During the 18th century, the Masons kept hundreds of people enslaved at Gunston Hall. Some people such as Anthony and Sabrina were inherited by George. Ann likely brought several people with her when she and George married. Other people such as Kack and Daphne were likely born on the plantation. Sarah Brent brought yet more people with her when she and George married 8 years after Ann’s death.
By examining documents such as Mason’s will and correspondence, and conducting archaeological explorations, we have started to piece together information about the lives of people enslaved by the Mason family.
Gunston Hall’s enslaved workers did a tremendous range of work. For instance, people such as Poll cleaned the mansion, prepared the Masons’ food, washed the laundry, tended the chickens, and cared for the kitchen garden.
Other enslaved people, including Great Sue, worked the tobacco and wheat fields. And still more people held in bondage provided the skilled work that kept the community running. Liberty did carpentry, and one person remembered that Gunston Hall’s community of enslaved people also included “coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers & knitters, and even a distiller.”
When we compare the food remains in a trash pit near homes of people who were enslaved with trash deposits adjacent to the mansion, we can peek into their daily lives. Enslaved residents of Gunston Hall seem to have eaten much more fish than their owners did. They also ate a lot of small game animals. In contrast, the Masons’ trash suggests the people in the mansion mainly ate domesticated animals. One written record from the year after George Mason’s death indicates that the Masons purchased–at least once–herring and the salt to cure it for the people they kept in slavery.
Learn more about some of the individuals kept in slavery at Gunston Hall. For more information about people enslaved at Gunston Hall please take a tour, schedule an appointment in the research library, or read Among His Slaves: George Mason’s Struggle with Slavery by Terry K. Dunn.
Ancilla and Bridget
Ancilla and Bridget may have worked in plantation houses or kitchen yards, cleaning, doing laundry, or caring for children. Although the Mason family transferred them from household to household, they were kept together. Might they have been sisters?
Ancilla and Bridget “and their future increase” (or descendants) were traded among Mason family members to pay several debts. The chattel slavery system meant that under the law Bridget and Ancilla were property, rather than human beings with the same fundamental rights of all people. The Masons determined Ancilla’s and Bridget’s monetary worth based on their ability to work and the likelihood that they would have children.
In 1760, Ancilla and Bridget were sold to Ann Thompson Mason, and they served her until she died just two years later. They spent the rest of their lives under the ownership of George Mason.
Born in 1762, Dick served at table at Gunston Hall and later worked for George Mason’s son, George, at his property at Lexington Plantation, originally a part of Gunston Hall plantation. Dick is one of the many enslaved people the Masons and the Eilbecks (George Mason’s wife’s family) moved around. Family members often transferred their enslaved workers to other family members. Dick ran away from Lexington in 1784 at age 22, and an advertisement offered a reward of £5 for his return. Runaway ads from 1786 and 1787 show that he ran away again. It is possible that Dick was not caught this second time.
Born around 1747, Liberty was a skilled carpenter. After George Mason’s death, he was enslaved to George Mason’s son, George. Carpentry was a skill often passed down to family members. Liberty may have been related to the enslaved carpenters who built Gunston Hall. Like many people enslaved in colonial Virginia, Liberty either did not have a last name or his last name was not recorded.
Nace was skilled at handling and breaking horses. His talent allowed him to earn some wages from a neighboring plantation owner, Martin Cockburn. Cockburn’s accounts show that he paid Nace several times over an eight-year period for work with horses. Nace had substantial responsibilities. He was described as a “black overseer” in a 1797 document. In this role he disciplined and directed the work of other enslaved people who worked on one of Gunston Hall’s four “farms” or “quarters.” The position of overseer was normally held by white men.
Priss was the child companion of George and Ann Eilbeck Mason’s daughter. Amongst gentry families in George Mason’s day, a grandfather might provide his grandchild with a similarly aged enslaved child. Such was the case with Priss, who was born enslaved in 1758. Parents and other relatives also sometimes gave enslaved children as gifts to wealthy free children. At the age of seven, Priss became the property of three-year-old Sarah Mason.
Sampson was enslaved by George Mason’s wife’s family, the Eilbecks. He was born in 1762 on their Mattawoman Plantation, located in southern Maryland. His mother was Bess, who gave birth to at least seven enslaved children. A 1662 Virginia law made enslavement a hereditary institution that passed through the maternal line.