Gunston Hall Plantation overlooks the Potomac River. Whether by boat or land, anyone who approaches the property can observe its grandeur. The inside of the manor house is just as impressive. Delicately carved wood and expensive wall paint reflect the status of a colonial gentleman who generated considerable wealth. An early American patriot, George Mason IV (1725-1792) called Gunston Hall home, and it was there that he likely conceived of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which provided language for the first ten amendments of the Constitution. This grand figure now stands in statue form on the Fairfax campus. His last name graces university t-shirts. Nowhere do we find information that George Mason was a committed slaveholder. Our institutional namesake enslaved many individuals, including girls and boys, and never freed them.
Patriarchal power defined George Mason IV’s life. He fathered a big family, married twice, and owned more than 100 people of African descent with no legal claim to their humanity. Mason voiced opposition to the slave trade but did little to undermine slavery. Most important, this prominent advocate of liberty was largely silent about the violent oppression of America's fundamentally unfree institution.
By closely examining public, family and personal records, the Enslaved Children of George Mason (ECGM) project hopes to illuminate the 18th-century histories of African Americans living on the Gunston Hall Plantation just miles from our dormitories.
Letter from George Mason IV to Thomas Jefferson, 1788
This letter from George Mason IV to Thomas Jefferson, dated July 1788, asks Jefferson to make sure that a man named Captain Fenwick ("Partner of the…
The Gunston Hall Burial Ground
The burial sites surrounding the red rectangle may contain the graves of enslaved individuals of Gunston Hall, including people who...
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Martin Cockburn Ledger, 1771
This ledger entry shows that George Mason IV's neighbor Martin Cockburn (1731-1820), a white planter born in Jamaica, paid Gunston Nell, an enslaved…
Letter from George Mason IV to John Mason, 1792
In this letter to John Mason (1766-1849), one of George Mason IV's children, the patriarch of Gunston Hall tells his son that enslaved people on the…