Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Nearly Forgotten

The Custis Family of New Bern

Custis Family tomb, main avenue, Cedar Grove Cemetery.

by John B. Green III

The family name Custis is usually associated with the state of Virginia. Planters and government officials, they were prominent in the affairs of that colony and state for generations.  Yet a branch of the Custis family was a vital part of New Bern's life for more than a century. 

Custis Family Bible, printed in Oxford by Thomas Baskett, Printer to the University, 1753. New Bern-Craven County Public Library.

The founder of the New Bern family was Dr. Peter Custis, born in Accomack County, Virginia, about 1780. Custis received his medical training at the University of Pennsylvania. He also excelled in botany and natural history while at the University. It was this training that led to his involvement in an expedition to explore the Red River which flows through Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, before joining the Mississippi in Louisiana.  The Red River Expedition, also known as the Freeman-Custis Expedition, was dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson as a part of his efforts to explore the regions west of the Mississippi.  The expedition is little remembered today because it took place at roughly the same time as the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition and because it was not as successful in its mission.  After exploring more than 600 miles of the Red River during May to August 1806, the Freeman-Custis expedition was intercepted and turned back by the Spanish military who contested the expedition's right to enter the region.  Although Custis recorded and described the flora and fauna of the area, his efforts were only preserved in a poorly-edited government publication which received scant notice and was quickly forgotten. 

Peter Custis returned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his medical studies, and, by 1808, he had established himself as a physician in New Bern.  He married Mary Ann Pasteur of New Bern in 1809.  Together they had at least three children. Mary Pasteur Custis died sometime between 1815 and 1818. Custis married Catherine E. Carthy in June 1818 and together they had at least eight children.  Dr. Peter Custis spent the rest of his life in New Bern and died here in 1842.  He was buried in the family tomb in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Custis Family tomb, detail.

The next generation of the family included Peter Barton Custis [1823-1863], physician and Confederate medical officer who, like his father, received his training at the University of Pennsylvania, and Peter Barton Custis' half-sister, Linnaeus F.B. Custis [1813-1907], long-time school teacher and apparently the last member of the family to bear the Custis name in New Bern.

There are few traces of the Custis family to be seen in New Bern today. No house associated with the family is known to survive, although the Gothic-revival Custis tomb in Cedar Grove Cemetery can still be seen.  The family bible can be found among the collections of the Kellenberger Room of the New Bern-Craven County Public Library, and a walnut cradle with a Custis family history is held by Tryon Palace.