Having left, as William Bernard Sears’s obituary states, “the oppressions of Europe,” what became of some of the free-will, redemptioners, and convicts associated with George Mason? With the exception of William Buckland and William Bernard Sears, there are no extant records of any of the people named as servants of Mason. We know that, freewill indentured servant William Buckland continued to do beautiful work in Virginia and Maryland when he left Gunston Hall. His brilliant career ended with his sudden death in November 1774.
Upon completion of his term of service at Gunston Hall, convict servant William Bernard Sears embellished houses, including Mount Vernon, and beautified churches. According to Fairfax historian, Debbie Robison, Sears, by 1769, held a lease on part of Henry Lee’s eastern Loudoun County. As a member of the Loudoun County Militia, he spent a winter at Valley Forge prior to taking up a second lease on the Henry Lee tract in eastern Loudoun (now Fairfax) County.
|Reproduction Tenant House at Claude Moore Farm, |
photo Barbara Farner
In 1765, Mason, in his “Scheme for Replevying Goods and Distress for Rent,” compared leasing land to the use of slave labor and found, “That the custom of leasing Land is more beneficial to the community than that of settling them with slaves . . .” He continued that “no Means seem so natural as securing the Payment of Rents in an easy & effectual Manner: the little Trouble & Risque attending this Species of Property may be considered as an Equivalent to the greater Profit arising from the Labour of Slaves, or any other precarious & troublesome Estate.” Mason leased hundreds of acres of his land, in some degree as speculation, stating that it was not “attended with so much immediate profit to the land holder” but was less trouble than slaves and provided additional income with minimal investment.
Scholar and cartographer Beth Mitchell formulated a map locating all tenants and lease holders on record in Fairfax County for 1760. She noted that Henry Fitzhugh of the Ravensworth tract and George Mason had more tenant/leaseholders on their properties than other Fairfax landowners. Fitzhugh had 40 and Mason 35. The 1760 records, most likely, show six, former convict servants among the 35 tenants or leaseholders on George Mason’s scattered properties.
According to Mitchell, there was a legal difference in 18th century terminology between a tenant and leaseholder. A lease was a legal land arrangement with obligations on the both the land owner and the lease holder. A tenant lived on the property without legal arrangements or rights, could be evicted at the will of the land holder, and was generally expected to pay rent. A tenant could be living on the land of a leaseholder. William Buckland, was such a person who, for a brief time, was a tenant on his father-in-law, William Moore’s, 100 acre Mason Neck leasehold belonging to George Mason. In either case, to confuse things, the house of the leaseholder or tenant on the property was called a tenement.
As John Cantwell noted in his study of Fairfax tenantry, leasing improved the lands, provided a profit for the owner, and protected the land from trespassers. Mason used a printed document with the blanks filled in for the lessee’s name and property. He added specific requirements and restrictions on the reverse side of the document. The transcriptions of the documents became part of the legal record in the Prince William or Fairfax County Deed Books. The standard leases required the lessee to erect a 16 foot x 16 foot house, a 20 x 32 foot tobacco barn, and plant hundreds of apple and peach trees. For newly leased land, Mason stipulated that the lessee would have a number of years free of rent, generally three, so that improvements could be made to the property. To promote stability and improvements, leases were generally for three lives, the man, his wife and third person, usually a son or daughter, with the lease lasting through the longest life. Usual leases were for a minimum of 100 acres with rent of 630 pounds of tobacco due once a year at a designated warehouse. Rent was adjusted by the amount of land leased and the number of workers allowed by Mason to be used by the lessee.
One man could produce about 1000 pounds of tobacco per acre and generally work two acres of land, leaving him with a large quantity of tobacco after his rent of 630 pounds was paid. In the Northern Neck, all landholders paid 2 shillings per 100 acre quit rent to Lord Fairfax. With tobacco averaging 14 shillings per 600 pounds, this left a profit for the landholder of about 12 shillings. [Note: 20 shillings equaled 1 pound £.] Of course, the amount of tobacco actually produced was influenced by weather, insects, and the lessee’s ability to produce the crop.
|Protected Trees at Claude Moore Farm, photo Barbara Farner|
In a letter to Robert Carter, Mason recommended a person for a lease, noting that Carter should be cautious about renting lands to a stranger. These remarks to Carter may imply that Mason knew his tenants or leaseholders. Several names listed as tenants on or lease holders of Mason’s property are recorded as King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia.
After resurveying his properties on Little Hunting Creek and Difficult/Accotink Run, it appears that Mason extended leases to some men already living on the sites and to others who appeared to be newly placed leaseholders. Some appear to be freed convict servants. While Mason already owned property on Little Hunting Creek, in 1757 he purchased an additional 200 acres. Several former convicts were either tenants or lease holders on this tract in 1760. William Cotton, of Surry, England, was a fellow King’s Passenger with William Bernard Sears on board the Tryal for Maryland in1752. His servitude apparently ended in 1759 and he was listed as a tenant on the Little Hunting Creek property in 1760.
Joseph Gardner, another King’s Passenger came to Virginia in 1727 on the Susanna. In 1760 he was a tenant who owned four slaves on the Little Hunting Creek tract. Another possible lease holder was John Ward, also aboard the Susanna in 1727, having been convicted of stealing two pieces of clothing. Samuel Brasington came in 1749 on the Litchfield, to serve seven years. By 1760 he held a 100 acre lease on the Little Hunting Creek tract. Brassington’s name sets him apart as an easily identifiable King’s Passenger, since he was the only person with that name in both the lists of passengers and on Mason’s property.
Leaseholder William Scott was transported on the Speedwell for stealing tools in 1741. William Stone was another convict on the 1741 sailing of the Speedwell. On October 1, 1757 George Mason leased 100 adjoining acres to each man on the Accotink and Difficult Run tract. Stone’s lease was for three lives, himself, his wife Grace and his son William. Stone’s three lives lease named his wife Jemina and their eldest son John. In both leases Mason noted that the acreage assigned was already “occupied” or “run” by each man.
The leases that Mason drafted cited that the property could be entered by him or his heirs only if rents were in arrears. Leases could not be sold without Mason’s approval, and with the death of one of the three named lives, an additional life could be added to the lease with the payment of fees. Mason’s leases stated that the premises were to be “peaceably and quietly, have, hold, use, occupy, possess, and enjoy the said [land] . . . during the term of three lives, without any Trouble, Molestation, or Interruption, from Him the said George Mason” or his heirs or other person claiming rights under him.
As holders of legitimate life leases, leaseholders, even former convicts, were qualified as voters. Mason, at the Federal Convention in 1787, defended voter qualifications by stating that “every man having evidence of attachment to & permanent common interest with the Society ought to share in all its rights and privileges.” While his intent was to increase suffrage to non-property owners, he was upholding the rights of leaseholders as well as freeholders to vote.
Mason’s leases appear to have been long term arrangements. As a legal life leaseholder, in good standing, even former convicts could describe their situation in the same Old Testament imagery, used by George Mason, George Washington, Landon Carter and William Bernard Sears to describe his place in this new country where he could “sit under his own vine and fig tree and can say there is none to hurt us.”
This study would not have been complete without the work of:
Sherry F. Solow’s graduate school theses presented to George Mason University in 1977: “Tenantry in Virginia: Fairfax County, 1742-1776.” (Available in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library.)
John Cantwell’s Master Thesis for George Mason University, 1986: “Imported Indentured White Servitude in Fairfax and Prince William Counties, 1750-1800.” (Available in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library.)
Beth Mitchell’s extraordinary map and documentation in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1760 an Interpretive Historical Map. (Available in the Gunston Hall Museum Shop.)
Fairfax County, VA Deed Books: B, C1, D1, E1, K1.
Prince William County, VA Deed Book: B,
File: Business transactions of George Mason, IV. Gunston Hall Library and Archives.
Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains... Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992.
------------ King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. Westminster, MD: Family Line Publishers, 1997.
Copeland, Pamela duPont and Richard K. McMaster, The Five George Masons Patriots and Planters of Maryland and Virginia. Lorton: VA Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 1975.
Robison, Debbie. “William Bernard Sears.” Unpublished paper, February 19, 1999. File: Sears, William Bernard, Gunston Hall Library and Archives.
Rutland, Robert. The Papers of George Mason 1725-1792. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
An example of a leasehold farm: Claude Moore Colonial Farm, 6310 Georgetown Pike, McLean, Virginia.