William “Will” Costin was found dead in his own bed on the morning of May 31, 1842. Washington City’s leading newspaper, the Daily National Intelligencer, reported the passing of this “free colored man, aged 62 years,” then praised Costin’s years of service to the Bank of Washington, the capital’s largest. Costin’s job sounds modest today—he was “Porter to the bank”—but the Intelligencer stressed that he held “the unlimited confidence” of the bank’s officers. In his work, the newspaper continued, “millions of money were allowed to pass through [Costin’s] hands,” yet “in no one instance . . . was there discovered the slightest defalcation.” In gratitude, the bank directors approved a final payment of fifty dollars to his family.
The newspaper added that Costin’s “colored skin covered a benevolent heart,” having raised not only his own children but also four orphans. With Dickensian sentimentality, the Intelligencer concluded that “The tears of the orphan will moisten his grave, and his memory will be dear to all those (a numerous class) who have experienced his kindness.” Forty miles away, the Baltimore Sun noted that Costin’s funeral was attended by “nearly two hundred hacks [carriages] and other vehicles in line, besides a great many people on horseback.” That report urged that Costin’s “excellent example be followed, and his many virtues imitated by the whole colored population of this country.”
Even Congress heard about Costin’s virtues. Former president John Quincy Adams, then serving in the House of Representatives, pointed to the bank porter as a reason for opposing legislation to deny the vote to Blacks in Washington City. Costin, Adams thundered,
was as much respected as any man in the District; and the large concourse of citizens that attended his remains to the grave—white as well as black—was an evidence of the manner in which he was estimated by the citizens of Washington. Now, why should such a man as that be excluded from the elective franchise, when you admit the vilest individuals of the white race to exercise it?
These tributes omitted Costin’s many efforts to advance other Blacks. He helped secure the freedom of nearly twenty enslaved people, most of them his own relatives. In 1821, Costin courageously challenged a law that required free Blacks in Washington City to register annually; his lawsuit won some relief for free Blacks. When his Methodist church relegated Black parishioners to the balcony, he co-founded a new congregation that spawned the still-thriving Metropolitan AME Church of Washington. Costin ran or supported charitable organizations to benefit colored citizens, including three schools. Few African Americans of his generation could point to such extensive accomplishments.
The 1842 tributes to Costin also failed to mention that he claimed a blood relationship to Martha Washington, the nation’s first First Lady. That claim, largely neglected since it emerged in an obscure public document in 1871, was probably true.
Who Was Will Costin’s Mother?
The 1871 publication, ostensibly about public education in the District of Columbia, reported that Costin’s descendants stated that his mother was Ann Dandridge, half-sister to and childhood playmate of Martha Dandridge (later Martha Washington). The family asserted that Ann and Martha shared the same father, John Dandridge, so Will Costin was Martha’s nephew. Ann’s mother, the family continued, was an enslaved woman of African and Cherokee descent. Pointing to that supposed Indian heritage, the family asserted that Will was born free in 1780. At the age of twenty, according to the family, Will married an enslaved Mount Vernon woman, Philadelphia Judge (known as Delphy), who was inherited in 1802 by Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law. After Delphy was freed “on kind and easy terms,” the family concluded, the Costins’ children were born free.
Elements of this family account cannot be proved, or are wrong. For example, under Virginia law, the child of an Indian mother was not born into slavery, unless the mother also had African forebears. If Ann Dandridge’s mother had mixed ancestry, she might not have been deemed an Indian mother. Nor were the children of Will and Delphy Costin born free. The inconsistencies are not surprising. The lives of the enslaved, and of mixed-race relatives of prominent families, were not well-documented. Nevertheless, the connections among Will Costin, Mount Vernon, and Martha Washington’s grandchildren lend weight to the Costin family’s account that they were related to the Dandridges.
The Burned-Record County
Many Virginia slaveholders fathered mixed-race children with enslaved women. Those offspring were born into slavery and thus increased the owners’ wealth. Thanks to studies by Annette Gordon-Reed, formal tours at Monticello now announce that Thomas Jefferson had four mixed-race children with the enslaved Sally Hemings. Martha Washington’s first husband had a mixed-race half-brother. In the nineteenth century, mixed-race Virginians claimed descent from Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
No records survive of Ann Dandridge, in part because the Dandridge family’s home was in New Kent County, a “burned-record county” east of Richmond. The term, familiar to Virginia historians, reflects Union Army soldiers’ tendency to burn Southern courthouses during the Civil War. New Kent County stands out in this community of archival destruction. Its courthouse was first incinerated nearly eight decades before the Civil War, then again in 1865.
Consequently, no public records or family records survive of the persons enslaved by John Dandridge, Martha Washington’s father. The notion that Ann’s enslaved mother was half-Cherokee is equally impervious to research, though it invites skepticism. The Cherokee lived in Virginia’s southwestern tip, far from New Kent County. More plausible is another recounting of the Costin family tale that described Ann Dandridge’s mother as “an Indian squaw of the Pamunkey tribe,” since Pamunkey lands were closer to the Dandridge home. That version, however, is equally unsupported.
Some facts focus the tale of Ann Dandridge. Martha was born in 1731. For a mixed-race half-sister to be her “playmate,” Ann must have been born by at least 1736; otherwise, the age gap between the girls would have been too great. A woman born in 1736 would have been forty-four when she gave birth to Will in 1780, a late age for a birth mother, but not impossible.
But the woman who likely was Will Costin’s mother had at least six children after Will was born; the last in 1801. By 1801, the hypothetical Ann Dandridge would have been well past sixty. That would take credulity into the basement and beat it with a rubber hose. Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian, plausibly speculates that the Costin family tale omits a generation: that Ann Dandridge gave birth to a daughter, and her daughter gave birth to Will Costin and his many siblings.
This “Thompson correction” raises the question of the relationship among Martha, her hypothetical half-sister, and the half-sister’s daughter (Martha’s niece). If John Dandridge enslaved his daughter Ann, did he convey Ann to Martha? Did Martha then bring half-sister Ann and Ann’s offspring into her marriages with Daniel Parke Custis and then with George Washington? Were Ann and her daughter enslaved or free? Mount Vernon’s records describe no enslaved person by Ann’s name of the age that Ann had to be.
Some historians have supposed that Martha would not have kept her half-sister in bondage, so that Ann and her descendants lived in a sort of half-free limbo, not governed by the overseer’s lash but without resources to strike out on their own. This supposition is not consistent with an island of hard fact that looms in this sea of uncertainty: the formal manumission (freeing) in 1802 of Will Costin and the woman (Nancy Holmes) who likely was his mother. That manumission also contradicts the family tale that Will was born free.
Manumissions by Thomas and Eliza Law
In his will, George Washington freed the persons he enslaved, but he did not control the fate of the majority of Mount Vernon’s enslaved, who derived from Martha’s first husband (Daniel Parke Custis) and legally remained part of the Custis estate through Martha’s life. As a widow exercising her dower rights, Martha possessed those slaves but did not “own” them—what the law called a “life estate” in that human property. Martha’s life estate imposed a duty of preserving the estate’s value for the benefit of Daniel Custis’s heirs. When Martha’s last surviving child, Jack, died in 1781 at age twenty-seven, Jack’s four children became the Custis heirs. When Martha died twenty years later, the four grandchildren divided 160 Custis enslaved persons among them.
Will Costin and his relatives were assigned to the eldest granddaughter, Eliza, who had a reputation for being both smart and difficult. Even her portrait was intimidating. Eliza’s English husband, Thomas Law, was easily the most interesting of the Custis in-laws. The youngest son of a leading family, Law’s father and two brothers were Anglican bishops; another brother served in Parliament; a fourth became Lord Chief Justice of England. Thomas joined the East India Company to make his fortune in India, where he fathered three sons with an Indian woman he did not marry. After bringing his sons home, Law moved to America with two of the boys. In 1796, he married Eliza Custis, though he was twice her age, then rode the ups and downs of land development in Washington City.
The Laws separated after only eight years together, and divorced in 1810. Eliza’s aunt summarized the split: “She had a disposition completely opposite to his, and she wasn’t sensible enough to put up with his peculiarities. The result is that they are both at fault, which is usually the case.”
Whatever their disagreements, Mr. and Mrs. Law evidently agreed that the Costin family should be free. As husband, Law controlled Eliza’s property, including the enslaved people inherited from the Custis estate. In late July 1802, a few months after acquiring Will Costin, Thomas Law signed manumission papers for “Negro Will,” then twenty-two years old, and for three others in their early forties: “Negro Nancy Holmes,” “Negro Paul,” and “Negro Jenny.” The records reflect no payments, though Law attested that they were “capable by labor” of supporting themselves. Their simultaneous emancipation suggests that Nancy Holmes and Costin were mother and son; indeed, the name “Nancy” derives from Ann, a link back to Ann Dandridge. Nancy Holmes’ age in 1802 meant that she was born around 1760, several years after John Dandridge died, eliminating the possibility that Will’s mother was herself half-sister to Martha Washington and confirming the Thompson correction.
Those four emancipations in 1802 were only the beginning. Five years later, Thomas Law registered manumissions of eight more people named Costin: George (twenty-three years old); Margaret (nineteen); Louisa (seventeen); Caroline (fifteen); Jemima (twelve); Louisa (two); Ann (four months); and Delphy (twenty-eight). Law simultaneously emancipated two minor children named Holmes. Boilerplate legal statements cloak whether any amounts were paid for those ten manumissions.
Thus, by 1807, Thomas and Eliza Law had emancipated fourteen enslaved people, roughly one-third of the slaves Eliza inherited from the Custis estate. Delphy Costin was Will Costin’s wife and mother to the infants Louisa and Ann. Paul and Nancy Holmes, who had been freed in 1802, likely were parents of May and Eleanor Holmes, while Nancy likely also was mother to the Costins: Will, George, and the four teenaged girls.
Unanswered questions swirl around these manumissions. Thomas Law had the power to emancipate the Costins and Holmeses, but was he the moving force in doing so? As the father of mixed-race children, he likely empathized with mixed-race people who were related to his wife yet were trapped in chattel slavery. He showed devotion to his own mixed-race sons, educating one at Harvard, one at Yale, and bringing them into his business in Washington City.
But Eliza Law grew up near Mount Vernon and likely knew the various Costins, especially the middle-aged Nancy and Paul Holmes. In 1808, Eliza urged Thomas’s son to help Will Costin recover funds he had lost, and noted that she had borrowed money from Will. Plainly she and Will shared a significant tie. When the first four manumissions occurred in 1802, Eliza and Thomas Law still lived together. Did she press for those emancipations? By 1807, Eliza had relinquished claims on the marital property, so Thomas may have had less need or inclination to consult with her on the later manumissions.
A further question is whether the other Custis grandchildren played any role. After the death of Jack Custis, Eliza and a sister lived near Mount Vernon with their mother, while Martha and George Washington raised Jack’s two younger children—Eleanor (“Nelly”) Custis Lewis and George Washington Parke (“Wash”) Custis—at Mount Vernon. All four, therefore, were exposed to the Costin-Holmes clan. Indeed, all four Custis grandchildren maintained connections with Will Costin through life.
What About Will Costin’s Father?
In this tale of echoing silences, another unknown is the identity of Will’s father (or of the man who supplied his surname). The 1871 report recounted the family tale that the father was a white man from “a prominent family.” An alternative version of the family story, unearthed years later, named Martha Washington’s son, Jack Custis, as Will’s father. That allegation is somewhat credible.
As a boy, Jack Custis disdained learning, an attitude that endlessly frustrated his stepfather Washington. Custis’ tutor described Jack as “exceedingly indolent [and] surprisingly voluptuous. One would suppose nature had intended him for some Asiatic prince.” Custis’s passion for the sister of a schoolmate led him into an early marriage. In 1779, when Will Costin was conceived, Jack Custis was married and living near Mount Vernon. With General Washington away fighting the British, Jack certainly visited his mother regularly; when she accompanied her husband at army encampments, Jack had free run of the property. A sensualist bred to privilege, with ready access to Mount Vernon, Custis could have been Will’s father.
Were Jack Custis the father, that could account for the special privileges that the Costin clan enjoyed years later; after all, they were the largest group of Custis slaves to be freed. As demonstrated by Gordon-Reed’s analysis of the Hemings/Jefferson connection, the unexplained emancipation of a group of enslaved people who were related to each other may reflect a blood connection between enslaver and enslaved.
Inconsistencies, however, persist. If the original family tale were true that Will’s mother was Martha’s half-sister, then Jack Custis coupled with his aunt. Although such episodes were not unknown, in 1779 Virginia it would have been deemed, at a minimum, ungenteel. Under the Thompson correction, which describes Will’s mother as the daughter of Martha’s half-sister, then Jack coupled with his cousin, an event common enough among Virginia’s whites, though the enslaved tended to observe African taboos against such relations.
Supposing Jack to be Will’s father threatens to splash onto Washington’s reputation. If Martha and her grandchildren knew of this connection, then the master of Mount Vernon surely did, also. Under Virginia law, however, Washington could free Will Costin only by purchasing the boy from the Custis estate and then emancipating him. Such an action would have drawn attention to Costin and his possible connection to the Dandridges (and Jack Custis), attention that Martha might not have wished in her lifetime. There might have been an understanding among Washington, Martha, and the grandchildren that Costin would be freed shortly after Martha’s death, which is what happened. All, alas, is conjecture.
As is the search for the source of the surname “Costin,” which is common in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where the first Custis in the New World established Arlington Plantation in 1629. In the early nineteenth century, Arlington’s farm manager was named William Costin, connecting the name to the Custis lands. Someone named Costin, in the service of the Custises, could have fathered a slave who then formed a slave marriage with Ann Dandridge’s daughter, becoming father to Will (relieving Jack Custis of that historical credit) and his five siblings. Alternatively, some enslaved people adopted the surname of a steward or farm manager where they lived. A male enslaved by the Custis estate might have done so and then joined with Ann Dandridge’s daughter.
Surviving correspondence cements the connection resembling intimacy between Will Costin and the Custis grandchildren. In the 1808 letter mentioned above, Eliza Law referred to Will’s “faithful attachment to me” and sought financial help for him.
Will was equally close to Nelly Custis Lewis. When Nelly’s husband wrote in 1813 to request Will’s services as a hack driver, Nelly added a postscript asking Will to drive her to Philadelphia. She invited Will’s mother to join them on the journey, offering to “pay her in pork if she likes it.” An 1816 letter from Nelly to Costin begins, “My friend Billy,” and asks him to take an ailing friend to Baltimore. She made the request, she explained, “because I know you will be a nurse and friend to him.” She signed with hopes that Will’s family was well, adding, “I will ever be your friend” and that she had just paid $10 to her sister-in-law (wife to Wash Custis) for Will. A third, undated letter from Nelly asked Will to fetch items from her sister. These attestations of friendship, financial transactions, and the invitation for Will’s mother to join a multi-day journey to Philadelphia, reflect both affection and reciprocal confidence.
An 1819 letter to Costin from George Calvert, uncle to the Custis grandchildren, sought help for Wash Custis’s wife on a banking matter. Addressed to “Porter at Bank of Washington,” the letter requested that Will ask certain gentlemen to satisfy “Mrs. Custis’ note” at the bank. If they failed to do so, Calvert suggested that Will renew Mrs. Custis’s note for another sixty days. The message shows the family’s reliance on Will’s competence, and that his bank duties included financial matters.
A final consideration supports a blood relationship between Costin and the Dandridge/Custis family. His career involved handling large sums of money, working with paper records, and mixing with distinguished and prominent people. Will plainly had the skill and sophistication to perform those tasks, so he plainly received more education, greater opportunities, and more favorable treatment than other enslaved people at Mount Vernon.
The Career of Will Costin
Costin began his work life in Washington as a hack driver, one of the few occupations open to free Blacks in the early days of Washington City. He was nearly forty when he secured his position at the Bank of Washington, possibly with help from Thomas Law, a founding stockholder of that bank. Costin already had built a home for his family on A Street, in the shadow of the Capitol Building. His deposit accounts at the Bank of Washington reflect that he was a diligent saver and sometimes engaged in larger transactions that involved trading in building lots and houses (another activity of Thomas Law’s). Such holdings would distinguish Costin within the community of free Blacks.
Costin supported his fellow African American citizens in many ways. In addition to securing the 1807 manumission of his siblings, wife, and children, in 1820 he purchased an enslaved woman named Leanthe Brannan and emancipated her. Seven years later. Costin emancipated a woman named Oney, a “bright mulatto who is about thirty-five years old.” In that same year, Costin also manumitted “a mulatto woman named Eliza Washington, aged about thirty, and her son Montgomery, aged about four years.” Several years later he again filed manumission papers for Montgomery Parke, noting that the boy’s mother had died. The names involved—Washington and Parke—hearken back to Mount Vernon. Added to the fourteen previous manumissions of his family members, Costin thus had a hand in gaining freedom for at least eighteen enslaved people.
An advocate of education, Costin sent his children to school. Of his five daughters, three became teachers. When she was only nineteen, Louisa Parke Costin began a school in her father’s home on A Street. After Louisa died young, her sister Martha took up the effort and continued the school for another six years. A third daughter, Catherine, taught at Union Seminary School, and served as head of the school’s “female department.” Will led an 1818 effort to reopen a school for free Black citizens, then served as the school’s board president.
Unhappy that his Methodist church imposed racial segregation, Costin led the establishment of Israel Bethel AME Church. He served as the first vice president of the Columbian Harmony Society, which formed in 1825 to create the first cemetery for Blacks in Washington City. According to Costin’s bank records, he acted as agent for the Colored Female Benevolent Society for Mutual Relief, which evolved into the Columbia Female Benevolent Society. He also assisted with the Colored Female Roman Catholic Benevolent Society.
Costin met partial success in his 1821 challenge to legislation requiring free Blacks in Washington City to post a bond and submit to annual registration. That he brought the lawsuit at all reflects bravery. No slaveholding community embraced civil rights pioneers in the 1820s. Nevertheless, Judge William Cranch (nephew of Abigail Adams) ruled that the statute could not apply to free Blacks (like Costin) who resided in Washington City before the statute was enacted, which relieved them of a considerable burden. But Cranch also allowed the provision to apply free Blacks arriving after its adoption.
This litany of Costin’s career explains the overflowing attendance by both whites and Blacks at his funeral. Costin’s unique straddling of the racial divide also was visible during one of the national capital’s worst episodes, a race riot in August 1835. Across two violent days, gangs of whites burned every school for Blacks except the one conducted in Costin’s house. The mob respected Costin’s position and his many connections with prominent whites. Yet after the disturbance ended, the former Mount Vernon slave insisted on testifying at trial on behalf of the Black youth accused of triggering the riot. Commanding the respect of whites while standing up for an accused Black man was no easy accomplishment in Washington City in 1835. Perhaps no Black man but Will Costin could have done it.
I am grateful for comments on a draft of this article from Gregory May, Mary V. Thompson, and Rosemarie Zagarri.
David O. Stewart is the author of George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, which Dutton Books will release in February 2021.
Virginia’s racial distinctions among Whites, Blacks, and Indians insisted that slave status was inherited through the maternal line. “Comment: Making Indian’s ‘White’: The Judicial Abolition of Native Slavery in Revolutionary Virginia and Its Racial Legacy,” 159 U. Pa. L. Rev 1457 (2011).
Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of the Public Schools in the District of Columbia, 41st Cong., 2d Sess., ex. Doc. No. 315, submitted to the Senate June 1868 and to the House of Representatives June 1870 (Gov. Printing Off. 1871), 203-04. This account was reproduced, largely verbatim, in George W. Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1882), 2: 193-94.
The Library of Virginia in Richmond maintains a database for those attempting to research history in burned-record jurisdictions. These include Appomattox, Buchanan, Buckingham, Dinwiddie, Elizabeth City, Gloucester, Henrico, James City, King and Queen, Nansemond, New Kent, Prince George, and Warwick Counties. https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/burned_juris/. The 1787 fire in New Kent County was set by John Price Posey, a reprobate neighbor of Mount Vernon who had been a friend to Jack Custis, Martha Washington’s son. In 1787, having served a month in jail for assaulting the county sheriff, Posey and two accomplices burned down the courthouse and county clerk’s office. His retaliation proved ill-advised—he was hanged for the arsons. Malcolm Hart Harris, Old New Kent County: Some Account of the Planters, Plantations, and places in New Kent County (West Point, VA: Malcolm Hart Harris, 1977), 1: 233.
Marie Jenkins Schwartz, The Ties that Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 64-65; Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 26; Wiencek, An Imperfect God, 85.
Rosemarie Zagarri, “The Empire Comes home: Thomas Law’s Mixed-Race Family in the Early American Republic,” in Anupama Arora & Rajender Kaur, eds., India in the American Imaginary, 1780s-1880s (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
William Waller Hening, The statutes at large; being a collection of all the laws of Virginia, from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619 (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1809-23), 2: 170 (codifying Virginia Act XII, 1662).
Ibid., 2: 145n200; Dorothy S. Provine,District of Columbia Free Negro Register, 1821-1861 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1996), 51-52. The two infant Costin girls could not be legally emancipated, since they were not old enough to support themselves, which was a precondition for freedom. Nineteen years later, Louisa Costin attempted to repair this defect in her emancipation by acquiring a certificate of freedom based on a formal attestation that she was born free, although that attestation likely was false, since her mother (Delphy) was enslaved at the time of Louisa’s birth.
William Costin to G.W.P. Custis, October 2, 1807, April 9, 1814, and 1814, and James Anderson to G.W. P. Custis, March 18, 1806, in G.W.P. Custis Correspondence, 1806-1809, Virginia Historical Society. Because the farm manager at Arlington described himself as an older man, and since he resided far from Mount Vernon, that William Costin is not a plausible candidate to have been father of the Costin offspring. When Martha’s grandson (G.W.P. “Wash” Custis) established his own residence on the Potomac River, he borrowed the name Arlington, which lives on in the name of the nearby Virginia town and Arlington National Cemetery on the Custis grounds.
Eleanor Lewis to William Costin, Washington, June 12, 1816; E.P. Lewis to Costin (no date); Lawrence Lewis to William Costin, October 6, 1813, & George Calvert to William Costin, April 1, 1819, Peter Family Papers, Fred W. Smith National Library at Mount Vernon.
Paul E. Sluby, Sr. and Stanton L. Wormley, Jr., History of the Columbian Harmony Society and of Harmony Cemetery, Washington, D.C. (Washington, DC: Printed for the Society, 2001), 3, 7; Charles E. Howe, “The Financial Institutions of Washington City in Its Early Days,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 8:1 (1905), 18; PNC-Riggs Bank Records, Deposit and Trust Accounts, National Bank of Washington, MS 2213 RG 03 (George Washington University Library), Boxes 84, 86-92, 95-97; Green, The Secret City, 42-43. Two husbands of Custis granddaughters served as directors of local banks: Thomas Law was director of the Patriotic Bank; Thomas Peter held the same position at the Bank of Potomac. Two of Law’s mixed-race sons served as directors of other local banks. Albert Culling Clark, Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City (Washington, DC: Press of W.F. Roberts, 1901); Harvey W. Crew, William R. Webb and John Woolridge, Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C., (Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House, 1892).
Rogers, Freedom & Slavery Documents,3: 10, 114, 196; Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Register, 114. The Oney who was freed in 1827 was not Costin’s sister-in-law, Oney Judge, a Custis slave who escaped from the presidential mansion in Philadelphia in 1796 and reached New Hampshire, where she married and had three children. In 1827, Oney Judge would have been at least fifty years old and was still in New Hampshire. The Oney emancipated in Washington City in 1827 was likely the daughter of a half-sister of Oney and Delphy Judge. Ibid., 139, 236.
Sluby and Wormley, History of the Columbian Harmony Society, 8, 10, 80; PNC-Riggs Bank Records, Deposit and Trust Accounts, National Bank of Washington, MS 2213 RG 03 (George Washington University Library), Boxes 90 and 97.