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Today, this area looks like another patch of lawn. In the 18th century, it was the location of a cluster of housing for people enslaved by the Masons. After seeing the mansion, it can be hard to picture the kinds of buildings once located here.
Dwellings for people held in bondage were often ramshackle. In many cases, they had shutters or scraps of oiled paper, rather than glass, covering the windows. Typically, the floor was packed dirt, but these may have been covered with rough wooden boards. Dwellings for field hands were even more impermanent, shack-like structures. No housing for enslaved people survives from 18th-century Virginia.
Most contemporary accounts or later recollections, written by white guests or Mason family members, had little interest in describing the enslaved worker communities. One account described this quarter as being situated in the east yard on the same side of the house as “the corn house and the grainery…hay yard & cattle pens, all of which were masqued [sic] by rows of large cherry and mulberry trees.” Though brief, accounts like this one help provide important context, albeit from a white slaveowner’s perspective. These buildings were intentionally set apart from the mansion, though near enough to provide easy access. Carefully placed trees and shrubbery hid them somewhat from view by people in the mansion. Even though plantings screened the dwellings, sights and sounds from the quarters likely permeated the area. Perhaps music and the smells African-influenced foods dishes wafted towards the mansion from here.
The archaeology team at Gunston Hall have uncovered at least one of buildings used for housing enslaved people. We don’t know which people lived here. So little documentation survives. Perhaps Nell, the enslaved midwife, lived here. Maybe one of the beds belonged to Dick, who served as a waiter. Some enslaved workers who lived here left behind tangible evidence of spiritual practices, diet, and clothing. They might have been women, men, and children who toiled in the Masons’ house, worked in the garden, or tended the nearby cattle. We are left wondering their names, personalities, joys, and sorrows.
More archaeological work will be done in this area in years to come. We hope to glean more evidence about the people who lived and worked at this site.