A farmer and fisherman by trade, Custalow was best known to Virginia sportsmen as a fishing guide. On March 24, 1914, he was elected chief of the Mattaponi, an office he held until his death. The Mattaponi had been officially recognized as a separate tribe only since 1894, and there was a mistaken belief at the time that they were a branch of the Pamunkey. Custalow played a central role in delineating the Mattaponi as a separate tribe in the Powhatan nation. He worked to forge this identity by instituting reforms, including establishing a separate Mattaponi school. Custalow met with the governor late in 1914 to discuss opening a public free school for Mattaponi children, who had been attending school on the Pamunkey reservation ten miles away. A Mattaponi school opened for the 1916–1917 school year and operated directly under state supervision, as did the Pamunkey school. A decrease in the number of Pamunkey children on the reservation caused the two schools to be consolidated into the Mattaponi Indian School in 1950.
As the county, state, and federal tax systems were refined and codified early in the twentieth century, Virginia's Indian tribes again came under scrutiny. In June 1917 the Virginia attorney general ruled that the Mattaponi and Pamunkey who lived and worked on their reservations were legal wards of the state and thus exempt from state and local taxation. In 1919, however, the county attempted to tax Custalow for operation a store on the Mattaponi Reservation. He successfully sued the county, and the circuit court reiterated the decision specifically for the Mattaponi tribe. In 1924 King William County tried once more to tax the reservation store, and Custalow once again had to appeal to the attorney general, who broadened the earlier decision by determining that neither reservation property nor reservation businesses could be taxed.
Custalow also viewed religious reform as important in fostering Mattaponi autonomy. In the first half of the nineteenth century, some members of the tribe had joined a white church in King William County. In 1865 the Pamunkey and Mattaponi organized a new Baptist church on the Pamunkey reservation, but the ten miles separating the two reservations caused attendance to decline among the Mattaponi. Wanting to encourage his tribe to participate more fully in the Christian life, Custalow began leading a Sunday school on the Mattaponi Reservation in 1922. Ten years later the members formally organized as the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church. The congregation completed its church building in 1935, with the chief's son Harvey Nathaniel Custalow as its first pastor.
Custalow recognized the need for a distinct Mattaponi public image. Each autumn he ensured that the Mattaponi presented their tribute to Virginia's governor alongside, but separate from, the Pamunkey tribe. In 1931 Custalow used the weeklong sesquicentennial celebration of the British surrender at Yorktown as an opportunity to gain publicity. He saw to it that the Mattaponi performed war and ceremonial dances and demonstrated their work in the commemoration's Indian exhibitions. He also delivered a speech in which he explained the pivotal role of Virginia's Indians in the American Revolution.
As Custalow grew older, he maintained his reform efforts. He called for electrification and rural mail delivery for the reservation and requested paved state roads to aid an incipient tourist trade. Custalow's wife died on April 30, 1936. Early in the 1940s he began sharing his duties with his son O. T. Custalow, who became assistant chief. George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow died on the Mattaponi Reservation on March 18, 1949. His funeral, conducted at the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church, included both Christian elements and Indian chants and prayers. The casket, draped with an Indian blanket, was escorted to the grave in the church's cemetery by the other Powhatan chiefs.
January 17, 1865 - George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow is born to Norman C. Custalow and Adeline Custalow in King William County, probably on the Mattaponi reservation.
May 23, 1889 - George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow and Emma L. "Water Lily" King marry. They will raise six daughters and at least four sons.
March 24, 1914 - George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow is elected chief of the Mattaponi, an office he holds until his death in 1949.
1914 - Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow meets with the governor to discuss opening a public free school for Mattaponi children. Such a school opens for the 1916–1917 school year and operates directly under state supervision.
1917 - Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow engages in an ongoing dispute with the Chesapeake Paper and Pulp Company, whose employees trespassed on the reservation grounds.
1919 - After King William County attempts to tax George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow for operating a store on the reservation, Custalow successfully sues the county based on a 1919 ruling that Mattaponi and Pamunkey who live and work on their reservations are wards of the state and therefore tax-exempt.
1922 - Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow begins leading a Sunday school on the Mattaponi reservation.
March 20, 1924 - Governor E. Lee Trinkle signs "An act to Preserve Racial Integrity," a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, defines a white person as someone who has no discernible non-white ancestry, and requires that birth and marriage certificates indicate people's races.
April 30, 1936 - Emma L. "Water Lily" King Custalow, wife of Mattaponi chief George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow, dies.
Early 1940s - George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow begins to share his duties as Mattaponi chief with his son O. T. Custalow.
March 18, 1949 - George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow dies on the Mattaponi reservation.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Watkinson, P. F., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow (1865–1949). (2016, September 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Custalow_George_F_Thunder_Cloud_1865-1949.
- MLA Citation:
Watkinson, Patricia Ferguson and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow (1865–1949)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 Sep. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 25, 2013 | Last modified: September 30, 2016