Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Lost Mason Burying Ground Has Been Found

By Dave Shonyo
Staff Archaeologist
Within easy view of the Gunston Hall mansion there stands a point of land high above the coastal plain. In George Mason’s time, when the slope was not covered with trees, the point would have offered a splendid view of the Potomac and the majority of the plantation’s agricultural lands. It was here that Mason established his family burying ground.
The first occupants of the burying ground were James and Richard Mason, the prematurely-born twin sons of George and Ann. The boys were born and died in December 1772. In March 1773 their mother, Ann, followed them to the burying ground.
This was not the first time that death in his immediate family had stricken George Mason. In 1757, while Gunston Hall was still under construction, he lost his fifteen-month-old son William. Mason recorded the death in the margin of his family Bible, noting that William “…was buried at the Family Burying Place at Newtown.” Newtown was the plantation established by Mason ’s Grandfather, George Mason II. The site of the Newtown house is about 1,500 feet north of the Gunston Hall mansion, in what is presently a much overgrown, wooded area.
 In the early 1890’s, Kate Mason Rowland visited Gunston Hall for the purpose of gathering material for several magazine articles and a two-volume biography of Mason. In the latter she wrote, “ ‘New Town’…has passed away utterly; the very name of it is unknown in the neighborhood today. And recent owners of the land have ruthlessly ploughed up the old graveyard, one of the old tombstones having been left leaning against a tree in one of the fields.” 

Dennis Johnson uses ground penetrating radar to help
pinpoint the location of the Newtown burying ground.  He
was able to map 15 gravesites.  (Photo by Patrick Ladden.)
 It is not clear whether Rowland actually knew where the Newtown burying ground was located. However, at least since the time of her visit, it has been lost - first under a plowed field and then under a forest that replaced the field.

Newtown has a claim to fame in addition to being one of the earliest historic sites in Fairfax County: it is the probable birthplace of George Mason. For this reason there is interest in making the site suitable for interpretation to the public. To that end, we have begun clearing part of the Newtown area and examining it from an archaeological perspective.
While conducting a surface reconnaissance, Paul Inashima, an archaeological consultant to Gunston Hall, made an intriguing discovery. Amongst the brambles and other forest undergrowth, about 250 feet south of the Newtown house site, lay two shallow depressions in the earth. They were side by side and just about the size and shape one would expect of graves. Could these be part of the long lost burying ground?
Paul and Gary Knipling, a Gunston Hall neighbor and advocate, proceeded to clear about 6,000 square feet of area around the depressions of all but the largest trees. Dennis Johnson, former President of Geophysical  Survey Systems, Inc., brought in some ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment that he helped develop. The results of the radar survey are shown in the accompanying diagram.
The fifteen graves indicated by the radar survey are all aligned in the same direction and are arranged in rows of varying lengths. There can be little doubt that this is the Newtown burying ground. But, who are all of these people?

The graves detected during the ground penetrating radar survey are shown as
blue rectangles.  The red arrows indicate the depressions that first suggested
that this was the location of the Newtown burying ground.  The green circles
are large trees.  (Image by Dennis Johnson and Paul Inashima.)
Only one burial is known to be documented, and that is the infant William. Mason referred to this as a family burying place, which strongly suggests that other Masons and Mason kin preceded William here. There is some, rather tenuous, evidence that Mason’s father was buried here after his drowning death in 1735. And, if that is the case, is seems reasonable to surmise that Mason’s mother would have been brought here after her death at Chopawamsic in 1762.
Jeremiah Bronaugh leased Newtown from 1731 until his death in 1749. His tombstone currently resides at Pohick Church, but Jeremiah does not. It is likely that this is the tombstone that Rowland saw leaning against the tree during her visit. This would make Bronaugh another candidate for a Newtown burying ground occupant. Bronaugh’s wife, Simpha Rosa Ann Field Mason Bronaugh was a maternal aunt of George Mason and was living at Gunston Hall at the time of her death in 1761. It is quite probable that she was buried with her husband at Newtown.
Finally, Thompson Mason, the brother of George, requested in his will that his sons remove the body of his first wife, Mary, from Gunston Hall and reinter her at his home at Raspberry Plain. Mary died in October 1771, before the present family burying ground was established at Gunston Hall. So, Mary King Barns Mason was probably buried at Newtown. Whether her body was relocated to Raspberry Plain as requested is not known.
That leaves at least nine graves with unknown occupants. The number may grow yet larger because it is planned to survey an additional area adjacent to that already completed. In any case, the last resting places of a group of people who pioneered the settlement and development of this area have now been recovered from oblivion.

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