George Mason and Slavery
"My father had among his slaves: carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers & knitters, and even a distiller."
—John Mason, Recollections
How do we know about slavery at Gunston Hall?
One of the most important descriptions of slavery at Gunston Hall comes from the Recollections of George Mason's son John. In this memoir of life on the eighteenth century plantation, John described the specialized skills of some enslaved individuals, portrayed the extensive farm economy supported by an unskilled slave labor force, and discussed the heavy domestic burden fulfilled by numerous “house servants” — the preferred term for slave labor within the mansion. Throughout John's writings, however, only one individual is mentioned by name — James, the personal body servant to his father, George Mason. Many documents — wills, inventories, tax records, and letters — also give information about slaves among the Mason family. Searching these documents and piecing together details about individuals, work, skills, and values paints a sketchy, but important picture about plantation slave life at Gunston Hall in the eighteenth century.
Click here for more information about George Mason’s views on slavery.
How many slaves did George Mason own?
Where did they come from?
In the 1780s, nearly 100 enslaved men, women, and children lived and worked on the four nearby farms (or quarters as they were called) and the mansion house that comprised George Mason's holdings. Many were sons, daughters, grandsons, or granddaughters of about 32 slaves that Mason inherited in 1735. Other slaves came into Mason’s possession as wedding gifts (or dowry) when he married Ann Eilbeck in 1750 or as later gifts and bequests from her parents. George Mason possibly purchased some slaves. In 1753, eight children were “adjudged” for their ages — an indication that they were new arrivals into the colony. But the majority of the Gunston Hall slaves were born into slavery under colonial Virginia's carefully constructed legal code that was strictly enforced. One law stated that a child born to a slave woman was a slave for life. Another forbade masters from freeing their slaves. Thus slavery in Virginia was perpetuated by “natural increase.”
What did the they do?
Skill levels and work varied. Field slaves, who were generally unskilled men, women, and children, tended fields of tobacco and corn, also taking care of cattle or sheep on the outlying quarters. Those chosen as domestic “servants” cooked, cleaned, laundered, waited at table, and served the gentry family and frequent guests in the mansion house. A few served as personal attendants to individual Mason family members. Other slaves with specific skills described in the Recollections as “carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers & knitters” provided a considerable work force that lived and worked primarily near the mansion house. Much of their labor could be done there and finished products delivered to the outlying quarters as needed. Some skilled individuals may have traveled to the site where they were needed to do their work. For example, carpenters or blacksmiths might travel to outlying quarters to do repairs or a midwife might deliver slave babies throughout the slave neighborhoods. But at harvest time all hands were needed in the fields, regardless of their skill level or daily job.
Where did they live?
Slaves lived close to where they worked. Field slaves, for example, lived on the quarter where they tended crops or animals. The houses at the quarters, usually made of wood (clapboard or logs with mud chinking to keep out the air) might be single or double family structures. Dirt floors and wood-shuttered windows were typical features. One house at the quarter usually belonged to the white overseer and his family. On the Occoquan Quarter, however, the enslaved man Nace served as an overseer.
Domestic slaves who worked in or near the mansion house at Gunston Hall (such as in the kitchen or laundry) often lived in the work-related buildings. Loft spaces above the work areas provided living areas for several slaves in each building. Some structures may have served only as slave housing. All these buildings likely had paint or whitewashed walls, wood or brick floors, and glass windows because they were visible to the master's family and visitors to his plantation home.
Gunston Hall plantation also had one unique housing area that was described in John Mason’s Recollections. Known as Log Town, “so called because most of the houses were built of hewn pine logs,” this village of buildings was home to James and his family and some of the carpenters and their families. It stood behind a wooded area, out of sight of the mansion house. Its residents enjoyed a level of privacy and privilege within the slave community at Gunston Hall.
Who were they?
George Mason's will included 36 enslaved individuals by name and referred to an additional ten women who were the mothers of some of these people. Many mother-child connections are revealed across a span of approximately 70 years in surviving documents. Fathers are not recorded and can only be surmised from naming patterns that have been suggested by historians. Some of George Mason's slaves identified in the surviving documents are described here.
Field slaves lived hard lives performing the daily work of a farm routine on the outlying quarters. Watt, who tended fields at Hallowing Point, ran away, but later returned to the quarter. It is doubtful that he came back of his own free will. Milly, also at Hallowing Point, had five children who worked the fields along side her, but one child was later taken from her to work on another quarter. Caja, possibly a field slave, remained with her four adult children and two grandchildren her entire life.
Domestic servants such as James and Penny served as personal servants to Mason family members. Mrs. Eilbeck's Bess and Charles were cooks — highly esteemed and very valuable “property.” Joe delivered letters and parcels for George Mason. Mulatto Dick, trained to wait and serve at the dining table, distressed the Mason household when he ran away from Gunston Hall.
Tom and Liberty were skilled carpenters who received the privilege of living at Log Town, some distance from the mansion house. Gunston Nell, a midwife, earned money for herself from a neighboring plantation. Nace served as an overseer at the Occoquan Quarter. Skilled with horses and responsible for the oversight of daily and weekly tasks on the quarter, Nace was perhaps the most trusted of all of the Mason slaves.
Click here for more information on individual slaves.