The Enslaved Children of Gunston Hall

Plantation owners had no qualms about using enslaved children’s labor. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America and friend of George Mason IV, wrote that “children till 10. years old . . . [could] serve as nurses” on his Monticello property, and “from 10. to 16. the boys [could] make nails, [while] the girls [could] spin. at 16 . . . or learn trades.”[1]

Until enslaved children were old enough to complete adult tasks, they worked in whatever capacity their owners dictated.[2] According to the childhood reflections of John Mason (1766-1849), the son of George Mason IV’s second wife Sarah Brent Mason (1733-1805), the enslaved people of Gunston Hall, some of whom were young apprentices, labored as “carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers & knitters”; there was “even a distiller.”[3] Indeed, on other plantations children five-years-old could be given basic jobs that were economically beneficial for their owners.[4] In and around George Mason IV’s manor, enslaved girls and boys aided the preparation of meals, picked vegetables from the garden, and plucked feathers from chickens.[5]

Enslaved children occupied a precarious position in a labor hierarchy requiring them “to negotiate a dangerous world, which entailed pleasing two sets of adults with very different expectations,” in this case their owners and their family. [6] It was necessary for an enslaved mother and father to teach their children the “intricacies of racial etiquette” and social survival mechanisms such as not staring at a white person while conversing or not asking questions regarding their paternity.[7] Slaveholders controlled the lives of their enslaved boys and girls.  Indeed, children in bondage were often told they “belonged” to the “master,” who could reinforce his claim to them by granting a special treat that enslaved parents could never provide. [8] Most importantly, plantation owners had the authority to sell, punish, maim, or eliminate any member of an enslaved family, regardless of their age.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Farm Book, 1774-1824,” 77, Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003),, accessed June 30, 2017.  An excellent study of task, time, and generational labor in slaveholding Chesapeake society helped ECGM researchers understand how George Mason IV assigned work on his tobacco- and wheat-growing plantation: Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco & Slaves: the development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986). Mason’s close association with Jefferson was evident during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.  In the mid-1770s, Jefferson adapted elements of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that “combined a succinct statement of the republican principles that underlay the revolution with a smattering of constitutional doctrine and separate provisions designed to protect individual civil liberties” of colonists, but not enslaved people.  In addition, Mason offered ideas that Thomas Jefferson would famously “paraphrase: ‘That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life Liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing Property, and Pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety:” Jeff Broadwater, George Mason: Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 81-82.  Such “inherent natural Rights” were never enjoyed by Mason’s manservant James or other enslaved people of Gunston Hall because their owner denied them freedom. 

[2] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 75.

[3] Terry K. Dunn, The Recollections of John Mason: George Mason’s Son Remembers His Father and Life at Gunston Hall (Mason Neck, VA: Gunston Hall, 2012), 63.

[4] Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 108.

[5] Terry K. Dunn, Among His Slaves: George Mason’s Struggle with Slavery (Alexandria, VA: Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2016), 84. On other plantations enslaved children also gathered fire wood from nearby forests and raked leaves: Schwartz, Born in Bondage, 108.  The ECGM team is especially grateful for the superb research undertaken by Terry K. Dunn.

[6] Dunn, Among His Slaves, 78.

[7] Ibid, 99-100.

[8]Ibid, 93.

Creator: Alexis Bracey

The Enslaved Children of Gunston Hall