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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.



Maria Syphax and G.W.P. Custis Case

Notes from the Congressional Globe


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 placed.

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 successful general.

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 possession.

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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update 23 February 2012 




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