Feeding Enslaved People at Gunston Hall

Slavery in colonial Virginia depended on laws developed in the seventeenth century. This legal order dictated that slaveholders fulfill their duty to the people they owned by offering their "chattel" labor a basic allotment of food.[1] While the enslaved families of Gunston Hall were not well provisioned by our modern standards, they were made to work long hours cultivating tobacco and wheat, and they were put in charge of the labor-intensive fisheries associated with the property. George Mason IV also parceled plots of soil to enslaved families.  They used this allocated ground to grow their own food, which vitally supplemented dietary needs.[2] They also increased their meager rations by hunting, but only did so after first satisfying the demands of their master.[3] Historical records show that bondsmen were experienced at killing and dressing deer, muskrat, and birds, and clubbing big fish such as gar which spawned near the banks of the Potomac River each spring season.  Crucially, it was the effort of enslaved individuals, not the master's storehouse, that provided necessary nutrients, especially animal and fish protein, to the communal meal pot of families serving the Masons. Regardless of the law, enslaved people of Gunston Hall were responsible for their own survival, and keeping chronic hunger at bay.[4]

[1] Terry K. Dunn, Among His Slaves: George Mason, Slavery at Gunston Hall, and the Idealism of the American Revolution. (Alexandria, VA: Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2016), 35.

[2] Ibid, 43

[3]In other parts of 18th-century slave-holding Virginia, bondsmen hunted game after receiving permission to do so from their master: Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 134.

[4] One can make the same point about enslaved communities on many other colonial plantations in the Chesapeake region: ibid, 140.

Creator: Farhaj Murshed

Feeding Enslaved People at Gunston Hall