The last living 18th century resident of Williamsburg has passed away. The English yew tree on Custis Square, which has stood a silent watch over the old colonial capital for more than 270 years, has succumbed to the vicissitudes of age and weather.
John Custis, member of the Governor’s Council and father-in-law to Martha Dandrige-Custis who became the wife of George Washington after the death of her husband, Daniel, kept a four acre garden on the edge of Williamsburg that he described in 1734 as “inferior to few if any in Virginia in which…my whole delight is placed.” Custis first ordered yew trees from the London firm of Bell and Dee in 1717, requesting: “I have lately got into the vein of gardening and have made a handsome garden to my house and desire you will lay out 5£ for me in handsome striped holly and yew trees.” In 1739 John Bartram, the famous Philadelphia nurseryman and noted plant explorer, visited Custis in Williamsburg and wrote: “I saw in friend Custice garden some fine yew trees.”
The old tree has long been hollow so it was never possible to date it with core samples but judging from its size and location it is very likely that this tree was, indeed, planted by John Custis in the first half of the 18th century. After John’s death in 1749 the property began a long period of decline and was eventually absorbed in the Eastern State Hospital grounds until the property was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Some of the larger limbs have been saved by our cabinet makers and will likely be preserved as mementos to Williamsburg’s longest surviving colonial resident.
I plan to journey to the southern colonies over the next week so will not have the pleasure of corresponding with my fellow gardeners in the next week but will resume our garden conversation in July.