Thursday, August 29, 2013

Khayaking on Mason Neck

 by Janet Cole
Mason Neck Resident

George Mason's "Hole in the Wall," this break
in the bluff allowed Mason access to the shore, as
described by his son John.
Visitors arriving by car at Gunston Hall may find it difficult to comprehend the significance of its location on Mason Neck and the Potomac River.  One gets a hint by standing at the west entrance to the great hall, where a bit of the river and the Maryland shoreline can be seen.  In George Mason’s day, however, when fields were cleared, the river view would have stretched from north to south.  He must have been able to watch the passing ships from his study window.

Col. Mason knew this land intimately, for much of it had been in the Mason family for nearly 100 years.  For his manor house, he chose one of the two highest locations on Mason Neck and picked the other one for Lexington, the home he built for his son and heir, George V.  What’s more, the river curves around both of these sites and provides multiple spots for fine landings, a valuable asset as nearly all the commerce of the day was carried out by ships.  Maps show that the 5,500 acres owned by Mason were surrounded on three sides by the river or major creeks and coves.  A narrow neck of land, about a mile in width, allowed the property of be easily enclosed.

A watercolor of the landing at Gunston Hall.
Mason himself had at least five major landings, places where the natural slope of the land provided easy access to water that was deep enough to carry small boats to the larger ships standing offshore.  Most wharves were associated with his several “Quarters,” or farms:  Upper and Lower Gunston, Hallowing Point, Dogue’s Island (on the Occoquan), and Dogues Neck (at Sycamore Point).  Numerous other wharfs and landings developed through the years and reflect the names of their owners or location:  Barn Landing, Iona Wharf, Causeway Landing, Gabriel’s Tobacco Bed Landing, Maills Landing, Halfway Landing, Crawford’s Landing, and Bronaugh’s Landing.

A modern day view of the Potomac from the Gunston Hall
landing.  Click on the image to read the legend identifying
the landmasses.
Today,  no single road connects these landings, and many are on private private property.  The only way to truly understand George Mason’s plantation and how it functioned is by water, preferably by kayak or canoe.  One can quietly imagine the creaking wagons bringing bales of tobacco down to a dock, carriages arriving from the Mansion to pick up visitors who arrived by boat, sailing vessels standing offshore to unload shipments of fine goods from England, and fishing nets strung out to capture the rich marine resources of the river.

Fortunately, several places on Mason Neck do provide public access to this historical shoreline, as noted below.  Future blogs will describe the facilities available at each location and how you can reach the sites of some of these old Mason Neck landings.

1)  Pohick Bay Regional Park:  10301 Gunston Road, Mason Neck, Lorton, VA.   703-339-8585.  Large and small boat launches,  seasonal rental canoes and kayaks, swimming pool, hiking, and picnic areas.  Access to Pohick and Accotink Creeks and Gunston Cove.

2)  Mason Neck State Park:  7301 High Point Rd, Mason Neck, Lorton, VA.  703 339-2385.  Small craft (non motorized)  launch, seasonal canoe and kayak rentals, picnic area, hiking.  Access to Belmont Bay and Kanes Creek.

3}  Occoquan Regional Park:  9520 Ox Road (Rt. 123).  703 690-2121.   Access to Belmont Bay and Occoquan River (Below the dam).  No boat rentals.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

George Mason and His Eponyms

By Frank Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

Eponym (noun)
1 : one for whom or which something is or is believed to be named
2 : a name (as of a drug or a disease) based on or derived from an eponym

One measure of a person’s fame may be when he has something named in his honor. That “other George” who lived up the river from Gunston Hall (you know the one: first President, slept in a lot of places, fought a war) has his share of eponyms. A state. Counties in 31 states, including Maryland and Virginia. Cities, including the Nation’s Capital. A plethora of roads, monuments, boulevards, bridges, subdivisions, parks, a submarine, an aircraft carrier—just spending $1.25 you might see the man’s picture twice on a bill and a coin. The man even has an asteroid named in his honor.

But our man George, the master of Gunston Hall, for a man sometimes known as the “forgotten founder,” has his fair share of eponymous fame.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, named two counties in Virginia after George Mason.

George Mason Postcard with an
eponymous stamp, issued in 1981.

The first Mason County was established by the General Assembly in 1788, and was formed from part of Bourbon County, way out west in the Kentucky District of Virginia. Unfortunately, Kentucky became a state in 1792 and took Mason County with it.

But Virginia knew the importance of the man from Gunston Hall, so in 1804, another Mason County was formed in the western part of the state from parts of Kanawha County. That county stayed in Virginia until 1863 when West Virginia, having voted against secession from the Union, seceded from Virginia and became a state in its own right, taking Mason County with it.

So while George Washington was honored with only one Virginia county, George Mason was honored with counties by the people of Virginia twice. Virginia just couldn’t hang on to either of them.

Along with Mason County, Kentucky; and Mason County, West Virginia; Illinois also has a Mason County named for George Mason in 1841. Mason County, Texas, was named for Fort Mason, which was named for Lt. George Thomson Mason, son of George Mason VI, who was named for George Mason V, who was named for our George Mason IV of Gunston Hall.

Mason County, Michigan, while not named for George Mason, was named for Michigan Governor Stevens Thomson Mason, who was George Mason’s great-grandnephew.

George Mason University, Center for Performing Arts
Also named for George Mason are:
  • George Mason University (founded as a branch of the University of Virginia in 1957, it became an independent institution in 1972.)
  • George Mason High School in Falls Church, VA (1952)
  • George Mason Elementary School in Richmond (1909)
  • George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria (1939)
  • The George Mason Award—since 1964 this annual award has been given by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to a person who has made a significant contribution to journalism in Virginia.
  • George Mason Memorial Bridge (1962. This is the southbound span of the five bridges linking Virginia with Washington, D.C., collectively known as the “14th Street Bridge”)
  • Grandchildren
    • George Mason VI (son of George Mason V)
    • George Mason of Hollin Hall (son of William)
    • George William Mason (son of Thomson)
    • George Mason McCarty (son of Sarah Eilbeck Mason McCarty)
    • George Mason Cooke (son of Mary Thomson Mason Cook)

Guides and docents at Gunston Hall often get questions about other possible Mason namesakes such as:

Mason-Dixon Line—Not our guy. This line separating north from south is named for English astronomer/surveyor Charles Mason.

Mason jar—Again, not our Mason. This was invented by Philadelphia tinsmith John Landis Mason in 1858.

Masonite—This particle board building product was invented in 1924 by William H. Mason.

James Mason—English actor who played Capt. Nemo in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. No relation.

USS Mason—Though the U.S. Navy does have a destroyer named USS Mason, it is not named for George Mason. However, there is an amphibious assault ship named for Mason’s home, USS Gunston Hall, LSD-44. And what about the USS Mount Vernon, LSD-39. Decommissioned in 2003! Take that, George Washington!

“George Mason.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2013. Web. 26 July 2013.
“Eponym.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2013.
“Mason County, Kentucky, Miscellany & Links.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2013.
Robinson, Morgan P. "Virginia Counties:Those Resulting from Virginia Legislation.” Bulletin of the Virginia State Library.
     Volume 9. January, April, July, 1916.Richmond: Superintendent of Public Printing. Google Books. Web. 26 July 2013.
“The International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center.” IAU Minor Planet Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2013.
“The SPJVA Blog.” The SPJVA Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Your Aff. Sister

A part of our program here at Gunston Hall engages our visitors with an interpretation of the personalities involved in George Mason's life.  We do this through living history and a group of volunteers known as the Gunston Hall Historic Interpreters Society (GHHIS).  These individuals portray a number of people, including George Mason's family, household, and neighbors during the time that he was in residence at Gunston Hall.  With ongoing research into these historical characters, they develop interpretations to support many of our special events and carry off a living history program that runs twice monthly from April through October.

In order to interpret, our living historians often have to get into the mindset, really into the 18th century.  Lyn Padgett, President of the GHHIS, has done so in this letter, developing a reaction to events in George Mason's life through the lens of his wife, Sarah Brent Mason.


Gunston Hall May 30, 1787
Dear Sister Graham
Sister, I must beg your indulgence for not having corresponded prior to this time. I fear that I have been quite burdened with preparations for the Colonel’s trip to Philadelphia and my own preparations to visit you and your dear family.
With this missive I shall endeavor to provide you with the latest reportings of Mr. Mason’s current undertaking. I offer my apologies if you have previous knowledge of any of the news that is herewith forwarded.
I am given to understand that at the recommendation of Congress a Grand Convention of all the States be convened in Philadelphia commencing on the 14th day of May. This convention of delegates is to meet for the sole purpose of revising the articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations as recommended.
The Virginia Assembly elected General George Washington to head the delegation from Virginia. Also elected as the Virginia Delegation were; Governor Edmund Randolph, Doctor James McClurg, Messrs.  John Blair, George Wythe, and James Madison, and, as well you may know, my own dear husband.
Colonel Mason departed Gunston Hall the 9th day of May bound for Philadelphia by way of Baltimore City. He travels in the company of his Son John, whom by all of the Colonel’s accounts, is an amiable traveling companion. I received the Mr. Mason’s first missive from Baltimore City assuring me of his safe arrival and kind reception there.
Mr. Mason and Son arrived in the appointed city of the Grand Convention on the evening of the 17th only to find that a good part of the delegates had not yet arrived, only Virginia and Pennsylvania being fully represented.   He was most fortunate in being able to secure a private room for lodging Himself and John. I fervently hope that he will be most comfortably settled there and that his recurrent affliction will not discomfort him much.
Earlier this month my husband received a warm letter from Mr. R.H. Lee expressing his accord with regard to General Washington and Mr. Mason being appointed as delegates to the Convention. Mr. Lee conveyed his sincere hopes that their efforts will be of benefit to our Nation. Mr. Lee himself declined to serve as a delegate as he too suffers from the same affliction as my husband.
Most recently, son George has received a letter from his Father in which was related the experiences of some of the delegates in their first attendance of a Catholic service. He relates that while the majority attended services out of curiosity, they found the church music exceeding fine accustomed as they are to the Anglican services that do not include music.
On the 25th day of May a quorum of seven states was secured. The first order of business was to elect our very own General Washington as President of the Grand Convention! Very soon after the election of the President the delegates determined that all their deliberations would be held in secret until the conclusion of their deliberations. I despair that no further news will be forthcoming my way as my husband will no doubt hold to the intent of their decision.
With that I must bid you adieu and commence with haste my preparations to travel to Dumfries. It is my intention to depart Gunston Hall within the week bound for your welcoming embrace and conversation.  It is my sincere hope that this finds you and your dear family in fine health and prospering.  Please convey my kindest regards to all.
I look forward most eagerly to the time we may soon spend in each other’s company. May it be sooner rather than later.
My dearest Madam your aff sister
S Mason

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Interview with the Staff Archaeologist

Due to a great deal of interest in our last post about Archaeology, and a number of questions that have come up about what has been uncovered, and why and where we are looking, we decided to have an interview with Dave Shonyo, our staff Archaeologist.  We took this opportunity to look at what has been done and why.  The conversation is between Dave and our Education Manager, Lacey Villiva.

Our archaeologist hard at work, 
carefully excavating an exciting pit.
LV: Why are we doing archaeology at Gunston Hall?

DS: We have come to understand that George Mason regarded his interior and exterior living spaces as extensions of one another. Careful studies of the interior of the mansion since the 1950’s have permitted us to now present an interior living space that closely resembles the one that Mason knew. It has only been since the late 1990’s that similar attention has been given to the exterior space. Here we are seeking clues that have survived in the ground, through archaeology.
The process is complicated by the fact that we have no documents from Mason’s time that would provide any information about the landscape at Gunston Hall. This is in contrast to the homes of many of Mason’s peers and contemporaries, such as Mount Vernon, Montpelier and Monticello.
Added to this is the fact that, with the possible exception of the Civil War years, Gunston Hall has been continuously occupied for over 250 years. The occupants subsequent to George Mason have all altered the landscape to serve their individual needs and to reflect current fashion. Buildings have gone up and come down; the use of the land has been altered to serve many different purposes. I find it remarkable that there is anything at all to be found of the eighteenth century landscape. But, bits and pieces are there to be found with diligent search in the nooks and crannies of the present day plantation.

LV: Speaking of original documentation, how helpful are John Mason’s Recollections on discovering where features are?

The archaeology program requires a lot of time and effort,
many volunteers, like this one, assist with the digging,
cleaning and cataloging of artifacts.
DS: George Mason’s son, John, wrote his Recollections late in his life to provide his children and grandchildren with an account of what life was like with their famous forbearer. As such, it is our only eyewitness account of Gunston Hall at the time of George Mason. It was not John Mason’s intent to provide a detailed description of the plantation, but he does mention in passing some of the features of the landscape. However, he does not really describe what those features looked like nor does he tell us exactly where they were located. He does suggest what we should be looking for and sometimes the general area where we should look. The usual reaction when we find something that he mentions is, “So that’s what he meant.”

LV: What has been discovered through archaeology?

DS: In the most general sense, we have come to understand that Mason himself designed the landscape arrangement that immediately surrounded the mansion, and that a great deal of care and ingenuity went into that design. To the extent that a creative person can be understood by examining that person’s creations, an understanding of this landscape gives us a better understanding of the character and thought processed of George Mason.

         More specifically, some of the major findings have been: the location of the garden walkways and the enclosing fences, which provides us with the general layout of the formal garden; the original configuration of the terrace at the end of the garden; the exact location of the cherry tree avenues that flanked the entrance drive, which provide an understanding of the optical effects that were created by the unusual layout of the avenues; a better, but not yet complete, understanding of the original layout of the kitchen yard and its relationship to the mansion and garden; the location of the landing on the Potomac River and the road which led from the landing to the vicinity of the mansion; evidence of the carriage turn-around apron  at the land front entrance of the mansion, which may or may not be part of a carriage circle; literally thousands of artifacts which have yielded a picture of the everyday objects used in the mansion and elsewhere on the plantation, some of the things that were being eaten and even some of the things that were being grown. And then there the many minor finds, some of which we don’t understand yet, and the inevitable excavations that yield nothing.

LV: Has archaeology been able to determine the presence of enslaved people?

DS: Well, we have always found a certain number of artifacts that are typically associated with eighteenth century African Americans. Examples include a certain style of beads and the presence of scales of the gar, a fish that was consumed by slaves but not people of European descent. However, the question of where the slaves were quartered is another matter. John Mason in his Recollections mentions a quarter called “Log Town” somewhere to the northwest of the mansion, and “servant quarters” to the east of the mansion. Neither of these has ever been found.

The sites where slave housing was once located are notoriously difficult to find. Masonry foundations were very rarely used. The vast majority were anchored to the ground with posts. Once the post rots, all that is left is a small patch of soil that is a slightly different color than the surrounding soil. As can be imagined, these can be extremely difficult to find if one does not have a very good idea of where to look. A better hope is to find an artifact scatter that might indicate an occupation or activity area. But, in the search for slave quarters in the vicinity of the plantation mansion, these present a special problem. This is because the artifacts left by slaves that worked in or near the mansion are nearly indistinguishable from those left by the occupants of the mansion. However, it may be possible to distinguish the two on the basis of food remains. For example, it is unlikely that the slaves would be feasting on oysters, a favorite delicacy of the Masons. So there would be few, if any oyster shells in a slave occupation area. The slaves would almost certainly be supplementing their diet with animals that they could capture themselves. Therefore, we would expect a slave quarter to have a relative abundance of fish bones and scales – including the aforementioned gar scales – and bones of game animals.

LV: What are you working on now?

DS: One of the big finds so far this season has been a plot containing fifteen burials, which may be the long lost Mason family burying ground at Newtown. I have discussed this in another post.

A recently discovered feature which may be a sub-floor pit.
We are currently in the process of excavating an area to the east of the mansion which has some very interesting features. I am not ready to declare that it is a slave occupation area, but what we have found here would be consistent with that. The features include two pits (slave cabins usually have sub-floor pits), two post molds and a rich deposit of artifacts which includes an abundance of charcoal and an assemblage of food remains similar to that I mentioned previously. We have not yet found, however, that one feature or artifact that tells us that this can only be a slave occupation. But, I do have hope…

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why I Love Gunston Hall

 When I was a young boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia, two of the things I loved most were baseball and history. 

I loved watching my Phillies (sorry Nat’s fans) on TV, scouring packs of baseball cards for Phillies players, and reading box scores every morning in the newspaper. The players were my heroes and all of these activities allowed me to connect with my team in ways there were personal, but also communal because my family, friends, and neighbors also loved the Phillies.

The best part of this shared, yet personal experience was going to Veterans Stadium to see a game. I will never forget the feeling of the summer sun, the sight of the green Astroturf and the brown base paths, the smell of hot dogs, and the sounds of the organ, conversations among fans, and the ball either hitting a bat or pounding a glove.  It was magical as a child and is still magical for me as an adult, particularly now that I get to take my two daughters to the ballpark and share my love of baseball with each of them. 

My second, but certainly equal love was history.  In this case my heroes were trappers and fur traders of the west, explorers of the oceans and continents, Civil War generals (I was a particularly big fan of JEB Stuart and even portrayed the cavalier one Halloween!), and the founders of our nation.  I clearly remember going to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Franklin Court in Philadelphia, multiple battlefields throughout Maryland and Virginia, and countless museums and historic sites up and down the East Coast. What could be more fun! 

I also read voraciously and enjoyed the complete set of the old Landmark Books series that covered a full range of fascinating historical topics.  As with baseball, these activities were deeply personal, but also communal because I experienced all of these amazing places with my family, and I remember this time as a family as much as I remember the exhibits and programs at the specific sites. Even the books had a communal element because I could not wait to share what I had read with anyone willing to listen, even if it was just the family cat.

The difference between my love of baseball and my love of history, however, was that the baseball players and the action on the field was live and in the present.  My love of history and my ability to connect with my heroes of the past, therefore, relied on places like museums and historic sites, and, it depended on books.

Fast forward to July 8, 2013. It is my first day on the job as Executive Director of Gunston Hall.  I had been to Gunston Hall on several occasions before this day, but this day was different and it is also one I will never forget.

Turning off Gunston Road, I began driving up the entrance road.  The surrounding forest is almost mystical. I turn off NPR and even though it is hot, I roll down the windows of my truck. I even stop for a minute.  I hear an assortment of noises—birds, squirrels rustling on the forest floor, a slight breeze barely moving the canopy above.

I continue driving and emerge from the forest. Before me, on either side, lay vast fields of green.  Several families of deer quietly enjoy breakfast, while also perking up at my presence.

As I slowly continue, driving over a slight crest, the very top of the mansion appears followed by a full view of this awe inspiring structure. The mansion is framed by towering cedars and magnolias, which serve to enhance the mansion’s majesty and also draw you closer both physically and emotionally.

Now I can literally feel the power and the presence of this place.  It is indescribable yet you can’t help but try because the power is so strong and so special.

After parking, I walk towards the mansion, drawn by the power of the place to get closer, to touch the brick, and I ascend the steps to the porches.  I don’t yet have keys, so after enjoying this vantage point, I walk around the mansion, meander through the boxwood gardens as I have read George Mason loved to do, and soak up the breath taking view of the river and forests below the ridge.

Later in the day, I go inside the mansion and then a new feeling overwhelms me. This place, this amazing place, is about more than a defining landscape, beautiful views, and an awe-inspiring structure. Once inside, despite the obvious grandeur of the architecture and craftsmanship, I am reminded that this place is about and defined by people, and that this place’s true power is derived through personal and communal connections with people.

And connections with stories.

Inside the Little Parlor as I look at the original furnishings I am awed by a connection to the place were Mason ran a vibrant plantation, where family occasionally dined, and perhaps most inspiring, the place were Mason contemplated and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  Upstairs, I can almost hear the same sounds of my household, children getting ready for the day, playing, and preparing for bed.  Back outside in the kitchen yard, I am confronted with the reality of slavery. I can feel the power associated with the toil of work by enslaved peoples. I feel the challenging irony of a place where visionary statements of freedom and equality were developed and expressed, but also a place that was home for close to 100 slaves.

In thinking more about these feelings, I begin to comprehend why I love Gunston Hall.  First, this place is uniquely capable, at least for me, of re-connecting me with my childhood love of history and of reminding me, on a minute-by-minute basis, why I love history and why I am blessed to work as a museum professional.

But perhaps most importantly, as I watch guests—some families, some individuals, and some groups of friends—walk by my office window on their way to the mansion, I love Gunston Hall because of its diverse and compelling humanity.  This humanity is defined by stories of freedom and slavery, education and learning, family and community, citizenship and patriotism, entrepreneurialism and innovation, and by preservation and stewardship.  This humanity, and Gunston Hall, is also defined by passion and love. This is truly why the spirit and feel of this place is so powerful and so compelling. 

These personal and communal connections, powerful feelings, and compelling human stories are why I love Gunston Hall, why I am honored and excited to be here, and why I am so excited about our future.  Come on out, I welcome the opportunity to meet you, and take time to discover, explore and embrace the spirit and humanity of this amazing place.

Scott Stroh
Executive Director