Indentured Servants at Gunston Hall

When English settlers arrived in the New World, they brought indentured servitude with them.  Under this system, people worked for a set period of time as a payment for something. In Virginia, many indentured servants worked to earn enough money to pay for the cost of their travel from England. Some were children who were “bound” by their parents or the court system.Indentured servants were men and women who willingly signed a contract in which they agreed to work for a certain number of years to compensate for their voyage to America. 

Three different types of indentured servant agreements existed in the 18th century: free-willers, King’s passengers, and redemptioners. George Mason held contracts for all of these kinds of indentured servants over the course of his life. Mason’s records are inconclusive, so it is not known how many he utilized throughout his life.

Free-will indentured servants decided to come to America on their own merit and willingly signed a contract before departing England. King’s passengers, also known as convict servants, were criminals who were sent to America to serve a term of seven or fourteen years, depending on the crime they committed. Finally, redemptioners were passengers who were given two weeks to redeem the price of their voyage once they got to America and if they were unable to make the payment, they were sold to the highest bidder.

There are very few records on the indentured servants who worked and lived at Gunston Hall. The handful that remain give us a look at what type of servitude they were indentured into, the skills they acquired, and their primary responsibilities.

William Buckland

After receiving training as a carpenter and joiner in Oxford, England, William Buckland, at the age of 22, decided to sign an indenture contract with Thomson Mason, who was acting on behalf of his brother George. Buckland’s indenture began in 1755 and lasted for four years. His skills in designing and building fashionable woodwork yielded a sum of £20 sterling (an amount equaling about 3 months wages for a skilled laborer) per year in addition to room and board which included “meat, drink, washing, [and] lodging.” Buckland played a significant role in the creation of Gunston Hall and produced the elaborate interior designs that can still be seen today. Upon completing his indenture, he continued to design and construct houses and public buildings on the Northern Neck of Virginia and in Annapolis, Maryland.

William Bernard Sears

A skilled woodcarver, William Bernand Sears must have fallen on hard times. While living in London, he stole several articles of clothing and pawned them off. Sears was punished with a sentence of serving seven years as a “King’s Passenger,” or convict servant. At the time, only about 50% of Europeans newly arrived in North America lived longer than 6 months. Sears was placed on the colonies-bound ship Tyral in 1752. After beginning work on Gunston Hall in 1754, George Mason seems to have bought Sears’ contract–and thus his labor–from another person in the region. As a master carver, Sears translated William Buckland’s designs into wood. 

After Sears completed his indenture, he continued to work as a master carver. He carved a wooden mantlepiece in the dining room at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, as well as trained Washington’s enslaved carver, Sambo Anderson. He then worked on two churches, including Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia. Sears’ 1818 obituary stated that he “lived for a considerable time in the family of Col. George Mason of Gunston, who ever spoke of him in terms of highest respect.”

Timothy Hanly

Timothy Hanly was a sawyer, or someone skilled in sawing wood into boards. He came to America as a redemptioner, with two weeks after his arrival in the New World to find money to pay for his trip across the Atlantic. Hanly discovered what most other redemptioners learned: it was almost impossible to earn the money that quickly.  Hanley proved unable to pay his passage fare within the allotted time. George Mason bought his contract, paying the debt in exchange for Hanley’s work for a period of time. The Masons needed Timothy Hanly’s specialized skills in sawing wood, because one of the middle Mason sons, Thomson, was building his home, Hollin Hall. Hanly’s indenture lasted for 18 months.

John Davidson and David Constable

John Davidson from England, signed a contract as a free-will tutor for George Mason in 1770. Very few records of Davidson exist, but we can assume that his indenture term lasted between three to four years because another indentured tutor, David Constable, started his term in 1774.

David Constable, also someone who traveled to the colonies of his own free will, graduated from the College of Aberdeen in Scotland. Soon after, he left the British Isles to move to Virginia and tutor Ann and George Mason’s children.Constable lived and worked at Gunston Hall from 1774 through1781. After he completed his indenture, the young man moved to the Carribean island of Saint Kitts, where he took over his ailing brother’s business. George Mason helped smooth the way for Constable, writing to the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Nelson Jr., asking for a passport for Constable to travel to the West-Indies in 1781.

Thomas Spalding

Thomas Spalding, a free-will brick maker and brick layer, arrived at Gunston Hall in 1774. His contract stated that his indenture would last for four years, during which time, he would also receive a salary of £12 sterling. According to the Fairfax County Court, Spalding was not capable of performing his duties, and the court changed his original contract. The Court ruled that Spalding would have to finish the remainder of his indenture, but he would no longer receive wages.

German Coachman, Name Unknown

When George Mason needed someone to be a coachman, or drive his carriage, he purchased from another plantation owner an indenture contract that still had two years left. We know little about the man who was under contract. We know that he was a German immigrant, but we do not know his name.  When he was not driving the carriage, the man served as a waiter in the mansion. After he fulfilled his contract in 1787, the coachman stayed on at Gunston Hall, working out several yearly contracts. Staying on as a wage worker was a fairly common practice for people whose indenture agreements had run out. The unidentified man received wages of  £15 a year plus clothing. The clothing likely included livery (a uniform). A surviving letter to George Washington tells us that Mason did not think much of the coachman but kept him on because it was difficult to find skilled coachmen. Mason wrote to Washington that the coachman was “exceedingly lazy” and “incorrigibly addicted to liquor.”