Arlington House, the nineteenth-century home of the Washington and Custis families. Custis supported Governor Sir William Berkeley during Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) and was appointed to the governor's Council in 1677. He retired in 1692 and died in 1696."

John Custis III

John Custis (ca. 1654–1714)

"John Custis was a planter who served as a member of the House of Burgesses from Northampton County and as a member of the governor's Council. He was the second of three men of that name to serve on the Council. Custis was one of the wealthiest men on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and served in a series of local offices, including justice of the peace and county sheriff. As a burgess, he served as the ranking member of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances and presided over the Committee for Elections and Privileges. He died in 1714." 

John Custis IV

John Custis (1678–1749)

"John Custis was a member of the governor's Council and a tobacco planter often referred to as John Custis, of Williamsburg, to distinguish him from his grandfather, father, and other relatives of the same name. He is best known as Martha Dandridge Custis Washington's first father-in-law. The Northampton County native studied the tobacco trade in London in his early years, which helped him acquire a better economic understanding compared with his contemporaries. Custis married Frances Parke, and their relationship became known in Virginia lore for its quarrelsomeness, immortalized on his tombstone. The couple produced the heir Daniel Parke Custis, but after her death he fathered a son, John, with his slave Alice. Custis freed his son and gave him gifts of money, land, and slaves."

Custis Tomb Readerboard
A reader board at the site of Custis Tombs.

"Comes now John Custis II to these shores before 1653. On this site about 1670 he builds a great house and calls it Arlington after a village in Gloucestershire, England the birthplace and early home of his father. The wealth to create Arlington grew from fields in the surrounding 1000 acres. Virginia's finest 17th century mansion rose from planting tobacco in well drained sandy loam and factoring shipments to Europe. 

Many years later, Custis women married George Washington and Robert E. Lee, carrying Arlington's name and the Eastern Shore memory to other Virginia fields. 

This ground- upon excavation- will provide an unique view of social and economic life in 17th and 18th century America."

-Arlington Foundation Inc. 

Custis Tomb Exhibit
Northampton Notable, John Custis IV photos and information can be found in the Northampton County Administration building. 

The exhibit "Northampton Notables: John Custis IV," in the Northampton County Administration building gives this information about John Custis IV: 

John Custis IV was born at his family's ancestral home, "Arlington," on Plantation Creek, in August of 1678. He was the son of John Custis III, a member of the Governor's Council in the British Colony of Virginia, and Margaret Michael, also of Northampton County. He was the grandson of John Custis II, a prominent figure in Northampton County politics and affairs of state during the Colonial period. "Arlington" was the place where Virginia's Governor William Berkeley took refuge during Bacon's rebellion in 1676. 

Cusits IV was a justice of the peace for Northampton County and, for a brief time, represented the County in the House of Burgesses. In 1727, he was appointed to the Governor's Council in the British Colony of Virginia, where he served for twenty-two years. 

John Custis IV died on November 14, 1749. Per his request, he was buried at "Arlington." His instructions to his son, Daniel Parke Custis, (on pain of being cut off with only one shilling), were to inscribe his marble tombstone with this infamous wording: 

Under this marble Stone lyes the Body
Of the Honorable John Custis, Esquire,
Of the City of Williamsburg, Parish of Bruton. 
Formerly of Hungars parish on the Eastern Shoar of
Virginia and County of Northampton the 
Place of His Nativity.
Aged 71 Years and yet lived but Seven Years
Which was the space of time He kept
A Bachelors Home at Arlington
On the Eastern Shoar of Virginia.
This inscription put on this Stone was by
His own positive orders.

The only surviving son of a famously quarrelsome couple, Daniel Parke Custis was the first husband of Martha Dandridge, who later, as a widow, maried General George Washington. The "Arlington" mansion on the Potomac River, closely associated with the Custis and Lee families and now the site of the Arlington National Cemetery, was named for the original "Arlington" in Northampton County by General Washington's step-grandson and adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. 


Arlington Plantation

Arlington Plantation conjectural drawing
A conjectural drawing of Arlington mansion on Old Plantation Creek from the "Archaeology at Arlington" paper by Nicholas Luccketti.  The drawing was composed by Cary Carson. 

Some of the excerpts in quotation marks below were taken from:

Excavations at the Ancestral Custis Plantation

Northampton County, Virginia
by Nicholas M. Luccketti with contributions by
Edward A. Chappell and Beverly A. Straube
Produced by Virginia Company Foundation
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (1999)

Historians say Arlington was the largest home in Virginia in its day.
 The foundations of Arlington are 54 feet north-south  by 43.5 feet east-west. According to the archaeological survey, "Arlington was neither old fashioned nor contemporary; it was ahead of its time, at least in the Chesapeake. Arlington’s double pile plan is more 18th than 17th century, while it’s footprint is almost identical to that of the Governor’s Palace. And if the 1709 description is to be believed, Arlington stood a full three stories." 

The entrance to the house most likely faced the creek as visitors and important businessmen would have come to visit by boat. It had at least three chimneys and an extensive cellar where wine bottles with the initials 'JC' were found. 
"A tumbled brick arch sitting on top of two feet of rubble was uncovered in the cellar entrance. The most remarkable piece was an intact section of brickwork with pebbledash outlining a recessed heart..."

Small quartz pebbles were embedded in the mortar overlaying some of the brick, "the walls were punctuated with pebble-surfaced areas outlining decorative patterns, whitewashed to contrast with the faux jointed red brickwork."  

The grounds had an extensive garden of raised beds and an orchard. John Custis IV was "one of 18th-century Virginia’s foremost horticulturalists" and collected many different kinds of plants. It's speculated he took the contents of his garden with him back to Williamsburg in 1714.

What is most interesting about the archaeology findings is the older sites that were also found along the creek in the same area, such as artifacts pertaining to the native Accawmacke Indians to camps made by scouts from the Virginia Co. of London and finally a successful  working plantation. 

To sum it up: "In addition to the unparalleled historical associations with Custis, Washington, and Lee, the Arlington site contains the archaeological remains representative of the entire evolution of English settlement of Virginia. This begins with the fortified frontier settlement of the first English colony on the Eastern Shore in the early 17th century, moves to the successful first tobacco farm and then great plantation, and finally ends with a 18th-century tenant farm or slave quarter. Beyond that, the Arlington site includes the most extraordinary seventeenth century house known to have been built in Virginia and incorporates perhaps more concentrated history than any other comparable piece of land." 

It's a shame this magnificent piece of architecture no longer stands for us to admire. 

Please see "Archaeology at Arlington" by Nicholas Luccketti for more in depth descriptions about the excavation, artifacts and the conjectural model of the mansion. 

A model of Arlington mansion

A model of how Arlington mansion may have looked. A photo of the model can be found in the display case in the Northampton County Administration building along with other artifacts found at the archaeological site including a photo of the heart shaped incised masonry work. 

Arlington Plantation footprint
All that is left of the magnificent Arlington mansion is this foundation footprint. There are informational signs pointing out some features of the archaeological site. 

The Original Arlington
: GHOTES of Virginia photographs from the archaeological dig. 

"ARCHAEOLOGY AT ARLINGTON: Excavations at the Ancestral Custis Plantation, Northampton County, Virginia" (PDF) Nicholas M. Luccketti (1999).

A MANSION'S HISTORIC FOUNDATION Karen Jolly Davis The Virginian-Pilot August 8, 1998

A Troubled Marriage



When John Custis courted Frances Parke, many ardent and love filled letters passed between them.After their marriage discord began and marital bliss was at an end.Their disputes and quarrels became so strident that the couple was forced to seek redress in the form of Articles of Agreement in Northampton County Court.

NOV 1714

[The lengthy document, five sides of a legal-size sheet of paper,-goes on to list some 12 areas to be corrected. These are abstracted below. In so doing much of the flavor of the many words used is unfortunately lost.]

I) Frances will restore to the said John the money, plate & other
things that she removed out of his house. She promise not to give
anything of value away without the said John’s consent.

2) John promises not to sell any of the plate or damask linen which
will be restored to him, but he will keep it to pass on to his children.

3) It is mutually agreed between both parties that one shall not call
the other any vile names or use any language of oath but behave
themselves to each other as becomes a good husband and wife.
Frances will not interfer with John’s management of his business,
John will not intermeddle with Frances’ domestic affairs.

4) The said John promises to pay all the debts that he has already
contracted now due against the estate of John and Frances and out
of the money or profits he has received from the Estate which is to
descend to their children.

5) John further promises to keep a true & perfect account
of all the profits & disbursements of his whole estate. He
will allow Frances one full moiety after deductions are taken
for running the plantations.

6) Frances agrees that the full moiety shall be used for the
clothing of herself and children, to provide things necessary
for housekeeping, for the children’s education and for the
general benefit of the family.

7) John will allow towards the maintenance of the family
one bushel of wheat and enough Indian com each week. as
much flesh of all kinds and sufficient quantities of cider and

8) John shall allow Frances to keep in the house to do the
work the servants she now has - Jenny, Queen& Pompey
and also Billy Boy, Little Roger and Anthony to tend the
gardens, go on errands or with the coach.

9) Frances is to have liberty to have a white servant if she
desires out of the household allowance. The said servant will
be also subject to the said John.

10) Frances is to have liberty to have a white servant if she
desires out of the household allowance. The said servant
will be also subject to the said John.

11) Since it will be 12 months before an account can be had
from England of the sale of tobacco. John will pay Frances
£50 if there shall be a surplus when his debts are paid.

12) Lastly, Frances agrees that if she exceeds her allowance
and runs John in debt and if she does not keep all of the
promises made in this agreement, then this writing will be
null and void and shall wholly cease. 
- Exploring the Oldest Continuous Court Records

"Ye Olde Kingdom of Accamacke" by Jennings Cropper Wise

The tale of the infamously quarreling Custis couple is best told in the book "Ye Olde Kingsom of Accamacke," by Jenning Cropper Wise. In this telling Mr. Custis comes to his wife, Frances after a long spell of not speaking to each other. He asks her if she would like to take a drive with him in the carriage. She agrees. Then Mr. Custis begins to head into the Chesapeake Bay.
"Where are you going, Mr. Custis?" asked his wife. 
"To hell, Madam," he replied.
"Drive on," said she, "Any place is preferable to Arlington." 

He kept driving deeper into the bay until the horse was swimming. They exchanged a few more quips and then Mr. Custis turned to his wife and said, "If I were to drive to hell and the devil himself came out to meet us, I do not believe, Madame, that you would be frightened."
"Quite true, sir" she replied, "I know you so well that I would not be afraid to go where you would go."  

However,  it seems he got the last word on the epitaph of his tombstone. 


For historic Virginian, a love sour to the grave


Custis Tombs

John Custis IV tomb
Photo Credit : James Shelton32 [CC BY-SA (] 

"The monument marking the grave of John Custis IV is one of Virginia’s most ambitious examples of colonial funerary art. The elaborately carved pyramidal topped marble block is decorated with the Custis family coat of arms, a drapery framed inscription, and a human skull motif. It was executed around 1750 by William Colley of Fenn Church Street, London whose name and address is on the tomb. Also in the cemetery is the limestone slab of John Custis (1630 1696). The tombs are located near the site of Arlington, the Custis family seat. John Custis IV’s great grandson George Washington Parke Custis named his Fairfax County plantation, now Arlington National Cemetery, after his Eastern Shore ancestral home." 

-From the Virginia Department of Historic Resources 

Birding at Custis Tombs


Doves engraved on Custis TombBirding at the Custis Tombs Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources

Birding Eastern Shore's Everything you need to know about birding at Custis Tombs 

Doves engraved on John Custis' tomb


The Custis Family Migration: A StoryMap by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Department of Archaeology