By Denise McHugh
Who is Sarah Brent? Much like for George Mason’s first wife Ann, or for Mason’s daughters or daughters-in-law, the information on Sarah is sketchy, gleaned from various public records and through letters and documents almost exclusively of male family members.
It is worthwhile to initiate our search for Sarah Brent in the century earlier than our time period. Giles, Fulke, Margaret, and Mary Brent, offspring of a distinguished and well-to-do Catholic family in Gloucestershire, England, arrive in Maryland in the years 1637 and 1638. Giles and Margaret especially come to prominence in this new place. Giles earns the appointments of deputy governor, treasurer, and chief justice of the province of Maryland. Unmarried Margaret, a major landowner in St. Mary’s County and Kent Island, even serves in the capacity of attorney to Lord Proprietor Cecil. Eventually, however, Giles and Margaret fall into disfavor with the established order. By about 1650, they move to Virginia. Giles selects as the site for his plantation land that is across the Potomac River from southern Maryland, near the mouth of Aquia Creek in Stafford County. Probably within a year, in about 1651, 22-year-old or so George Mason I, a friend and neighbor of the Brent family in England, emigrates across the Atlantic Ocean and gains a patent to land in the same area of the Northern Neck of Virginia.
Giles’ nephew, George, great-great grandfather of our Sarah Brent, settles in this area in 1660, coming straight to Virginia from England. In the ensuing years, as this area of Virginia develops at a rapid clip, the names of Giles Brent and George Mason, and the names of their sons, appear in records as prominent leaders of the community. Even during this early period, there also is a Brent-Mason connection through marriage.
The long-standing relationship between the Brents and Masons probably continues to the time of our George Mason, with George Mason IV likely considering the Brents as old family friends. The Brent-Mason connection comes up in at least one 18th-century record preceding the marriage in 1780. In 1760, George Mason IV sends to George Washington a survey he had conducted of land originally owned by the Brents. Mason’s father had purchased some of this property from the Brents some years ago and now Washington is buying more of it to add to his holdings at Mount Vernon.
In 1760, George Brent is residing at the plantation Woodstock, which is located in the same region as the home of his grandfather in the 1600s. Brent had met and married Catherine Trimmingham in Bermuda in about 1730. Together, George and Catherine Brent have seven children: Sarah, the eldest, who comes to wed George Mason IV; two sons; and four other daughters. Within six years of their marriage, the couple has moved to Virginia (actually moved back, in George’s case).
Sarah Brent comes to take over the management of the household when the mother dies in 1751. The new mistress of Woodstock is between 20 and 22 years old at the time, not much older than Nancy Mason, eldest daughter of George Mason, when she begins to oversee the house and family at her mother’s death in 1773. Although available records are not complete, we can assume that most, if not all, of Sarah’s brothers and sisters are living at home when their mother dies. Robert is about 20 years old; Catherine, about 15, Jane (also called Jean in some records) , about 13; George is about 10; and Elizabeth and Susannah appear to be younger. At least four of these siblings marry in the 1750s.
Sarah Brent heads the Woodstock household for 27 years until her father’s death in 1778. Interestingly, her sister Elizabeth is likely at home as well, since a genealogy shows her dying unmarried in 1783. However, it is Sarah whom her father remembers in a special way in his will, executed the year of his death. George Brent bequeaths Sarah a silver tankard, salver, and two porringers which had belonged to her grandmother as a “lasting monument of the sense I have of her merit and the case she has taken of me.”
Sarah Brent and George Mason wed on April 11, 1780, about two years after her father’s death and several months after George Mason writes to friend James Mercer that as justice of the peace, he had been signing two or three marriage licenses each day and wishes to get one himself. “I find cold Sheets extreamly disagreeable” he comments to Mercer. It is likely that Sarah is a practicing Roman Catholic, like her father and the Brent family. However, Sarah and George are married by Rev. James Scott of the Anglican Church. Like her step-daughter Nancy, Sarah is more mature than most 18th-century women marrying for first time. She is about 50 years old, George is 55, and Nancy, who weds in 1789, is thirty-four.
In a move that was not typical for the age, George and Sarah sign a marriage agreement several days before they are wed, protecting in a limited way Sarah’s individual property. Under the terms of this contract, Sarah gives ownership of her slaves to her husband for the length of her marriage, but regains possession of them should her husband die and there be no offspring between them. Under these same conditions, Sarah is promised as dower 400 acres of her husband’s land at Dogues Neck.
Over the years, it has been pointed out that the marriage agreement between Sarah and George indicates that their relationship was more business-like and convenient, rather than loving. However, the marriage compact also can be seen as a fair solution between two practical people who want to safeguard their property for future generations — Mason for his children and Sarah for the sons and daughters of her sister Jean in Dumfries. In Sarah’s will of 1794, she indeed does pass on to these children and one of their offspring the slaves she regains upon the death of her husband.
At her marriage, Sarah brings to the household her ten-year-old nephew, George Graham, eldest son of her sister Jean. George is the same age as George Mason’s youngest son, Thomas, and eventually is sent away to school with Thomas and John. To our 20th-century eyes, it may appear unusual that George Graham moves from his own home to that of his aunt. However, gentry families often made various arrangements to offer sons a proper education, including periods of time spent with relatives.
During marriage to George Mason, Sarah has the opportunity to live at Gunston Hall with most, if not all, of George Mason’s children. When she enters the household in 1780, at least six children are at home: Nancy is 25; Thomson is 21; Mary, 18; John, 14; Elizabeth, 12; and Thomas, ten. Also, George and William both live at Gunston Hall during a portion of the 1780s, George with a wife and children. Nancy and Sarah remain in the house together for nine years, until Nancy’s marriage to Rinaldo Johnson. This sizeable length of co-habitation seems to indicate that the two women, both mistresses of Gunston Hall at different times, had at the very least a cordial relationship.
The relationship with another Mason daughter, Mary, may have more the cordial. In her will, Sarah bequeaths to Mary a mourning ring commemorating George Mason’s death. This gift seems to reflect affection for this young woman, although there also is a connection between the Cook family, into which Mary married, and the Brents.
Not a great deal is known about the marriage of George and Sarah Mason. However, signs exist of an amiable relationship. We should note that Sarah did not have to marry at all, since her father’s will provided her with a home and an annual allotment of 25 pounds for as long as she was single. It is possibly the union of George and Sarah that brings about the re-decoration of the mansion in the latter years of Mason’s life. If this is indeed the case, the decision to give a new look to the house appears to reflect a bond between the couple.
Existing correspondence indicates some level of care, perhaps affection, of George for his wife. In 1783, Col. Mason writes to his son George in France, thanking him for obtaining a watch for his stepmother. While at the Federal Convention in 1787, George keeps in touch at least once with Sarah, enclosing a letter for her in his letter to his eldest son. Unfortunately, this correspondence has not been located. In 1791, Sarah breaks her leg and in September 1792, a month before his death, George offers an update on her health to son John. He relates that she is “still unable to walk a step, ‘tho- I think she begins to gain her strength in her leg and foot.”
Sarah Brent accompanies George Mason through some of the hardest trials of his life. They are together during the final period of the American Revolution, when fighting in Virginia leads Mason to move his wife and younger children across the Potomac River to the Eilbeck home, Mattawoman, for safety. Perhaps it was Sarah who consoled George after his Constitutional defeat in Philadelphia and again after the ratification convention in Richmond. Sarah is present during the final month of Mason’s life, when he remarks to his son, “I hardly remember so sickly a Season.” George comments on his own “troublesome Cough,” but also on the poor health of son William, daughter Betsey, and his wife.
At George Mason’s death, after twelve years of marriage, Sarah probably moves to Dumfries to live with her sister Jean. Rather than claiming the 400 acres cited in her marriage compact, Sarah agrees to a financial arrangement with her stepson, George. This settlement consists of a sum of 35 pounds monthly, promised for the remainder of her life. Sarah dies in 1805 or 1806. We are not certain where she is buried, although there is a Brent burying ground not far from the former site of Woodstock.
Brent, Chester Horton. The Descendants of Coll Giles Brent, Captain George Brent, and Robert Brent. Privately published. 1946.
Copeland, Pamela C. and Richard K. Macmaster. The Five George Masons: Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland. Lorton, Virginia: The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 1989. Reprint.
Rutland, Robert A., ed. The Papers of George Mason. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Smith, Daniel Blake. Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Unpublished research files, Gunston Hall Plantation, “Brent Family,” “George Brent,” and “Sarah Brent Mason.”