By Carole Thomas
Gunston Hall Historic Interpreter Society
Pohick Docent Guild
Information about a woman in the 18th century can be scarce even if she was a member of a family which had a significant impact on the transformation of Virginia from a colony of the mother country, England, to a state in an independent nation. Simpha Rosa Ann Field Mason Dinwiddie Bronaugh was the paternal aunt of George Mason IV. The information available about her provides basic knowledge about her family background, whom she married, how many children she had, but little about her skills and accomplishments.
Simpha was born into the gentry in 1703 in Stafford County, Virginia, to George Mason II (1660-1716) and his wife, Mary Fowke. Simpha’s maternal grandfather, Colonel Gerard Fowke, was an ex-Royalist officer who immigrated to Virginia in 1651 and settled in Westmoreland County. He purchased land in Virginia, became a Burgess in 1663, and moved to Maryland in 1664, where he purchased additional large grants of land. Colonel Fowke died in 1669. Her oldest brother George would become the father of George Mason of Gunston Hall.
Simpha’s paternal grandfather was George Mason I (1629-1686), who was born in Pershore in Worcestershire, England and immigrated to Virginia about 1651. In 1659, he was Sheriff of Stafford County, a member of the House of Burgesses in 1676, and a Colonel of the Militia. He died in 1686.
As a member of the landed gentry, Simpha likely would have been an educated woman for the period in which she lived. During the 18th century, girls were usually educated at home by their governesses or tutoresses. Simpha would also have been schooled in the skills of housewifery by her mother. At a later period in her life, it would appear that Simpha possessed and demonstrated the character traits necessary to successfully take charge of the responsibilities she accepted as a result of life’s challenges. Simpha was widowed twice, both times inheriting the lands, stocks, slaves, servants and livestock for which her husbands’ had been responsible. With each husband, she had children for whose care and education she was also responsible. Perhaps she had family members or friends guiding her in performing these duties, but we do not have any records of such additional involvement.
In 1716, Simpha married John Dinwiddie, the younger brother of Robert Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia from 1751-1758. John was a member of a Scottish family that had established a successful mercantile business in the Virginia tobacco trade. John handled the family’s interests on the Rappahannock River. In 1724 he returned to Scotland, became ill and died. In his will, John specified that Simpha must bring their daughters to Scotland and sell the Virginia estates for the girls’ support. Further, if Simpha was unwilling to leave Virginia, she could remain but was still required to send the girls to his relatives. Simpha refused to leave the land where she was born and would not send her daughters away.
For an 18th century woman to willfully defy the stipulations of her husband’s will as Simpha did required determination and courage. She must have considered what repercussions she and her daughters might have experienced because of her decision to challenge the law. Fortunately for Simpha and the girls, news of a second will reached Virginia in December of 1726. It would appear that this will did not have the stipulation of returning the girls to family in Scotland. However, when the two girls were old enough they went to England for their education, after which they returned to Virginia.
In December 1727, Simpha married Jeremiah Bronaugh, Jr. of King George County, Virginia, and kept the children from her first marriage with her. Jeremiah was a Justice of the Fairfax County Court (1741-1749) and a vestryman of Pohick Church, Truro Parish, Lorton, Virginia. He became a close friend of George Mason III. In 1731, George Mason III leased the plantation known as Newtown to his sister Simpha and her husband Jeremiah. Newtown had been the home of Mason’s father, George Mason II, and was located to the northwest of the current Gunston Hall mansion. Jeremiah and Simpha had five children.
From what we do know of gentry women’s duties during the 18th century, we can postulate that Simpha’s duties and skills were similar. She would have been responsible for the management of the household and involved in plantation activities. Even though indentured servants and slaves would have done the actual work, her responsibility was to see that everything was performed in a manner that would provide suitable hospitality to guests as well as family members. Simpha would have acted as the hostess when visitors came to the plantation, therefore, she needed to have the social skills necessary to make them feel comfortable. She would have arranged for the provision of clothing for the household staff, the slaves working on the plantation and her family members. Some clothing was imported from Europe, and some was made on the plantation. She would have overseen the spinning, weaving and dyeing of cloth. The provision and preparation of food for family members and guests was also supervised by the lady of the house. After the deaths of John and Jeremiah, Simpha would have been in frequent communication with the overseers of the various plantations and farms that were left to her and her children. It appears that her skills would have been those of a manager, diplomat, administrator, supervisor and procurer of supplies.
Jeremiah died in 1749; Simpha later moved into Gunston Hall where she died on November 22, 1761 at the age of 58. Although Jeremiah’s tombstone is at the Pohick Church cemetery, it is probable that both of them are buried at the Family Burying Place at Newtown.
Bronaugh 1670s – 1970s, A Tricentennial Genealogy with Biographical Notes (Revised March, 1982), Researched and Compiled by Robert Brett Bronaugh
Copeland, Pamela C. and MacMaster, Richard K., The Five George Masons, Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1975.
Conversation with Lacey Villiva, Education Manager, Gunston Hall, July 10, 2014.
Dave Shonyo, Staff Archaeologist, “Lost Mason Burying Ground Has Been Found,” Gunston Hall Blog, June 27, 2013.
Minutes of the Vestry, Truro Parish, Virginia, 1732-1785, Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD, 1995.