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John Custis IV, attributed to Charles Bridges, oil on canvas, ca. 1740, courtesy of Washington and Lee University, University Collections of Art and History, Lexington, Virginia

There are few early 18th-century Williamsburg residents as colorful as John Custis IV (1678-1746). Scholars of colonial gardening know him as a bold and scientifically curious gardener who established an ornamental landscape that was unparalleled in the American colonies for its beauty and variety of plants. Others know John Custis as the owner of more than 200 enslaved people laboring on his profitable tobacco plantations in York County, New Kent County, and on the Eastern Shore. Many know Custis as Martha Washington’s first father-in-law. Frugal in his business dealings and famously quarrelsome with his wife Frances, John Custis is not the most endearing figure in Williamsburg’s past.

His story, however, includes threads that weave the history of Williamsburg together with the events, contradictions, and people that created a new American identity in the first half of the 18th-century. Over the next five years, a generous gift from a donor will allow Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Archaeology to turn its attention to Custis Square, the four-acre lot where John Custis IV built his home and garden.

Among sites still to be explored in Colonial Williamsburg, Custis Square ranks near the top, with potential to add significantly to our understanding of early American gardening, enslavement, colonial consumerism, and 18th century scientific thought. This interdisciplinary archaeological project seeks to uncover the remains of long-hidden landscapes at Custis Square, the ornamental grounds designed by Custis, and the places where enslaved men and women lived and worked on the property.

The distinctive qualities of both the man and the extraordinary garden he created have sustained interest in archaeological exploration of Custis Square for more than 50 years. Two limited investigations in the 1960s identified much of the property’s architecture: Custis’s Jacobean style house, a kitchen, a smokehouse, and two wells. Little, however, is known about the garden, and even less about the people who worked it. By employing modern archaeological methods and analytical techniques we will begin to uncover the stories of this once-famous landscape.


Custis Square in 3D

View 3D representations of Custis Square before groundbreaking

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  • Updates


    August 28, 2019

    What these iconic prints tell us about John Custis IV when we use art to inform archaeology

    The Custis Family Migration

    Visualize their century-long emigration in this fascinating Story Map

    Click here to open in a new window.

    New Archaeological Investigation of John Custis IV’s Property Promises Findings on the Eccentric Politician, Planter and Horticulturist and the Lives of his Enslaved

    Custis Square project, to create 10 multi-year jobs, proceeding thanks to a lead gift of the Jacqueline Badger Mars Landmark Investments 8, LLC Charitable Lead Trust

    Read Here

  • meet the team

    Tamara Eichelberger

    Tamara Eichelberger is an Archaeological Field Technician for the Custis Project. She has a Master’s in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology (that’s human skeletons and remains!) and has worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Kids’ Dig!

    Kara Garvey

    Kara Garvey is a laboratory technician who primarily catalogs artifacts. Having studied Native American archaeology at William & Mary, she is excited to expand her research interests with historical archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg.

    Jack Gary

    Jack Gary is the Director of Archaeology for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He is passionate about using archaeology to engage and connect Colonial Williamsburg’s many visitors and supporters with the individuals and events of the past.

    Victoria Gum

    Victoria Gum graduated from William & Mary in 2016. She has worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the past and most recently worked as an archaeologist with the Fairfield Foundation.

    Cheyenne Johnson

    Archaeology Field Technician, Cheyenne Johnson, graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA in Historic Preservation and Museum Studies minor. She was previously a field technician for Ferry Farm, Poplar Forest, and Dovetail CRG.

    Mark Kostro, PhD

    Dr. Kostro is a senior staff archaeologist with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. For the past two decades Mark has developed an extensive research presence in the Chesapeake and Caribbean, and has overseen several high profile archaeological investigations in Williamsburg including: the Brafferton Indian School at the College of William and Mary (2011-12), the Bray African American School (2012-14), the Raleigh Tavern porch (2016), and most recently, the Robert Carter house and garden (2017-18).

    Kelly Ladd-Kostro

    Kelly is the Associate Curator of Archaeological Collections and is responsible for the management, documentation, research, analysis, storage, and preservation of the artifacts in the Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Collections. She has been with the Foundation for 25 years and has consulted on projects for the National Park Service as well as sites throughout the Chesapeake, Bermuda, Barbados and the British Virgin Islands.

    Aaron Lovejoy

    Aaron Lovejoy is the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Archaeology GIS (geographic information systems) Analyst. In past years, he has investigated and mapped archaeological sites throughout Virginia, Georgia, Hawaii, and most recently the American Southwest.

    Adam Macbeth

    Adam Macbeth is an archaeology Field Technician at CWF. He earned his Bachelor’s in Archaeology from Millersville University and has previously worked as a field technician for Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest and AECOM.

    Mike Makin

    Mike Makin has an MA in anthropology from William & Mary and a decade of experience in archaeology. His research interests include cultural landscapes, ceremonialism, feasting, ceramic analysis, and paleoethnobotany.

    Melissa Money

    Prior to joining the Foundation, Melissa worked for 10 years as a Field Archaeologist in Tidewater Virginia, and is approaching 10 years as an Archaeological Lab Technician with Colonial Williamsburg.

    Meredith Poole

    Meredith Poole is a Senior Staff Archaeologist, and has been at Colonial Williamsburg for more than 30 years. In addition to working in the field, she is in charge of public programs and interpretation including DIG! (the Kids Dig), and several blogs. Let her know what you’d like to hear about as we move forward with the Custis project!

    Megan Veness

    Megan Veness joined the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as the Project Archaeologist in 2019. Over the past 15 years she has worked at Fairfax County Park Authority, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon.

    Emily Zimmerman

    Emily Zimmerman is an archaeological lab technician who will be processing and analyzing artifacts from Custis Square. She loves any artifact that she comes across and is especially looking forward to researching artifacts related to John Custis and medicinal practices of the 18th century.

  • Report Archive


    Department of Archaeology Colonial Williamsburg Foundation November 2018

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