Eleanor Parke Custis


Eleanor Parke Custis

Nelly, as she was called, was only a baby when she and her brother were sent to live with their grandparents, George and Martha Washington. Martha's two children from her first marriage had died, and she was thankful for her grandchildren's presence. Nelly grew up to be her grandfather's favorite. George Washington hired the best tutors to teach her grammar and penmanship, and she learned how to dance and sing as well. Her grandmother taught Nelly embroidery and knitting.

Nelly moved into the President's House when she was 11 years old. Her bedroom was on the second floor. Nelly apparently had a lot of energy. Her grandmother Martha Washington wrote, "I hope when Nelly has a little gravitie, she will be a good girl-at present-she is I fear half crazy". One of Martha's friends said that Nelly's clothes looked like they were thrown on with a "pitchfork".

Nelly liked to have the run of the house and often put on plays in the attic with her friends. On Saturday afternoons, her grandmother took her for carriage rides with the President in a cream-colored coach. Nelly often took along her green pet parrot. They went shopping or to the theater and Nelly visited Peale's Museum, the most famous in the nation. Nelly also had a dog named "Frisk", the first presidential dog.

Her grandfather spoiled her, too. Nelly wrote of her grandfather, "He liked me to ask him for all that I wished to have and never refused me anything". The President bought her a harpsichord from Europe and Martha made sure Nelly practiced 4 or 5 hours a day. Her brother "Wash" wrote that his sister Nelly would "play and cry and cry and play for long hours".

When the Yellow Fever hit Philadelphia, Nelly and her brother went with the President to the Deshler-Morris House outside the city to escape the disease. Nelly was in Congress Hall and witnessed her grandfather's second inauguration as President. On her 17th birthday Nelly announced she no longer wished to be called Nelly, but rather Eleanor. She was married on Washington's last birthday and had her first of eight children only days before her beloved grandfather's death.

Image courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association

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