Syphax and G.W.P. Custis Case
Notes from the Congressional
May 4, 1866 (in Senate)
Mr. Harris (i.e. Senator Harris): I
present the petition of William Syphax, who represents that some
forty years ago the late Mr. Custis, of Arlington, gave to his
mother, Maria Syphax, on manumitting her, a piece of land of
fifteen acres; and he asks that Congress may confirm the title
to that piece of ground to his mother and her heirs. i move that
the petition be referred to the committee on Private Land
Claims. (so referred)
May 16, 1866 (in Senate)
Mr. Harris, from the Committee on
Private Land Claims, to whom was referred the memorial of
William Syphax, praying to be confirmed in his title to a tract
of land in the Arlington estate, (so-called), Virginia, granted
to his mother by the late G.W.C.P. Custis [1791-1857] in
the year 1826, reported a bill (S. No. 321) for the relief of
Maria Syphax; which was read and passed to a second reading.
May 18, 1866 (Senate)
On motion of Mr. Harris, the bill (S.
No. 321) for the relief of Maria Syphax was read a second time
and considered as in committee of the Whole. It proposes to
release and confirm to Maria Syphax, her heirs and assigns, the
title to a piece of land, being part of the Arlington estate, in
the county of Alexandria, in the State of Virginia, upon which
she has resided since about the year 1826, bounded and described
as follows, to wit: (Follows description -- 17 53/100 acres.)
Mr. Morrill: I should like to inquire
of the Senator from New York, the chairman of the Committee on
Private Land claims, what are the grounds on which this bill is
Mr. Harris: The person named in this
bill is a mulatto woman. She was once the slave of Mr. Custis.
Mr. Custis, at the time when she married, about forty years ago,
feeling an interest in the woman, something perhaps akin to a
paternal interest, manumitted her, and gave her this piece of
land. It has been set apart to her, and it has been occupied by
her and her family for forty years. Under the circumstances the
committee thought it no more than just, the Government having
acquired title to this property under a sale for taxes, that
this title should be confirmed to her.
Mr. Howard: Will the Senator from New
York be good enough to state in whom the title runs?
Mr. Harris: The title runs to this
woman and her heirs.
Mr. Morrill: That is satisfactory.
The bill was reported to the Senate without
amendment, ordered to be engrossed for a third reading, read the
third time and passed.
May 19, 1866 (House): (Brief record
that the bill had been received.)
May 21 (House): On motion of Mr.
Thayer, by unanimous consent, the bill of the Senate (S. No.
321) for the relief of Maria Syphax was taken from the Speaker's
table, read a first and second time, and referred to the
Committee on private Land Claims.
June 8, 1866 (House): Mr. Thayer from
the Committee on private Land Claims, reported back Senate bill
No. 321, for the relief of Maria Syphax with a recommendation
that it do pass.
It proposes to release and confirm to Maria
Syphax, her heirs and assigns, the title to a piece of land
(Follows description, etc.)
Mr. Speaker, this is a bill for the relief of
Maria Syphax. the name of Syphax, although a strange and unusual
one, does not now for the first time appear in the history of
human affairs. Those of us who recall the long and dreamy hours
in which in our school-boy days, with our big Ainsworth by our
side, we plodded through the pages of Livy and Sallust, will
remember it as the name of that unfortunate Numidian king who in
an ill-starred hour -- deduced by his marriage with the daughter
of Asdrubal, the Carthaginian -- forsook his alliance with Rome
and joined himself with that of Carthage, a step which as we
well remember resulted in his defeat and capture by Masinissa,
his delivery to Scipio, and his being led in chains through the
streets of Rome to grace the magnificent triumph awarded to that
The modern Syphax, the Syphax of the present
bill, although of African descent like the royal Syphax of yore,
is a much humbler personage. The points of her career so far as
they stand in relation to her ancient and historic namesake are
points of contrast and not points of resemblance. The latter was
born a king, the former was born a slave. The latter deserted
the solemn oaths which bound him to the republic which had
afforded him the protection of an ally, the former adhered
through all the storms and trials of civil war to the republic
which fostered and defended herself and her people.
The fortunes of the latter went from good to
bad and from bad to worse continually, until they culminated in
the ruin of his hopes and his death in a Roman prison in the
obscure village of Tibur. The fortunes of the former have
improved day by day, until from slavery she has become with her
people and her children, free, independent, and happy. Her eyes
in her old age look out brightly and happily upon a land from
which the last foot-prints of slavery have vanished and where
the people enjoy the protection of equal rights and equal laws.
Maria Syphax's parents were the servants of
Mrs. Washington. they passed by devise to her grandson, George
Washington Parke Custis [1791-1857]. In 1826, when Maria
Syphax, for whose benefit this bill was introduced, was married,
Mr. Custis emancipated her and settled her upon a small tract of
land containing about seventeen acres, which lies upon the
southern border of the estate of Arlington. By his last will he
also emancipated the husband of Maria. Since the year 1926 Maria
Syphax and her husband and their children have lived and labored
and thrived upon that little spot of land. Their occupancy of it
was always acquiesced in by Mrs. Lee, the daughter of Mrs.
Custis, and by her husband, Robert E. Lee. Their possession was
never interfered with by them. they scrupulously respected the
provisions which had been made for them by Mr. Custis.
In the year 1863 this little plot of land,
together with the remainder of the Arlington estate, was sold by
the Government of the United States under the act of Congress
approve June 7, 1862, entitled "An Act for the collection
of direct taxes in insurrectionary districts," and was
bought by the United States. The object of the present bill is
to release to Maria Syphax and her heirs the land which was
given to her by Mr. Custis, and which she, her husband, and her
children have occupied and tilled for a period of forty years.
I believe now I have said everything which is
necessary to a full understanding of the case, and perhaps
something that was not. if any gentleman wishes to ask any
questions I am ready to respond to them; or if any one wishes to
make any remarks upon the bill I will yield for that purpose.
Mr. Finck: I wish to ask the gentleman
whether possession for forty years by this lady and her family
was not an adverse possession which would give title to it, and
if so, whether there is any necessity for legislation.
Mr. Thayer: Their possession I do not
understand to have been adverse in the legal sense of that
phrase. On the contrary, it was a possession founded on a parole
grant from Mr. Custis--a grant which was always acquiesced in by
those who succeeded him in the enjoyment of his estate.
Mr. Finck: Would not the possession of
forty years have rightly entitled the party to the property?
Mr. Thayer: Well, sir I do not care to
split hairs with the gentleman from Ohio, or to try this case in
the House of Representatives as if it were an ejectment in a
court of law. the case as it stands is simply this: These
parties have no written title to their estate. of course it was
not customary for masters to give written titles to those who
had been their slaves. But Maria Syphax has a possession
extending through a period of forty years, founded upon a parole
gift from the master who manumitted her, and all that the
Government of the United States is asked to do is to release its
title acquired by the tax sale, and to confirm her in her just
Mr. Hale: I did not understand from
the gentleman's speech where the legal title is now vested.
Mr. Thayer: In the United States under
the tax sale to which I have referred, the United States
Government having purchased the Arlington estate at that sale.
Mr. Johnson: A single question. I ask
my colleague whether there is not a day of redemption under the
tax law, and whether that day has gone by.
Mr. Thayer: There was a period fixed
by the statute during which the parties might redeem, but the
day of redemption has passed. The day of redemption for the land
has passed, but the day of redemption for the countrymen of
Syphax, King of Numidia, has come, never to pass away in the
United States. Mr. Speaker, I demand the previous question.
The previous question was seconded and the
main question ordered; and under the operation thereof the bill
was ordered to be read a third time; and it was accordingly read
the third time and passed.
(Note: according to the above, Maria
Syphax was freed in 1826, while her husband was freed by the
last will of G.W.P.C. [1791-1857] -- that is, after his death,
many years later. This would suggest a special relationship
between Custis and Maria Syphax.)
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