Family Connections to the Slave Trade

Thomson Mason, the youngest brother of George Mason IV, was a slave dealer.[1]Although it is not known whether George Mason IV bought people from this sibling,[2] Thomson paid for notices in an Annapolis paper, the Maryland Gazette, which promoted his importation of people kidnapped and shipped from Africa to the Chesapeake region.

The earliest known advertisement that Thomson Mason placed in the Maryland Gazette, which was posted September 18, 1761,[3] lists “a cargo of choice healthy fine SLAVES consisting of Men, Women, Boys, and Girls” transported from the “River Gambia” in West Africa on Captain Samuel Pemberton’s boat named the Upton.[4] The first Virginia destination for this vessel’s enslaved cargo was the North Potomac; the Upton then docked at a place called the South Potomac.[5] The ship’s voyage from African shores to the Chesapeake coast took 243 days.[6] Out of a total number of 168 captured Africans originally boarded on the Upton, 107 disembarked at the North Potomac stopover while 30 more disembarked at South Potomac. The whereabouts of the remaining 31 people was not recorded; it is likely they perished during the lethal Middle Passage. [7] 

Thomson took out other advertisements on July 1, 1762[8]and July 29, 1762,[9] announcing the sale of enslaved people following their voyage from the rivers Gambia and Senegal in West Africa to the Chesapeake region. Unfortunately, neither of these newspaper notices reference the captains or names of the slave ships.

It is likely that George Mason IV bought very young people from slave ships that docked on the river banks of Virginia and Maryland.  In August 1753, he had seven enslaved children “adjudged” for their ages.[10] Their names and ages were recorded in the Fairfax County Order Book for Mason for future “tithable, or taxable, purposes.”[11] The names of these children were Oronoko, 12; Synharp, 11; Juba, 11; Kato, 10; Beck, 9; Jenny, 8; and Agniss, 8.[12] From written evidence noted in the Fairfax County Order Book, it is reasonable to assume that Mason purchased these individuals from a merchant involved with human traffickers who arranged for the transportation of kidnapped boys and girls from Africa to American plantations.[13]

In summary, the slave vessels that ultimately brought chattel property to Gunston Hall crossed the Middle Passage, a traumatic journey that carried enslaved boys and girls from West (and possibly) East Africa to the Colony of Virginia. Snatched from family and friends back home, marched to the African coast and put on unsanitary ships with violent crew members, such children entered the cargo hold with brutalized strangers.  If enslaved people survived the Atlantic voyage, they were transferred into the possession of a slave owner that could work, sell or kill them.  In Northern Virginia, enslaved Africans had to learn a new environment, language, and way of life, with whipping, sexual assault and other abuses defining their existence.[13]

[1] Terry K. Dunn, Among His Slaves: George Mason’s Struggle with Slavery (Alexandria, VA: Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2016), 107. George Mason IV may have learned from his uncle and tutor John Mercer that enslaved people died during the Middle Passage and within a few months of arriving in colonial America.  High mortality rates and the harsh life of Chesapeake plantations would have made an impression on George Mason IV who hoped to benefit from enslaved women’s “natural increase,” meaning the children that they produced who were immediately converted into his “chattel property.”  The link between death, wealth and labor in 18th-century Virginia slavery was born out in the “experience of thirty-two Africans bought by John Mercer of Stafford County . . . between 1733 and 1742. . . . Eight of the thirty-two died by the end of their first year, and at least another seven died before they had lived ten years in the colony.”  There were particularly grave consequences for “African women . . . brought to the Chesapeake.” They “were so severely undernourished after the middle passage that they could not conceive a child, or, if they conceived, complete a pregnancy.  . . . Moreover, otherwise healthy women may have refused to have children as a protest against their enslavement, for many women remained childless even after they had regained their health”: Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco & Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 69. 

[2] Dunn, Among His Slaves, 107.

[3] Thomson Mason, “Just Imported,” The Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, MD), Sept. 18, 1761.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Voyage 90773, Upton (1761),” The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,, accessed June 28 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. There is excellent scholarship examining Atlantic commerce during the Middle Passage, which involved African and European merchants, as well as American colonists who benefited from slavery.  This literature traces the routes of slave ships and volume of human trafficking: John Thornton, Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World: 1400-1680 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Marcus Redicker The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2007); David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Joseph Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capital and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970); Ivana Elbl, “The Volume of the Early Atlantic Slave Trade, 1450-1521,” Journal of African History 38 (1997): 31-76.

[8] Thomson Mason, “Just Imported,” The Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, MD), July 1, 1762.

[9] Thomson Mason, “Just Imported,” The Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, MD), July 29, 1762.

[10] Dunn, Among His Slaves, 64.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Ibid. The mortality rates of enslaved individuals in the Middle Passage have been estimated and analyzed by Philip Curtin The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972); Herbert Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Herbert Klein, Stanley Engerman, Robin Haines, and Ralph Shlomowitz, “Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave Trade in Comparative Perspective,” William & Mary Quarterly 58, 1 (2001): 93-118.

Creator: Alexis Bracey

Family Connections to the Slave Trade