Thursday, July 31, 2014

Man's Best Friend in the 18th Century

By Louise Higgins
Gunston Hall Docent

Girl and Dog by Charles Bridges, c.1715
“Strayed or stolen from the subscriber, at Leed’s town, on the 18th of September, a spaniel bitch, with white and brown spots, answers to the name of Madame, had a silk collar round her neck with a buckle. Whoever returns her to me , in Williamsburg, shall have a half a pistole reward.” This advertisement was posted in the Virginia Gazette in October 1751. I realize that when doing research, we should not make assumptions about what we find in history. On the other hand, to just make a meaningful study of history takes a certain amount of imagination. When I read the previous ad, what I picture is a father whose daughter’s (or wife’s) dog has gone missing. I realize that silk was used by both men and women in the 18th century, but in my mind’s eye, all I can picture is a pink silk collar with a silver buckle put on a much loved family pet by a young girl. That may not be at all the reality, but that view certainly grabbed my emotions and interest enough for me to continue the research with enthusiasm.

Dogs were a complex and ubiquitous part of colonial America as they are in our society today. Because dogs were so integrated into society, we, looking back, may have a hard time seeing them: people don’t write about what’s commonplace, and dogs were everywhere. What is certain is people across all social strata interacted with dogs in both positive and negative ways.

Dogs played many roles in 18th century Virginia; one of the most obvious and useful was for protection and security. Virginia at the time was a largely agrarian society, made up mostly of small independent farms. Having a dog on the property added another layer of security to an isolated farm. Another job held by dogs in the 18th century was herding sheep. These sheep dogs were not the modern Old English Sheepdog that we know today. They were not a specialized breed, though typically the dogs used for sheep herding were rough coated and short tailed. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among those employed sheep dogs for their flocks. Thomas Jefferson was recorded as presenting George Washington with some puppies from a litter of his “shepherd’s dogs.” (Jefferson letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, As with all working dogs, modern and colonial, they had to be intelligent and strong.

Major Thomas Dade by Thomas Gainsborough, 1755.
Courtesy of the Tate.
For the average Virginia farmer, hunting wild game and fowl helped to supplement the family diet. The landed plantation owner who also hunted this way. Though well to do, they would have had to feed quite a large number of people, and additions to the plantation diet through hunting would have been very welcome. Dogs were kept and bred for hunting and tracking purposes. Deer, of course, was a natural favorite to hunt, but “Practically everything … that moved was fair game, from bears and wolves to possums.” (Jane Carson)

Hunting was both a necessity and a pastime. And dogs, like horses in the 18th Century, were kept for pleasure as well as work. Many plantation owners during this period that enjoyed fox hunting, which was a purely aristocratic amusement. Unlike subsistence hunting, fox hunting was an elaborate endeavor, which could last for days. There were proscribed rules regarding the fox hunt. Those rules encompassed the everything from how and when the hounds were released after the fox, to the activities both preceding and following the hunt itself. If the fox was caught, it might very well be brought back alive and turned out again the next day for further sport. George Washington kept and bred fox hounds at Mount Vernon, and went fox hunting often. John Mason tells us in his Recollections that his father, George, enjoyed riding to the hunt even up to his middle and older years. In the 18th century, dogs developed through the efforts of George Washington and others, came to be known as the Virginia Hound (or Foxhound,) as it is known to this day. For an amusing contemporary illustration of how devoted Virginia Plantation owners were to the sport of fox hunting, please visit the article Personable Pooches.

Virginia Foxhound

Aside from the working aspect, dogs then, as today, provided companionship. This is such an interesting topic. Dogs have been welcomed and loved as pets by the aristocracy since antiquity. One interesting stained glass image from Cologne, France, circa 1520 shows an almost modern picture of a pet dog sleeping at the foot of the owner’s bed. This piece of stained glass is currently in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and is available online here.

Christian Stelle Bannister and Son by Gilbert Stuart,1773.  Courtesy of the Redwood Library 
and Athenaeum.
Among the colonial gentry, dogs were very popular and beloved pets. The Virginia Gazette has many lost dog advertisements. In every case the, dog owner is willing to pay for the return of the dog. One example tells of General Lee whose Pomeranian dog, Spado, was lost or stolen. The general is so intent on retrieving him that, not only will he offer a reward, but if the dog is returned, “no questions will be asked.” The Governor was also subject to dog theft, and just as intent on the return of his animals: one of which was a bull dog named Glasgow. From this collection of dogs, we can see the loving consideration that the gentry had for their dogs. Other evidence of the owner’s fondness for their dogs is how they were immortalized in art by their owners. Throughout the period, family portraits included dogs. One somewhat extreme example of how the family dogs were remembered comes from a member of the wealthy was from a Lightfoot family. He had buttons made for his coat that represented his favorite dogs.

George Booth by William Dering, 1748-1750.
Courtesty Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Discussing lost and stolen dogs brings us to another aspect of the dogs’ place in colonial society. There was a fear of stray dogs and the diseases they might carry. Rabies was a very real threat, then as today. And like today, there were laws regarding loose dogs within the town boundaries. All dogs needed to have a collar with the name of their owner, barring that, it was lawful to kill a dog with no collar. (October 1772, Williamsburg City Council, Mayor, and Alderman) Now it becomes more clear the urgency with which those ads where placed. If the dog was lost or stolen, and by some means had lost its collar, it could very well be legally killed.
This brings us back to the relationship between the working dog and his family. Unlike with the gentry, pets kept solely as companion animals are rare among the lower classes. This could be due to several reasons. Primarily, the lower classes may not have had the means to keep an animal that was not an active contributor to the family. Also, we just don’t know much about the lower classes as we do the gentry. If they were keeping pets, there is little record of it. Having said all of that, the people that were accused of stealing the dogs that were in the advertisements mentioned above were often indentured servants. In one particular case, the reason given for the theft by the indentured servant was because the dog was “a great favorite” of his.

Whether one is a subsistence farmer, indentured servant or slave, doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t emotionally attached to the dogs that they were around. Just because a dog has to be a working contributor to the family does not mean that it is not a loving relationship on both sides.

Brieg, James. “The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 2004. Web. 23 July 2014. 
Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginians at Play. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1965. Print. "Dogs." Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Herding Dogs in Colonial America." Stockdog Savvy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
Hood, Graham. “Personable Pooches” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 206. Web. 23 July 2014. <> 
"Virginia Foxhound Club." Virginia Foxhound Club. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Virginia Gazette, Hunter, October 17, 1751, Page 3." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. "Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, April 28, 1774, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, September 24, 1772, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Walk Through the Boxwoods

 By Nicole Morton
Leader of Business Enterprise

Do you ever just stop and take time to relax? It can be just a moment, a second where you remember the sound of the ocean, the feel of snow on your cheek, or the smell of fresh cut grass. For me, my moment is taking time out of my busy schedule and to walk through the Boxwood Allèe at Gunston Hall. There is something quite magical about walking in the footsteps of historical figures such as George Mason, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The boxwoods have a rather calming effect on me. I feel like I can gather my thoughts better walking between their 250 year old twisting trunks then I can walking between magnolias or even oak trees.

I think back to John Mason and what he said about his father George Mason, “My father was fond of his garden… There were then some falls on the brow of the hill looking toward the river. It was here that my father- in good weather- would several times a day pass out of his study and walk for a considerable time wrapped in meditation, and return again to his desk…” I feel blessed getting to walk around such scenic and historical grounds for my job, especially following in the footsteps of George Mason.

Part of my responsibility as the Leader of Business Enterprise at Gunston Hall includes coordinating events such as weddings and luncheons. When I am showing prospective couples around our venue, the first place they want to get married is in the Boxwood Allèe or on the point overlooking the Potomac River. The view draws couples to that point overlooking all things Gunston Hall. Excitement builds inside me every time I show a couple the grounds. There is a moment on each person’s face as they walk down the drive and see the Mansion, as they walk through the Boxwood Allèe, and as they stand on the point looking out at the Potomac River and grounds. Each person is experiencing Gunston Hall for the first time in a unique way, and I am lucky enough to be a part of that experience. I encourage everyone to experience Gunston Hall in that same light as well; it’s something you will never forget.

There is one other magical part of the grounds that not every guest ventures over to see. The gravel drive lined with reaching cedar trees makes the walk to the Burying Ground that more enchanting.

George and Ann Eilbeck Mason are both laid to rest in the Mason family cemetery, along with other Mason family members and descendants. Knowing the touching words that George wrote about Ann after her death on March 9, 1773, the cemetery becomes a place of honoring loved ones such as George Mason did in 1773. These words echo in my ear every time I walk down the drive towards their final resting place, “… Once she was all that cheers and sweetens life, the tender mother, daughter, friend and wife, once she was all that makes mankind adore …”

I encourage you to come walk in the footsteps of historic men of the 1700s and even again in the early 1900s such as the Coolidge family, Mrs. Edith Wilson, and artist Pierre Bonnard. Take a moment to soak in the history that is Gunston Hall. You will not regret it!

If you are planning an event such as a small luncheon, business conference, dinner party, or even wedding, I encourage you to think about Gunston Hall as your venue! For more information about our rental program, please contact Nicole Morton at (703) 550-9220 or by email at

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Report on the Bluebird Trail at Gunston Hall

by Ann Elise Sauer
Gunston Hall Docent
with adaptations of information provided by the Virginia Bluebird Society at

From colonial times and into the early 1900s, the Eastern Bluebird was one of Virginia’s most common songbirds. Over time, agriculture and development, which destroyed much of their natural habitat, and several harsh winters resulted in a severe decline in the bluebird population. Today, bluebirds are enjoying resurgence due to the efforts of many volunteer organizations and individuals who have established and maintain bluebird trails that provide protected nesting sites in areas with adequate food. The Virginia Bluebird Society is one such organization.

The Eastern Bluebird belongs to the thrush family. The male is brilliant blue with a rusty breast and throat. The female is gray blue with a buff breast. Their diet consists of mostly insects and wild berries when insects are not available. Fledglings have spotted feathers until the fall molt when all bluebirds grow dull feathers for protection from predators, regaining their color by spring.

Bluebirds are secondary cavity-dwellers that nest in the holes in trees made and subsequently abandoned by woodpeckers. Bluebird boxes along trails mimic tree cavities and provide extra protection for bluebirds from predators, such as snakes, raccoons and foxes, and aggressive birds, such as starlings and house sparrows. Since its inception, the Virginia Bluebird Society has recorded
120,924 new bluebirds in the State of Virginia.

So why have a bluebird trail at Gunston Hall?

Gunston Hall’s bluebird trail supports a songbird that was very prevalent in George Mason’s day and provides visitors an opportunity to explore the extensive grounds that were part of his thriving plantation, including the beehives, graveyard, and deer park and wharf sites, and to see the mansion from many new aspects. The trail also provides a new educational opportunity for visitors, especially school children and Scouts, who can learn about and participate in protecting and preserving Virginia’s bluebirds and our environment.

I am told Gunston Hall had a bluebird trail many years ago, with boxes the staff built with the help of the legendary Buck, who worked at the Plantation for many years. But the bluebird boxes were removed at some point, and the trail was abandoned. Early in 2013, Mark Whatford and the staff discovered some of the old boxes in one of the outbuildings and re-installed them around the grounds. Somehow, my neighbor, Kim Thompson, who is an experienced bluebird monitor, got involved in monitoring the re-installed trail, and she recruited me to help her. And that’s where my love of bluebirds began!

Kim and I took care of the bluebird trail all last summer. We monitored 10 boxes that were, to put it kindly, in varying states of disrepair. Some had termite damage or stuck doors; none had guards or baffles to keep the predators away from the bluebird eggs and babies. And they were installed on trees, fence posts, and other structures rather than metal poles – making the bluebird families very vulnerable to many dangers. Nonetheless, we recorded over 30 bluebird babies who successfully fledged (left the nest) – a great record for a new, somewhat haphazard trail.

Kim shared her expertise, teaching me how to check the boxes, clean out ants and wasps and other predators, remove infested nests, remove destroyed nests and eggs, and even handle the eggs and live bluebird chicks, when necessary. I will always remember the day I held 5 tiny blue eggs in the palm of my hand while Kim removed their ant-infested nest, cleaned out the box, and built a new nest for these little bird eggs. And when that family of bluebirds fledged a few weeks later, I became a bluebird Mom!

We decided to approach Mark and asked if we could do some fundraising to improve the trail – and the chances of survival for the bluebirds of Gunston Hall. He quickly agreed, and with generous donations from the regents, staff, docents, and neighbors of Gunston Hall, we successfully raised $1,300 to buy 21 professionally built bluebird boxes, with baffles, guards, and poles.

The “winter that wouldn’t end” delayed installation of the new boxes until early April 2014, due to frozen ground and nasty conditions. Male bluebirds start selecting their territory as early as February, females select mates in March, and the female starts building the nest in early April. So we were cutting it pretty close, getting the boxes installed at the very last moment.

But once the new boxes were in place (and the old ones removed), I started training the nearly 20 people – again, docents, staff, and neighbors – who volunteered to take care of the trail during the nesting season. Nesting season extends from early April through mid- to late August, when the last of two or three broods of chicks have hatched and fledged. Bluebird boxes need to be monitored weekly during nesting season to check on the health of the eggs and chicks, clean out the boxes after each brood fledges, and conduct research on the number of eggs and fledglings.

With the help of information and illustrations from the Virginia Bluebird Society’s website, these volunteer trail monitors learned how to tell the difference between a bluebird nest and eggs, and the nests and eggs of chickadees, tree swallows, wrens, and house sparrows – all birds that are likely to claim one of these boxes for their home. They learned about the life cycle of bluebird babies, which is approximately 37 days from the date the egg is laid in the nest until the baby birds fledge, and how to estimate the age of the eggs or chicks. They learned how to approach a box, open it, assess its condition, fix problems, and how to manage different circumstances all the necessary skills to monitor a bluebird trail.

We started monitoring right away, on April 12, walking the entire trail which covers 2.25 miles of Gunston Hall Plantation. The first monitoring walk was disappointing to the new trainees – just two boxes with partial or full nests. But since the boxes had only been in place for a week, that was understandable.

Newly hatched bluebirds at Gunston Hall.
Today, after just a couple of months monitoring the new Gunston Hall bluebird trail, we have had 40 bluebirds babies successfully fledge, as well as 22 tree swallows. We have at least 11 eggs in nests. I guess the birds got a late start, too! With only 6 or 7 more weeks in the nesting season, and possibly another nest in each box, we will probably have more than 70 baby bluebirds born at Gunston Hall this year. That would be fabulous!

Visitors to Gunston Hall are welcome to walk all or part of the bluebird trail. It is free and you will see much more of the beautiful and extensive property that was George Mason’s home. But unless you’re a trained bluebird monitor, please do NOT open or disturb any of the boxes! And if you want to become a monitor of Gunston Hall’s bluebird trail, feel free to call Gunston Hall at 703-550-9220, or email us at

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Gentry at Gadsby’s Tavern

By Whitney O'Halek
Gunston Hall Docent

What comes to mind when you think of a colonial tavern? Libations? Rough housing? Chamber pots? Tavern wenches? A bar? Musty, smoky air? Downright brawling? The 21st century perception of a tavern is quite different from the 18th century tavern reality. We know the common folk frequented the taverns, and we have records showing that Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and other important gentlemen ate at Gadsby’s Tavern in particular.

How could one type of establishment serve all these people? Was everyone treated equally? The early American idea of equality was much different than our definition today. The gentry, like our George Mason, were certainly treated differently than common travelers passing through, or even the women to whom they were married.

For instance, let’s look at the taproom. If you were to walk into Gadsby’s Tavern (or as it was known then, Wise’s Tavern) in 1785, after the establishment was freshly built, the first room to your left would be the taproom. Any white man—sailor, gentry, or apothecary, could sit here and enjoy the Tavern’s happenings. Some of the things you might find men doing here are talking, conducting business, eating, drinking, playing card or board games (but no gambling allowed), smoking tobacco, and the like. The government regulated meal prices, so the gentry weren’t the only people who could afford to come to a tavern. Simple meals were served three times a day, with cheese and nuts served in between meals.

Now let’s compare this to the private dining room across the hall. Anyone could dine or conduct business here… for a fee. This is the way tavern keepers made their money. We have records showing the George Washington dined in this room on August 5, 1786. Ladies could also use this room. If you could afford to rent this room, perhaps you could also afford private entertainment. Maybe you’d like some food that was more refined. If you could afford it and it could be found, the tavern keeper would do his or her best to procure it for you.

Another difference between common folk and the gentry lay in the accommodations. Many people stayed in one of three attic rooms in the Tavern, and we have records showing that rental space wasn’t limited rooms. In records that exist today, guests often comment that they shared a bed, or a place on the floor with others.

By contrast, after the much larger City Hotel was built in 1792 (called hotel because it was a French word, and French things were very in vogue), the gentry truly had their own digs. Unlike the attic rooms next door, 14 expensive and well-decorated rooms filled the halls of the Hotel. Even President James Monroe stayed here in 1817. The Hotel also boasted five dining rooms as opposed to the two in the Tavern. George Mason, though he never stayed at Gadsby’s commented on his experience at a Philadelphia hotel, stating: “We are at the old Indian Queen in 4th. Street where we are very well accommodated, have a good room to ourselves, and are charged only 25s Pennsylva. Curry [currency] per day”

A further difference involves the Assembly Room in the Tavern compared with the Ballroom in the Hotel. The Assembly room was the original multi-purpose room it seems. Before 1792, it was one of the largest rooms in the area. It was used for balls, town hall meetings, theatrical performances, entertainment such as Toby the Wonderful Pig of Knowledge, a marketplace, and even a traveling dentist. Again, anyone could go into the Assembly room, including women and “middling” or common people.

Let’s compare that with the Ballroom. This is the place for George Washington’s Birthnight Balls (including the 1798 and 1799 Birthnight Balls, which Washington himself attended), several banquets, and many receptions for presidents and other national figures. President John Adams attended a reception in his honor here, President Thomas Jefferson dined here at the invitation of the Alexandrian citizens in 1801, and the Marquis de Lafayette attended a banquet here on his behalf during a tour of America in 1824.

As we look back through the centuries, we see that taverns, such as Gadsby’s, were certainly open to anyone. They were a place for the middling folk to mingle with the gentry in the right context. The gentry were, however, given a few more perks—as long as they could pay the price.

Find out more about Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at, and enjoy a meal at the modern Gadsby’s Tavern restaurant.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by an compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Article 1, Virginia Declaration of Rights

On Monday, May 6, 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention assembled in Williamsburg, Virginia. As delegates arrived, including Patrick Henry, George Wythe, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr. and James Madison, war raged elsewhere in the Colonies and skirmishing occurred as close to the newly convened group as Norfolk, only a short distance to the East. Concurrently, the Second Continental Congress continued meeting in Philadelphia, where Virginians such as Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson held seats. Delegate George Mason, elected “with some difficulty” according to a contemporary account, remained at his Gunston Hall home in Fairfax County at the start of the Convention while suffering from gout. Once recovered, he arrived in Williamsburg on May 17 and took his seat the next day.

Earlier in May, the Continental Congress asked each of the colonies to create new governments. In response, the Virginia Convention established a committee charged with drafting a constitution and a bill of rights. As initially constructed, this committee included over thirty members, a number which grew after Madison subsequently joined the group. The committee, however, did not, at least at the start, prove effective. In fact, Edmund Randolph wrote that the committee demonstrated an “ardor for political notice rather than a ripeness of political wisdom.”

Mason received an appointment to the committee on May 18, his first day at the Convention. Like Randolph, he soon experienced frustrations which he communicated to Richard Henry Lee in a letter, writing, “We are now going upon the most important of all subjects---government: The Committee appointed to prepare a plan is, according to custom, over-charged with useless members…..We shall, in all probability have a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals.” Mason, however, did not resign himself to the fate he forecast in his correspondence to Lee. Quite to the contrary, he immediately began writing a constitution and a bill of rights independent of the committee. He worked quickly and efficiently. After only a week of work inside a room at the Raleigh Tavern, Edmund Pendleton wrote Thomas Jefferson saying that “the political cooks are busy preparing a dish, and as Colo. Mason seems to have the Ascendency in the great work, I have Sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it’s end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals.”

Although Mason worked closely with Thomas Ludwell Lee in preparing the documents, he remained their principle and primary author. Additionally, in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason drew heavily on the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), and the writings of John Locke. Despite the importance of these influences, Mason, in writing the Declaration of Rights, also articulated new ideas and concepts. In particular, Mason introduced the pursuit of happiness as a central component of liberty, a concept replicated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

After review and some amendment by the committee and presentation to the full Convention, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was ratified on June 12, 1776. Two pages in length, the Declaration expressed ideas of seminal importance, ideas which proved influential during this transformative period in American history and which remain relevant today.

Recognizing the importance of this amazing document, the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall adopted a new mission statement in 2013. This mission is To utilize fully the physical and scholarly resources of Gunston Hall to stimulate continuing public exploration of democratic ideals as first presented by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Guided by this mission and inspired by the work of Mason, our organization is passionately and enthusiastically planning educational experiences designed to facilitate dialogue, reflection, and learning about the ideas and concepts which are contained in the Declaration. We are also initiating plans for a series of signature events in 2016, which is the 240th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Rights. As we prepare for this year of collective exploration and learning about the Declaration, I encourage you all to begin your personal process of discovery now by reading the Declaration (you can do so at Think about what it says and what it means. Think about what influenced its creation and what it in turn influenced. Please also share your thoughts with us and finally, think about George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Happy 4th of July, and it is a great day at Gunston Hall!

Scott Muir Stroh III
Executive Director

Broadwater, Jeff; George Mason: Forgotten Founder; The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill, NC; 2006.