Thursday, April 17, 2014

Horse Culture in th 18th Century

Though we know that horses were a part of life in Colonial Virginia, we might not realize how integral they were to the daily fabric of life for people living in the 18th Century.  People across the entire spectrum of society throughout Colonial Virginia would have had close interaction with horses on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. 

Lord Portmore Watching Racehorses Exercise by John Wooton. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.
The livelihood of most colonial Virginians was directly dependent on horses.  It was a completely agrarian society, made up mostly of small independent farms.  Both the small, self-sufficient
farms and the more grand plantations used horses for all manner of farm chores such as plowing, hauling and harvesting.  The average Virginia farmer did not own a horse of a particular breed.  Horses listed in wills and inventories would instead be described by gender, color, size and where and how they would be used, ie: the gray plow mare.  When George Washington mentions his “draft” horses, he, in fact is discussing their job: they are the horses used as draft or draught horses, to haul loads.  He is not referring to a draft breed, such as Percheron or Clydesdale.  Those breeds were not found in Colonial Virginia.   

Aside from farms and mills, there is another livelihood particular to the 18th Century that was dependent on horses.  In the absence of an urban network, wagoners did a lively business selling goods from their traveling wagons between the farms and plantations of the rural colony.  The wagoners would travel from town to farm to plantation and, of course, between the court houses when they were in session.  They could supply all manner of specialty and mundane items to a population that could not, for the most part, get to a large metropolitan center.  Of course, the one thing keeping any wagoner in business, whether he was a savory character or not, or whether the weather was cooperating or the roads passable, was his trusty horse or team of horses.   

Horses were also used for personal transportation.  To get anywhere in Colonial Virginia, one would need a horse, either to pull a carriage or to ride, unless that person wanted to walk or use the river system.  Journals of the time mention how a horse, or lack thereof, affected a person’s ability to travel any distance.  John Harrower tells us on several occasions how he was not able to attend an event or a church service due to the lack of a horse to use.  Nicholas Creswell mentions his ability to travel to Leesburg from Alexandria because of the generosity of a friend in loaning him the use of a horse. 

Also, pleasure riding was a common activity among the upper classes in Colonial Virginia, and George Mason and his colonial neighbors often had favorite horses for personal use. The Lexington Plantation of George Mason’s eldest son includes in its inventory two saddle horses. Note how they are listed: as saddle horses as opposed to d a specific breed.   George Washington also loved to ride for pleasure, and was an excellent horseman by all accounts.  At the time of his death he had 21 horses in his inventory.  It would be remiss to not mention Nelson, his favorite mount throughout the Revolution.  Nelson was so respected by Washington, that after the war, he brought Nelson home to Mount Vernon, were he was kept in retirement until his death. 

 In the 18th Century, a thriving racehorse culture was enjoyed by many affluent plantation owners.  George Mason kept at least one racehorse of which he was extremely proud, named Vulcan.  John Harrower describes his day at the horse races where he was joined by “a number of genteel (sic) company.”  That particular day, a bay mare won.  Unlike in most of Virginia, where horses were not delineated by breed, the large plantation owners did have some particular breeds which they used for both racing and fox hunting.  The known breeds among the plantation owners at the time include Naragansett, Andaulsian, Thoroughbred and Arabian.  George Washington’s famous racehorse, Magnolia, was a pedigreed Arabian.

It bears mentioning the pride that these race horse owners had in their horses.  John Mason remembers Vulcan being pastured in the field on the land side of the mansion.  From that pasture he could be admired by guests as they arrived at the house.  Mount Vernon was visited by many in the race horse community for the sole purpose of seeing Magnolia. 

It should not be surprising that punishment for horse theft was severe.  John Harrower describes the punishment of one slave who was accused of and confessed to the theft of a breeding mare. Though the mare was returned to her owner, the slave was whipped to the maximum of the law, 39 lashes. 

We have evidence that the slave population as well had a close interaction with and dependence on horses.  Aside from the work horses which they may have used for field labor, there are a few specific times where slaves are mentioned in relation to horse culture.  George Mason had a slave named Nace who, we must assume was a competent horseman.  He was paid by a neighbor of Mason’s to break a horse to ride.  Also, John Harrower mentions several slave jockeys at the horse races.  


Karen Smith, supervisor of stable operations for Colonial Williamsburg's coach and livestock department, Interviewed by Ed Crews, Winter 2007,

Richard Nicoll, director of the coach and livestock department in Colonial Williamsburg, Interviewed by Ed Crews, Winter 2007,

James Hodges, Phd, Leadership by George Washington, December 31, 2009,

Charles Framer, In The Absence Of Towns, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, August 5, 1993

Journal of John Harrower, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1963, pages 40, 92

Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Kennikat Press, Inc, 1968

John Mason, Recollections,Board of Regents, Gunston Hall, 2012

Thursday, April 10, 2014


By Claudia Wendling
Archaeology Volunteer
If you have the good fortune of visiting Gunston Hall in person take the opportunity to visit the Mason Family burying ground - the final resting place of George Mason IV.  A short distance from the mansion you will find an allée of cedar trees beckoning you down the path toward the brick wall that encloses the grave of Mason and others.  As you enter the grounds through the ornate black wrought iron gate your eyes will be drawn to two large box tombs one of which is that of George Mason. 

George Mason's tomb with his son's headstone in the foreground.
As you stand at the foot of this great man’s grave you might contemplate his legacy.  You might wonder, as I have, what Mason himself would have to say on the subject.   Mason was an accomplished man who wore so many hats so well.  He was a Virginia planter, businessman, Patriot, legislator, vestryman and devoted husband and father to name a few.  Although many letters, documents and records concerning Mason are lost to us, the precious few that survived give us some insights.  Excerpts from two in particular, I think, contain Mason’ s thoughts on the matter of his legacy to his family, his country, his world and to future generations. 

Shortly after his first wife’s death in 1773 Mason wrote his will.   While the excerpt below from his will was intended for his sons, I think his so eloquently expressed words for his sons are also part of his legacy to us.

I recommend it to my sons, from my own experience in life, to prefer the happiness of independence and a private station to the troubles and vexation of public business; but if either their own inclination, or the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs, I charge them on a father’s blessing, never to let the motives of private interest or ambition induce them to betray, nor the terrors of poverty and disgrace, or the fear of danger or of death deter them from asserting the liberty of their county, and endeavouring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born.
Several years after Mason wrote his will he wrote a letter on October 2, 1778, to a friend.  At the time he was still suffering greatly from the loss of his first wife, Ann Eilbeck Mason who died in 1773.  He shared his grief in this letter as well as his plans to retire and to enjoy the company of his children and, in the excerpt below, a portion of his legacy:

…If I can only live to see the American Union firmly fixed, and free government well established in our western world, and can leave to my children but a crust of bread, and liberty, I shall die satisfied, and say with the Psalmist,  ‘Lord now lettest thou they servant die in peace.’
 To show you that I have not been an idle spectator of this great contest, and to amuse you with the sentiments of an old friend upon an important subject, I inclose you a copy of the first draught of the Declaration of Rights, just as it was drawn by me, and presented to the Virginia Convention, where it received few alterations, some of them, I think not for the better.   This was the first thing of the kind upon the continent, and has been closely imitated by all the other States.
So, as you leave the Mason Family Burying Ground, where the principal author of the First Constitution of Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights – Basis of the Federal Bill of Rights lies buried and the days pass and the memory of your visit fades, I hope that Mason’s legacy will not and that you too will be an active participant like Mason and never an idle spectator when it comes to freedom and liberty.


Mason, John. (2004). The Recollections of John Mason: George Mason's Son Remembers His Father and Life at Gunston Hall. Ed. Terry K. Dunn. EPM Publications.
Mason, George. (1773, March 20). The Last Will and Testament of George Mason. Fairfax County Court Records, Book F1.

Rowland, Kate Mason (1892). The Life of George Mason, 1725-1792, Volume I. G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Colonial Wedding Practices

By Whitney Hassell
Gunston Hall Docent

Wedding season is coming. In fact, April 4, 2014, is Colonel Mason and Ann Eilbeck Mason’s 264th wedding anniversary! In the spirit of love and the colonial way, read on to learn more about colonial weddings and traditions.

The Season
Most 21st century brides plan their weddings for May through October, because those months are generally the most pleasant weather-wise. But the Colonists needed that time to plant, grow, and harvest their crops, as well as conduct business. November through April were better months for things like travel and significant celebrations… like weddings. Many weddings took place close to Christmas time, and particularly during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). Instead of a matter of aesthetics, it was a matter of convenience.

A Reproduction of Sarah Fairfax Carlyle’s 
1747 Wedding Dress at Carlyle House Historic Park.

Colonists rarely wore beautiful white dresses to boast of their purity and chastity, as that tradition came later. So what did brides wear? Why, their Sunday best, of course! The typical colonial bride wore her best dress. If she had one made, it would likely be nicer than her others, but she would definitely be wearing it again, probably to church or a grand ball.

If you happened to be Sarah Fairfax marrying John Carlyle in 1747, you would have been wearing the dress pictured below:

Well, of course they wore gold wedding bands, just like
us, right? One for him, one for her, and a diamond engagement ring thrown in for good measure. Nope! Would you believe a thimble was the more likely option?

Thimble that could have been cut.
Yes, the colonists, particularly those of puritan leanings, shunned jewelry in general, thinking it vain and unnecessary. Thimbles, however, were very practical things, and were therefore acceptable. A woman would receive a thimble in exchange for her hand in marriage, and she would cut off the wide end to wear around her ring finger. Gentry could afford a thin metal band, of course, but usually only for the wife. Interestingly, men did not usually wear wedding bands until World War II, to remind them of their sweethearts back home.

Young Love
Everyone knows the colonists married very young. Most couples married at 14 for ladies, and 16 or so for men, right? Not at all! Here is something we 21st century folks have in common with our colonial ancestors: they married in their early-to-mid-twenties. Gentlemen were allowed to court ladies of 14 or 15, but they were certainly under no obligation to take the first offer they were given. Though our Colonel George Mason and the lovely Ann Eilbeck were 25 and 16, respectively, colonial ladies generally wed around age 22, gentlemen age 26.

The Cake
Made for Gunston Hall from and 18th century
receipt for Queen’s Cake.
Now onto the most important (or at least most delicious) portion of our colonial wedding: the cake. Yes, even when sugar and various other ingredients were quite the expensive commodities, Americans found a way to have not one, but two cakes. Believe it or not, groom’s cakes were included as part of the festivities even in the 17th and 18th centuries. The wedding cake was typically a dense spice cake, and the groom’s cake was usually a dark fruitcake.

Even earlier than the cakes, however, was the tradition of a bride’s pie. This was a mince pie, made of sweet bread, and a piece of nutmeg may be hidden inside. The young lady who found the nutmeg would be the next woman to marry. Similarly, unwed female attendees would break the cake or pie into small pieces that would fit through the bride’s wedding band (or thimble). Instead of eating this bite of cake, the young girls would take it home and place it under their pillow, which was rumored to make them dream of the man they would marry.

The Bouquet
Flowers? Nay! It’s herbs that colonial brides would hold on their wedding day. It was thought that strong-smelling herbs would ward off evil spirits that may sabotage the wedding or steal away the bride. In weddings even earlier than the 18th century, herbs like garlic and dill were thought to keep that pesky Plague at bay. Perhaps many of the herbs in our reproduction herb garden could have been used in Ann Eilbeck’s bouquet, or even one of the Mason daughters’ wedding bouquet.

These are just some of the traditions and contrasting versions of today’s wedding components. Let’s take a moment to remember George Mason and Ann Eilbeck Mason’s wedding day so many years ago. Next time you’re in the house, take a look at the wedding portraits in the Palladian room, and imagine their friends and families wishing them well. The next time you attend a 21st century wedding, appreciate the details and traditions that have been practiced in many forms through so many years. And take notes, one never knows what curiosities people will have 264 years in the future. Perhaps someone will be researching our wedding practices or re-enacting our weddings.


Basic, Amela and Dierdre Clancy Steer. Costume and Fashion: Colonial America. Woodlands Hove, England: Bailey Publishing Associates, Ltd.

The American Wedding, “The Wedding Ring: A Brief History.”, 20 April 2009

Charlton, Reno. (31 March 2005, orginial) "The History of Engagement Rings and Wedding Bands". Your Marriage Celebrant (from Retrieved 2 June 2013.

BHLDN, “A Brief History of the Wedding Band,” (date unknown).

Hammond Harwood House “18th Century Marriage.” (24 August 2012).

Food Timeline: history notes, About Colonial Wedding Cake, (27 December 2013).

Delicious History Blog, The Wedding Cake: A History, (6 August 2012).