Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dear Santa

By Young Gunston Hall Visitors
Edited by Santa

When a large man in a red suit came to visit Gunston Hall for Plantation Christmas on December 7, and again on December 15 for Breakfast with St. Nick, the jolly old elf encouraged his youthful visitors to write a letter to Santa so that he could deliver them to his production team at North Pole Central.

Though the tradition of Father Christmas in England dates back to Henry VIII and Saint Nicholas to the 4th century, we doubt that the nine Mason children ever penned letters to Santa, requesting the latest 18th century playthings.

Santa Claus was mentioned by name for the first time in print in America in a 1773 issue of a New York newspaper*, but the Gunston Hall household probably did not subscribe to that periodical, published by a notorious Tory.

Nonetheless, Santa was here and the kids were here and, in December 2013, here is what some of them had to say (Initials are used instead of names to preserve the Santa/Client privilege).

In 250 years, these Christmas lists will be studied by historians as avidly as we study children’s possessions from ancient times like hoops, lead soldiers, cornhusk dolls, Tinkertoys, and Cabbage Patch kids.

Dear Santa,
I have been a good boy. I would like an iPad mini, white please! And also a pee wee size Dallas Cowboys football.

Thank you Santa Claus for our Elf.

I would like rebecca the american girl doll and the movie frozen.

I would like a whole reindeer set, sleigh, and Santa. Don’t forget Rudolph!

I would love if you brout by the Halo Mega Bloks Pelican set…the one with yellow Spartans and one green pilot.

I want unlimited data plan & for my mom to stop laughing at me while I’m writing this.

I would really like a rainbow loom and an iPad. I would also like a puppy or a cat.

A space shuttle and farm tools.

No homework please.

No homework also.

Hess truck

Doc McStuffin Kit

Santa Claus (artist's rendering)
I would like a loom, Julie’s real bed, Molly mini doll. I also would like a mikroskop. I have been very good.

Merry Christmas
Hope you stay warm in the North Pole! And I want Legos and comics.

I want my ears pierced again and I want an Ipad.

I want a mermaid and a flute

For Christmas, I would like Ariel, Aurora, & Cinderella Legos I’ve been a very good girl

A dog dirt bick bord games ifon ipad crosbowe

I want a toy horse, a doll, and thank you.

How are you? Is everyone at the North Pole happy? Please tell me how many elves are there? Do your reindeer have wings?

I would like my own pool and a big house!

All I would like is a good long book.

I want a castle.

Lego Ninjago

I want a new ipad 3 with a purple case with hearts.

I would like Lalaloopsy and Beanie Boos.
Thank you

I would like a blue bike for Christmas. I have been so good this year but my sister has been so bad she does not believe in Santa but I do. I hope you get my letter.

P.S. Please believe me that my sister has been a real big fat meanie.

Dear Santa,
All I want for Christmas is to be with ones I love.

May you all receive that gift. Happy holidays from all of us at Gunston Hall.

* "Last Monday, the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s; where a great number of sons of the ancient saint the Sons of Saint Nicholas celebrated the day with great joy and festivity." Rivington’s Gazette (New York City), December 23, 1773.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Missing Boyhood Home on Stump Neck, Charles County, Maryland

By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director

In 1727 George Mason III relocated his wife and two year old son to western Charles County, MD from Virginia. He had purchased land in Doegs Neck, on Chicamuxen Creek which he later renamed Stump Neck to avoid confusion with his property across the river in Virginia. The move was possibly in response to a period of unrest in the Northern Neck due to restrictions placed on transported English prisoners who were now settlers in the area.

Mason acquired a number of tracts of land in Charles County through William Woodford, a London merchant who handled the business interests of Mason in England. The Charles County property was purchased in 1723, not deeded until 1725, and recorded in 1727. Mason rarely sold any of his land and leased out a majority of it as small farms.

Nanjemoy Parish Church.  Note the change in brick.
Before his premature death, Mason entered into an agreement to construct a new Charles County church in Nanjemoy Parish in 1732. It is likely Mason had his hand in the design and construction prior to his widow hiring John Hobson to complete the structure. This perhaps offered a young George IV his first glimpse of construction and planning he latter became so adept at.

On March 5, 1735, George Mason drowned when his vessel overturned attempting to cross the Potomac to Stump Neck. He was buried at Newtown.

From his estate inventory Mason had twenty three slaves and six indentured servants at Stump Neck. With his household goods comprising of a corner cupboard, an end table, several old prints and escritoire, curtains, bedding, furniture, earthenware plates glasses, etc… one room alone had twelve chairs. The question is what happened to this residence? By the time of George Mason IV’s estate inventory in December 1792 Stump Neck, some 1,200 acres, is simply listed as a farm with slaves, livestock and farming implements. No structure is listed. And we can assume that any slave cabin was not valued enough to list at all.

William Mason inherited the Stump Neck property from his father and on the death of William in 1820 his trustees advertised the Stump Neck property for sale in 1822, the same 1,200 acres, but with a comfortable dwelling house and barn. These structures may have been constructed after 1792, but the disappearance of the boyhood home of George IV is a question that needs further research.

Biles, Elmer S., George Mason IV A Brief Review of His Life; The Record, Vol. 96 No. 2, April 2003

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Well Traveled Mollusk

 By Dave Shonyo
Staff Archaeologist

It had lain there for perhaps 250 years – unseen, far from home, in strange company. Then it came to light again on a summer day in 2013.

Artifacts from a cache of possible ritual items.  On the left is one of two pieces of petrified wood found in the assemblage.   A cowrie shell is in the middle.  The right hand object is a Mason bottle seal.

One of George Mason’s sons, John, mentioned in his Recollections two clusters of slave dwellings near the Gunston Hall mansion. One was called “Log Town” and was located somewhere to the northwest of the mansion. To the east of the mansion were “servant houses.” The remains of slave dwellings on colonial-era plantations are notoriously difficult to find, and none had been found at Gunston Hall. The structures seldom had masonry foundations. Rather, they were usually anchored to the ground with posts. So, all that is left of the structures are a series of discolorations in the soil where the posts used to be.

Slave dwellings usually had earthen floors. Pits were often dug into the floors by the occupants. These sub-floor pits (sometimes called “hidey-holes”) could be used to store certain kinds of food items and keep personal belongings out of sight. They could also sometimes be used to house ritual items. It is often these pits that provide an archaeologist a first clue that the site of a slave dwelling has been found.

During the 2013 field season we excavated in an area to the east of the mansion, well beyond where the formally-maintained lawns and gardens would have been in Mason’s time. Among the findings were two adjacent, well-defined circular pits. One was a bit over two-feet in diameter and the other was about six feet in diameter.

Could these be sub-floor pits that once resided in a slave dwelling? Circular sub-floor pits have been reported from other plantation sites, but they are not common. A circular pit six-feet in diameter would be particularly unusual. The soil that filled the smaller pit did not contain any artifacts. However, the bottom of the pit contained a layer of small cobbles. The top-most layer of cobbles was arranged in a spiral pattern. Spirals are powerful symbols in many West African traditional cultures. It is possible, therefore, that the pit had some spiritual significance.

The larger pit appears to have been used as a receptacle for trash and garbage after it was no longer being used for its original purpose. The abundant artifacts found here are just what would expect from the dwelling of slaves that worked in the mansion and the surrounding grounds and outbuildings. The floor of the pit was lined with a single layer of cobbles. Near the center of the pit floor was found an interesting assemblage of artifacts. These were: A bottle seal bearing the initials of George and Ann Mason (plus the date, 1760), two pieces of petrified wood and a cowrie shell (see photo).

Bottle seals are not uncommon artifacts at Gunston Hall, but petrified wood and cowries are not native to any place near the site. The cowrie is of particular interest, since these shells are usually associated with slave occupation areas when found in this region of North America. Traditionally, two species of cowrie (and ours is not one of those species) were used as money in West Africa. Other cowries had a symbolic significance, representing fertility, childbearing and wealth. They were also used in divination. These traditions accompanied the West Africans who were brought as slaves to the New World.

The species found at Gunston Hall has been identified as a reticulated cowrie helmet (Cypraecassis testiculus). This is a mollusk native to the waters of the tropical West Atlantic and Caribbean. The Gunston Hall specimen is the only example of the species to have been found an archeological site in Virginia. In fact, cowries (all of other species) have been found at only two other sites in Northern Virginia: Ferry Farm (one specimen) and Mount Vernon (two specimens).

According to records covering the years 1700 to 1770, only 36% of slave ships disembarking in Northern Virginia ports came directly from Africa. The others came from the Caribbean or mainland North America. So, it seems reasonable to surmise that the Gunston cowrie was originally gathered by a slave residing in the Caribbean region or a more southerly American colony and accompanied a slave who was traded north. It may have been passed from hand to hand, perhaps over several generations. (The glossy surface typical of cowrie shells has been almost completely worn away.)

So, what was the shell doing at the bottom of a pit dating to the 1760’s or 1770’s? First of all, it should be said that the evidence uncovered so far strongly suggests that we have a sub-floor pit in a slave dwelling, but there is not yet enough evidence to declare that with certainty. The investigation is still a work in progress. However, assuming for the moment that this was a sub-floor pit, let’s speculate a little about the assemblage of artifacts found at its base. First, there is the cowrie shell with its strong traditional symbolisms. Then, there is the petrified wood. What kind of powerful magic would it take to turn wood to stone? Perhaps some of that power still resided in the stone. Finally, the bottle seal with its initials has a strong personal connection with the Master and his wife. Could this be a kind of magic kit? Were spells being cast here and fortunes being told? While we are speculating, let’s take another look at that large pit. Why would someone go to the trouble of digging an almost perfectly circular, bowl-shaped pit just to store yams (or whatever) when it would be easier, faster and just as useful to dig another shape? Does this pit also have some spiritual significance? Oh, well. It may turn out to be something much more mundane. Nevertheless, I kind of like the idea of magic being worked out behind the Big House at Gunston Hall.


My thanks go to Prof. Barbara Heath for sharing the text of her presentation on Cowrie Shells in Colonial Virginia (given at the Annual Meeting of the Council for Northeastern Historical Archaeology, Nov. 8-10, 2013), from which I have shamelessly borrowed some of the above information. I also thank Dr. Jerry Haresewych of the Div, of Mollusks, Smithsonian Institution, for identifying the species of the Gunston Cowrie.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thinking About 18th Century Christmas Foodways

By B.L. Trahos
Co-Founder of the Gunston Hall Hearth Cooking Program

On December25, 1739, William Byrd wrote in his diary that “I ate boiled Turkey and oysters.” On January 7, 1740, he “…walked till dinner when I ate cold boiled beef….drew Twelfth Cake, gave the people cake and cider.” On December 25, 1740, he notes that he had roast turkey for dinner and on January 7, 1741; he ate roast goose but makes no mention of a cake.

Phillip Fithian noted on his first Christmas Day at Nomini Hall in 1773 that he “was waked this morning by guns fired all around the house…Before I was Drest, the fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk…our dinner was no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever set down to.” On December 29 of that same year he wrote “we had a large Pye cut today to signify the conclusion of the Holidays”.

While in Alexandria on Christmas Day 1774, Nicholas Cresswell observed “Christmas Day But Little observed here.” And on January 7, 1775, “Last night I went to a Ball. It seems this is one of their annual Balls supported in the following Manner: a large Rich Cake is provided and cut into small pieces and handed round to the company….A cold supper, punch, wines, coffee and chocolate, but no Tea. This is a forbidden herb.”

If you have visited Mount Vernon during past holiday seasons, you may remember seeing a Christmas Yorkshire Pye and a Great Cake displayed either in the dining room or the kitchen. You may even have been given a copy of Washington family receipts (recipes) for these dishes. The Washington archives indicated that they were a part of the Christmas and/or Twelfth Night tradition at Mount Vernon. Certainly the quotations noted above would seem to support the possibility that Christmas Pies and Rich (or Great) cakes were a part of the season, at least among the landed gentry, in Virginia.

So the question arises, was Mr. Mason’s table similarly set? Would he have had a Christmas Pye in the center with a joint of meat or fowl at each end and corners of either fresh or preserved vegetable and/or fruits? The truth is… we do not know. There is no record surviving. Certainly he had the wealth to supply anything he wanted on his table. Eighteenth century receipt books available in Virginia and known to be in the libraries of wealthy Virginia gentlemen, not only gave receipts for syllabubs, puddings, pies, rich cakes, seed cakes, beef, pork, fish and fowl, but also gave the hostess diagrams indicating how to set her table for each course.

Would Mr. and Mrs. Mason and their family have gone to balls in Alexandria or at private homes? Might one of the family have gotten the “bean” in the Twelfth Night cake and been responsible for hosting the next ball or baking the next Rich Cake? We do not know. All is speculation! But if you can come Plantation Christmas at Gunston Hall the second week-end in December, taste the Great Cake. Close your eyes and imagine yourself celebrating the season with Col. and Mrs. Mason and George, Jnr., Nancy, William, Thomson, Betsy, Sally, Mary, John, and Thomas.

A Yorkshire Christmas-Pye

First make a good Standing Crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick, bone a Turkey, a Goose, a Fowl, a Partridge, and a Pigeon, season them all very well, take an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, half an Ounce of black Pepper, all beat fine together, two large Spoonfuls of Salt, mix them together. Open the Fowls, all down the Back, and bone them; first the Pigeon, the partridge, cover them; then the Fowl, then the Goose, and then the Turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the Crust, so as it will look only like a whole Turkey; then have a Hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to Pieces, that is jointed; season it , and lay it as close as you can on one Side; on the other Side Woodcock, more Game, and what Sort of wild Fowl you can get. Season them well and lay them close; put at least four Pounds of B utter into the Pye, then lay on your Lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a hot Oven, and take at least four Hours.

This Pye will take a Bushel of Flour; in this Chapter, you will see how to make it. These Pies are often sent to London in a Box as Presents; therefore the Walls must be well built.

To make a Rich Cake

Take four Pound of Flower well dried and sifted, seven Pound of Currants washed and rubb’d, six Pound of best fresh Butter, two pound of Jordon Almonds blanched, and beaten with Orange Flower water and Sack till they are fine, then take four Pound of Eggs, put half the whites away, three pound of double refin’d Sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter an ounce of Mace, the same of Cloves, and Cinnamon, three large nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little Ginger, half a Pint of Sack, half a Pint of right French Brandy, Sweetmeats to your liking, they must be Orange, Lemon, and Citron. Work your Butter to a Cream with your Hands before any of your Ingredients are in, then put in your Sugar, mix it well together; let your eggs be well beat, and strained’d thro a Sieve, work in your Almonds first, then put in your Eggs, beat them all together till they look white and thick, then put in your sack and Brandy and Spices, and shake your Flour in by Degrees, and when your Oven is ready, put in your Currants and Sweetmeats as you put it in your hoop; it will take four Hours baking in a quick Oven, you must keep it beaten with your hand all the While you are mixing of it, and when your Currants are well washed and clean’d let them be kept before the Fire, so that they may be warm into your Cake. This Quantity will bake best in two Hoops. The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747) H. Glasse

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

By Susan Blankenship

There are no references to Thanksgiving Day in 17th and 18th century Virginia, although the concept was first introduced nationally by a Congressional proclamation in October 1782. That said, the weeks following the annual harvest were often times of giving thanks communally for bountiful crops, safe passage to the colonies, temperate weather, and of fellowship and family celebrations.

George and Ann Mason of Gunston Hall were well-known hosts for such 18th century gatherings, with guest lists including not only local residents and Truro Parish worshippers, but also noteworthy founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Henry. What grand gatherings these must have been.

As I prepared my home for a family Thanksgiving, I wondered if George Mason would have ever imagined that his home, though opulent and well-built, would still be standing in 2013, so very close to its original appearance, and welcoming guests from around the world. 

What a monument and legacy literally thousands have created together in his honor. With this in mind, the Staff of Gunston Hall offers thanks to the generous and insightful people who have lovingly and painstakingly made this achievement possible. They include: Members of the Gunston Hall Board of Regents and The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, knowledgeable stewards and supporters of the property, who have insisted that restoration and maintenance be at the highest level of research and scholarship. The Commonwealth of Virginia, who received ownership of the property through last private owner Louis Hertle’s will and sustains Gunston Hall as an educational agency. The Friends of Gunston Hall, who are loyal and generous members of our most important annual fund raising program. The Gunston Hall Docents’ Association, volunteers who skillfully help plan and staff the many fine educational tours and annual public programs offered. The Gunston Hall Historic Interpreters’ Society, who re-create persons from the past with creativity and encourage audience engagement. The Mason Neck neighbors, civic associations and residents who embrace and support Gunston Hall as a significant asset to the community. There are many more individuals and organizations to which we owe thanks; unfortunately space and a reader’s patience prevent a complete listing. Please know that you are appreciated no less than those explicitly listed above.

Today and every day we give our humble thanks to you, our friends and supporters. We could not do it without you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Louis Hertle Restores Gunston Hall

By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director 

In November of 1912, retired Chicago businessman Louis Hertle in search of a historic home visited the Washington, DC area responding to a letter concerning the sale of ‘Snowden’ in Fredericksburg, Virginia which was later withdrawn from sale. Hertle looked at a number of other properties, not to his liking, before being shown Gunston Hall by its then owner Mrs. Kester, mother of the late playwright and author, Vaughn Kester. Hertle was impressed by Gunston Hall, but decided to look at other Virginia properties before making a decision. Hertle visited another historic property for sale near Fredericksburg, called Chatham. The home was offered at a very low price and fully furnished. But the lure of Gunston Hall was too strong. Visiting the property again and meeting with Paul Kester, Vaughn’s brother and current occupant of the house, Hertle made an offer and purchased Gunston Hall for the sum of $24,000.

In January 1913, Hertle contacted the Washington Architect Glenn Brown who after visiting Gunston Hall commented on Hertle’s purchase, “How did you have the nerve to buy this old place?” Glenn Brown and his son Bedford started working on plans and hiring workmen for the restoration. Hertle lived in a cottage onsite for most of 1913 while work went on at Gunston Hall. Local labor was responsible for a majority of the work and a dozen of those were all men from Shiloh Baptist Church.

Hertle purchased a new Cadillac car to commute between Washington and Gunston Hall, the novelty of a car on Mason Neck caused a stir among the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church, although the poor roads made the use of the car in the winter months impossible.

During the restoration, The tower constructed by Col. Daniels c.1870 was removed, layers of paint were stripped from the brick exterior, and plumbing and central heating were installed for the first time in the house. The present servant staircase had been converted into a closet for the first floor bed chamber. Hertle had the back staircase restored leading from the basement to the second floor. Hertle remarks on workmen removing about 5 layers of wallpaper from the Palladian room down to the pine boards, with the earliest paper c.1850.

To mark the hundredth anniversary of Hertle’s purchase and the start of his restoration, and also the Virginia Year of the Historic House, we hosted a Seminar this past November 16th with invited speakers focusing on the history and preservation of historic homes. Presenting were;

  • Sarah Dillard Pope, Ruins, Memory, and Imagination: ContemporaryArchitectural Design Solutions at Historic Menokin
  • Judy Anderson, A Century of Preservation at the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, MA
  • Dr. Carl Lounsbury, The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg
  • Mark Wenger, The Restoration of James Madison's Montpelier
  • Doug Harnsberger, Addressing the Restoration Challenges at the 1757 Georgian Manor "Salubria" Following the Destructive Mineral Earthquake
We want to thank our speakers and attendees for helping us celebrate an important milestone for Gunston Hall. We will continue to investigate and continue the restoaration process on Gunston Hall so that it will be appreciated for many generations to come.
People and Places
Snowden House is the home of Mary Washington Healthcare Foundation. The house was acquired by the healthcare system in 1989, when it purchased the surrounding land to build a new hospital and medical campus. The estate dates back to the 1770s. The original main house was destroyed in 1925 by a fire and then was later rebuilt in 1926. A stone house that was built in 1770 still stands today.

Vaughan or Vaughn Kester (September 12, 1869 – July 4, 1911) was a U.S. novelist and journalist. He was the elder brother of dramatist and author Paul Kester (1870–1933). His style and topics were influenced by his travels through western and southern U.S., and by his mother's cousin William Dean Howells. His novel, "The Manager of the B & A," was made into a film in 1916 directed by J.P. McGowan, with Leo Maloney and Helen Holmes, reissued in 1921 as "The Man from Medicine Hat." He married Jessie B. Jennings from Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 31, 1898. They had no children. In 1902, with his brother, he purchased and renovated Woodlawn Plantation. From 1907, he lived at Gunston Hall, where he wrote The Prodigal Judge, and where he died.

Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh, after about 3 years of construction, on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. It was for more than a century the center of a large, thriving plantation. Flanking the main house were dozens of supporting structures: slave quarters, a dairy, ice house, barns, stables.

Shiloh Baptist Church, founded in 1869 and built on land purchased from Col. Daniels in 1872, is across Gunston Road at the entrance to Gunston Hall.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mother of the Forgotten Founder

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

George Mason may be left out of the mix when the American Founders are mentioned, but even more than men, women are often left out of the historical record.  Not much is known about the women who surrounded Mason.  His mother, Ann Thomson Mason, is one of the women we know a little more about.

Reverend John Moncure, a family friend, said of her "She was a good woman, a great woman, and a lovely woman."  She was also a strong and capable woman, as put to the test with the death of her husband in 1735, which left her with three young children and a great deal of land to manage with the assistance of the children's paternal uncle, John Mercer.

Records suggest that she was incredibly successful in this endeavor.  Upon the age of legal majority in 1746, George Mason came into full responsibility for thousands of acres spanning Virginia from the Northern Neck into modern Fairfax County, as well as land in Charles County, Maryland.  This includes the property at Stump Neck where they are believed to have resided at the death of George Mason III.

Records are slim again until 1760, when Ann Thomson Mason drew up her will, and edited it in November of 1762, shortly before she died.  Ann appointed her friend and relation, the Reverend John Moncure, as her executor.  He produced her will in court in December 1762.  Contrary to popular belief, women could indeed own property in the 18th century, and Ann Thomson Mason was one of those fortunates.

She left her "land lying on Goose Creek in Charles County' in Maryland" to George Mason IV, and to a favored nephew, "five hundred acres of land lying in Loudoun County."  Most of the other bequests were for smaller items, "silver salvers," the "stock of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs," and "my ring and castors, two salts [and] my soop spoons."

Misfortune had again greeted this stoic 18th century matriarch in 1751 with the death of her daughter Mary Mason Selden.  Ann left a number of items to her grandchildren of that line, including household goods, slaves and livestock.  The most touching bequest to those children was this:

"It is my will and desire that my cousin Frances Moncure, the wife of John Moncure, Clerk, take care of my daughter Mary Thomson Selden's picture now in my hall and give it to my grandson Samuel Selden when he comes of age, but if he should die before he becomes of age that then it be given to my granddaughter Mary Selden."

Ann Thomson Mason was 62 years old when she died on November 13, 1762.

Rowland, Kate Mason. The Life of George Mason. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A New Future for a New Gunston Hall

In 2012, the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall initiated a planning process designed to articulate strategies necessary for the advancement of Gunston Hall over the next five years.  Led by a committee of Regents, this process also included the participation, involvement, and input of a diverse group of volunteers, neighbors, community leaders, political figures, subject matter experts, partners, and representatives of the staff team.  The Strategic Planning Committee sought this broad constituency as part of a renewed organization-wide commitment to engagement and the energy, insight, and inspiration provided by these supporters informed and shaped the resulting Plan in significant ways.  Accordingly, on behalf of the Regents, I am honored and pleased to thank all those who participated in development of the Plan. The Plan’s richness, breath, and scope would not have been possible without these dedicated individuals; thank you!

The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall adopted the Strategic Plan during their October meeting and I am excited to publically share key aspects of this Plan in our Blog.  Specifically, the Plan articulates the following:


That both George Mason and Gunston Hall achieve broader national recognition, George Mason for the significance of his unique contributions to the universal cause of human rights and Gunston Hall as a premier historic site, for the purpose of increasing the knowledge and understanding of those we serve.


To utilize fully the physical and scholarly resources of Gunston Hall to stimulate continuing public exploration of democratic ideals as first presented by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.


1.       Integrity                                                5.    Creativity
2.       Accessibility                                         6.    Collaboration
3.       Authenticity                                          7.    Initiative
4.       Service                                                 8.    Leadership


1.       We will facilitate a dynamic learning environment.
2.       We will keep George Mason and his work central to our programs.
3.       We will focus on service and the guest experience in all our on-site, off-site and digital
4.       We will facilitate experiences based on scholarship, that are physically and intellectually
          accessible, and that are inclusive.
5.       We will encourage learning, reflection, dialogue, engagement, and enjoyment.
6.       We will seek collaborations and partnerships.
7.       We will demonstrate a commitment to operational and environmental sustainability.


  1. To establish Gunston Hall as a national and international resource for the study and interpretation of the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a document of enduring international significance and the pivotal role of George Mason as its author.
  2. To create a dynamic mix of authentic educational experiences providing value, impact, and benefit to a diverse audience.
  3. To establish a structure of governance which meets the intent of the Deed of Gift, through collaboration between the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, Inc., a private non-profit corporation, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  4. To sustain an acclaimed reputation for Gunston Hall, capture the hearts and minds of our stakeholders, and effectively promote and share what we are uniquely able to provide to those we serve.
  5. To enhance operational, strategic, and financial sustainability by utilizing the necessary knowledge and resources to be successful as an organization.
  6. To preserve in superior condition Gunston Hall, the cultural resources, and the natural ecosystems entrusted to our care; to provide an accessible, comfortable, sustainable, and safe environment for all our stakeholders; and to facilitate a gateway experience for our guests through our management of this unique site that enriches all who visit.
  7. To facilitate authentic, accessible, research and collections based experiences for our guests which will maximize opportunities associated with the distinctive cultural resources of Gunston Hall.

As we hope you can discern from the Plan itself, Gunston Hall is passionately committed to education, collaboration, community, stewardship, reputation, and sustainability.  These foundational concepts are incorporated into the Plan in myriad ways. Equally important, we are committed to benchmarks, measurements, metrics, evaluation, and a process of collective review which will assess our public impact and value as determined by you, our guests, members, and friends.  As such, much in the same way the development of the Plan relied upon a host of perspectives and voices, the success of our Plan will also rely on how well we meet the needs of our public.

In many ways, therefore, this is not our Plan, this is OUR plan, inclusive of all those associated with Gunston Hall or who have a stake in our work.  This Plan, OUR Plan, is not a static bound document for periodic internal use, it is a public statement of aspirations and values and ideas that we hope and expect to evolve based on our collective and shared effort to fulfill our vision and mission. This Plan, OUR Plan, is also not an expression of hope, it is an expression of belief—belief in Gunston Hall, belief in the lasting relevance and importance of George Mason and his writings, belief in the importance of historic sites as places for dialogue, learning, inspiration, and action, and belief in our ability to positively and proactively provide something critically important and of value to those we serve.

In conclusion, George Mason is often referred to as the “forgotten founder.”  As we embark on this new beginning, guided by OUR Plan, we will ensure Mason is no longer “forgotten,” but we will also ensure all of you, those who are involved at the founding of this new beginning and those of you who, through your time, effort, and financial support ensured the sustainability and continuing vitality of Gunston Hall from its first founding, are also not forgotten.


Scott Muir Stroh III
Executive Director
November 6, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Hallow's Eve

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager
Halloween approaches. This evening millions of children across America will be donning costumes, grabbing bags and buckets, and ringing doorbells to the sound of “Trick or Treat.” Thoughts niggle in some parents’, or even kids’, brains: What was Halloween like in the past? Some of the participants in the recent Halloween at Gunston event may have been wondering what it was like for the children that lived in that home.

Halloween as we imagine it today is a product of the middle and the end of the 19th century with increasing numbers of Irish immigrants. To really understand that phenomenon, however, one must step much farther back in history. The essence of Halloween can be traced back to ancient pagan religions, particularly the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This festival heralded the new year for the Celtic peoples, and a time when the skin between the worlds of the living and the dead were at their thinnest. Parts of the festivities included celebrating the end of the harvest, costumes, bonfires and honoring the dead. 

With the advent of Christianity, these celebrations changed. Pope Greogry III altered the existing All Martyrs Day, on November 1st, to include all Saints as well. This day was sometimes referred to as All Hallow’s Day, and the preceding day was given the moniker All Hallow’s Evening. The name was eventually shortened to the modern Halloween. The celebration was a fairly solemn affair.

By the 18th century, and in the American colonies, the appearance of Halloween was scattered. It was much more common in the Southern colonies and Maryland, than in the northern, Puritan colonies. Fortune Telling, ghost stories and harvest festivals were also prevalent throughout 18th century history, and not purely limited to one day.

It is hard to say whether or not the Masons of Gunston Hall celebrated Halloween in some way, if at all. They left no written records of the practice. No doubt they would celebrate a good harvest. And Mason clearly commemorated the dead with the moving eulogy he inscribed in the family bible for his wife Ann Eilbeck.  Mason, himself, died in October 1792, so no doubt there were funereal practices honoring his death at the end of the month that year.

Gunston Hall Gazette, October 2008. 
"Ancient Origins of Halloween,", accessed October 30, 2013.
Theobald, Mary Miley, "Some Pumpkins! Halloween and Pumpkins in Colonial America," Colonial Williamsburg,, accessed, October 30, 2013.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Immigrate?

In the case of George Mason I [1629-1686] if you were on the losing side during the English Civil War and the new government’s policy was to confiscate the lands of supporters of the Crown, the Americas probably looked like a great opportunity to start again.

The defeat of the Royalist forces in the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 ended the Third English Civil War between the supporters of Charles II and the forces of Oliver Cromwell. Family legend held that George Mason was a colonel but his name was not found among the military rolls. He may have just been a young adventurer caught up in a cause.

George at 22 left Pershore, Hereford, Worcestershire, England and sailed from Bristol on the ship Assurance, and after landing in Norfolk in late December 1651/ January 1652 he settled on the Potomac River. He did not arrive as a stranger but settled in an area held by Capt. Giles Brent, a Catholic recusant; those who refused to attend Anglican services.  Brent had connections with the Mason family in England. George also was able to take up a number of headrights in a land patent, having a claim of land for paying the passage, averaging about £6 per passage per person in the 17th century, for other settlers. The headright earned per settler equaled about 50 acres. 

After paying for the passage of an individual to make it to the colonies, one had to obtain a patent for the land. First, the governor or local county court had to provide a certificate that verified the validity of the importation of a person. The man seeking land would then select the land he desired and have an official survey made. The patent’s claimant would then take the description of this land to the colony’s secretary who created the patent that would then be approved by the governor. Once a headright was obtained it was treated like a commodity and could be bought, sold, or traded. It also could be saved indefinitely and used at a later date. Mason did not acquire patent rights to his land until March 1656/57. Gov. Edward Digges [1620-1674]* granted Capt. Mason 900 acres abutting northwest upon Aquia creek.  With the title ‘Captain’ coming from his appointment to the county militia.

George reportedly brought his younger brother William [1632-1702/7?]. William apparently settled with George on the Potomac then returned to Norfolk to establish his family seat. He married Virginia [?] and had two sons Ralph and John. The family later moved to Southern Virginia which is now known as Pasquotank Co., North Carolina.

George goes on to make a place for himself among the Virginia gentry of the time, serving as a county justice and later appointed High Sheriff of Stafford county and also representing, in the House of Burgesses, Westmorland and later Stafford County. 

 *His tombstone reads To the memory of Edward Digges Esq. Sonne of Dudley Digges of Chilham in Kent Kn t & Bar t Master of the Rolls in the rain of K. Charles the First. He departed this life 15th of March 1674 in the LIII d year of his age, one of his Mag ty Councill for this his colony of Virginia. A gentlemen of most commendable parts and ingenuity, the only introducer and promoter of the silk manufacture in this colony. And in everything else a pattern worthy of all Pious Imitation. He had issue 6 sons and 7 daughters by the body of Elizabeth his wife who of her conjugal affection hath dedicated to him this Memorial.

“Early Virginia Emigrants” 1623-1666, p. 220.
Baird, Robert (2001). "Understanding Headrights".