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