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. <>.

1 comment:

  1. I think Mason County, WV was named for Stevens Thomson Mason (STM). STM was the United States Senator from Virginia who died May 10, 1803. The Va. General Assembly elected Abraham B. Venable to fill the unexpired Senate term on December 7, 1803, just twenty-six days before passing legislation creating Mason County on January 2, 1804. I think it is more likely that STM, a recently deceased colleague, was on their minds, rather than George Mason, who had be dead for almost twelve years. Hugh Blair Grigsby, President of the Va. Historical Society, mentioned STM as the eponym for Mason County in his "History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788", 1890 on page 24 (footnote 29). Also, Kate Mason Rowland, said Mason County (1804) was named for STM on page 181, volume 1 of "The Life of George Mason, 1725-1792.