Wills, inventories, tax records, memoirs and correspondence help shed some light on slavery and plantation life during the eighteenth century. We do not know the full names or the skills of every individual enslaved at Gunston Hall and other plantations owned by George Mason. This is an area in which we continue to conduct research. The following information presents a synopsis of what we do know and provides a glimpse into plantation slave life at Gunston Hall.
Watt worked the fields on the Hallowing Point Quarter along with many other men and women. Two women, Dinah and Winny, were older than Watt, but all three of these individuals received respect as “elders” in this community. The elders passed on the history and memory of people and events — such as the middle passage across the Atlantic of the first generation of Africans forced into Virginia slavery who came into Mason ownership. Watt may have been born in Maryland, but later tended the fields in Virginia.
A description of Watt appeared in the Alexandria newspaper in 1786 after he had run away and George Mason placed this ad for his return. “WATT, a stout Negro fellow, remarkably black...has lost some of his foreteeth, which in some measure affects his voice…is an artful fellow, has a down look, and seems confused when examined.” Watt, “artful” or cleaver, perhaps pretended to be “confused” at times in front of whites.
What caused Watt to run away from Gunston Hall? Perhaps he hoped to return to friends or family (his wife?) left behind in Maryland. His hopes were dashed, however, when he was discovered and returned to Virginia. Watt did not attempt to run again. Surely as an “elder,” he told the story of his runaway experience (and likely subsequent punishment) to all the children in the quarter.
Milly also tended the fields on Hallowing Point. She had at least five children: Hogar, Tony, Bridgett, Peg, and Cilla. Not all of her children remained with her at the quarter, though. By age 10, Hogar was sent to the Occoquan Quarter several miles away as a working hand there. Milly had no say in this decision.
Milly, born in Virginia to a Mason-owned slave family, may have followed the accepted practice of naming her own children after her mother, aunt, brothers, or sisters. Names helped to carry on the history and legacy of enslaved families if they were separated later in life. Likewise, sons were often given their father’s name. Tony might have been named for the slave Anthony, for example, another of the Mason slaves. As masters rarely recorded the fathers of slave children, naming gives clues to possible family relationships.
Caja, or Arecajah, or Cage as she was also known, grew up among the Eilbeck slaves in Maryland, but Grandmother Eilbeck willed Caja to George Mason’s oldest daughter, Nancy, in 1780. Caja had a son named Nace* with her when she came to live at Gunston Hall. During the next few years Caja had three more children: Kate, William, and Sarah.
Nancy Mason later married and moved to Maryland, taking Caja and her four children with her in 1789. As a result, Caja returned to familiar soil and perhaps saw some of her Maryland family and friends once again. One of Caja’s sons took a wife — Chansey — who gave Caja two granddaughters, Mary Ann and Juda. In 1804 when Nancy wrote her will, she passed the ownership of all of these slaves — three generations of Caja’s family — to her daughter, Ann.
It is not known what type of work Caja or any of her family members did. They may have been unskilled and worked in the gardens or fields; some may have served about the house as maids or waiting men. But Caja lived out her later years in Maryland where she was most likely born and grew up, and even more importantly, she retained the comfort of having her children living near her throughout her life.
*Caja’s son Nace was not the overseer on the Occoquan quarter.
Runaway Dick fled from Gunston Hall — twice. In 1784 he was 22 years old when he ran away the first time. The ad placed in the Virginia Journal described him as “a stout lusty MULATTO FELLOW…[with] large features and eyes, a very roguish down look, [who] beats a drum pretty well, is artful and plausible, and [is] well acquainted in most parts of Virginia and Maryland….” Dick formerly served as a waiting man at George Mason’s dinner table.
Dick was apparently apprehended, but ran away again two years later. As there is no mention again of Dick in any Gunston Hall documents, it is possible that he made it to freedom this second time.
Why would Dick take the drastic action of running away, leaving family and friends behind?
As a waiting man, Dick had the opportunity to hear conversation every day in the Mason’s dining room. George Mason, a colonel in the Virginia militia, regularly entertained travelers during the Revolutionary War. Many discussions may have referred to the “enslavement of the colonies” by the mother country. Dick felt the literal meaning of “enslavement.” Virginia leaders felt a strong sense of idealism — not only for freedom for the colonies, but also freedom for slaves in Virginia. As a result, Virginia halted the slave trade at the same time it declared independence from Great Britain. But their idealism fell short of realization. Although the Virginia Assembly passed a law in 1782 allowing a slave master to manumit or free his slaves, slavery itself did not end. Dick, listening to conversations and sensing optimism, must have been gravely disappointed when freedom did not become reality for him. Perhaps that is why he took matters into his own hands.
Running away meant sacrificing much. It required leaving the love of family members and everything familiar — forever. Moreover, Dick could no longer trust anyone; to do so was dangerous. Being caught the first time also added determination to his desire for freedom. He would try harder when he decided to run away the second time. George Mason knew that Dick was familiar with the shores and waterways of Virginia and Maryland. In his ads he cautioned boatmen not to take Dick on board. However, many freed men and women lived and worked legally in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and in Delaware. Perhaps Dick escaped from slavery and made it to one of those places and “blended in” to freedom.
Mrs. Eilbeck’s Bess was the most highly valued of all the female slaves on the Eilbeck’s Maryland property at £50. Because of her monetary worth and implied favored status in the family records, Bess probably served as the cook to Ann Eilbeck Mason’s mother and father. Bess had eight children — four girls (Nell, Cate, Henny, and Beck) and four boys (Frank, Sampson, Joe, and Tom). Naming patterns suggest that the enslaved man Sam on that property was her husband. William Mason inherited his Grandfather Eilbeck’s plantation as well as a majority of the Eilbeck slaves. Thus, Bess and most of her children remained together during their lives. Tom and Joe, however, were given to two other Mason sons and sent to Gunston Hall. Separated from their family, they stayed in Virginia for the rest of their lives. Bess had no say in this decision about her sons.
Charles served as a cook at Lexington Plantation inherited by George Mason’s oldest son, George. Male slave cooks were not uncommon in the Chesapeake region. Charles probably learned his cooking skills from his mother (or father) at Gunston Hall, but we do not know who that enslaved person was.
Cooking required great skill, strength, and many hands. Children of slave cooks provided much of the necessary menial labor to make the daily, difficult job easier. Children brought wood and water to the kitchen; they cleaned and cut vegetables and picked herbs; they gathered eggs and plucked the feathers off chickens. All the while they watched and learned the preparation of meats and side dishes, fancy desserts, and preserved foods. Children also listened as the mistress instructed the cook on methods of formal English service. They often learned what Virginia (or even African) cooking customs could be blended along side the English recipes (or receipts as they were known).
Cooking did not just involve the preparation of food; it also demanded finesse to work with the mistress every day. The rewards were great if the cook maintained a successful relationship; the cook’s family ate — or at least tasted — the variety of foods prepared for the gentry table; they may have received extra clothing, blankets, or shoes for her family. But punishments could be severe or even horrifying if the cook disappointed the mistress of the house. Burned or wasted foods might bring on a whipping. Worse yet, cases of slave cooks poisoning their masters were known and gravely feared in the white community. Punishment for such an accused cook meant death.
Penny came to live at Gunston Hall as a young girl. Grandfather Eilbeck gave each of the first six Mason children a slave child — a companion to grow up with and to have as a personal servant or traveling companion. Penny became such a gift to Nancy Mason probably when both girls were about the age of 10 or 12. For Penny, this meant leaving her Maryland home and family and moving to Virginia.
Penny may have lived in the mansion house and slept on a pallet or mattress on the floor in the same room with Nancy. Or she may have been assigned a place to live with other slaves in the adjacent outbuildings — with people she did not know. Either way, young Penny had many adjustments to make in her new life with Nancy.
Her tasks probably included laying out clothes and mending them, tending Nancy when she was ill, and traveling with Nancy to friends’ homes. An occasional reward for Penny might be some hand-me-down clothing or a piece of unwanted jewelry. Certainly Penny watched as young men courted Nancy. Perhaps it was with excitement that she learned that Nancy would marry a young man from Maryland! Now Penny would again live near her own family.
Penny spent more than 40 years serving Nancy. The surviving records indicate that Penny had no children of her own. However, she did have an extended family (or fictive kin) among other slaves that Nancy owned, including Caja and her children and grandchildren who remained together across these many years.
Joe was one of the two sons of Mrs. Eilbeck’s Bess who moved to Virginia. George Mason grew to trust Joe. He served as a postillion when Mason traveled by carriage. Sometimes he served as a messenger and delivered letters or parcels. He obviously knew the Virginia landscape well — which roads to travel and paths to take. While on these travels, Joe gathered news of other people in different slave communities and relayed it to Gunston Hall’s enslaved community. He learned to judge how long he could tarry before Mason might become suspicious.
After George Mason’s death, Joe became the property of Thomson Mason and lived with him at Hollin Hall, moving still further from his family and home in Maryland.
James, the one individual mentioned by name in John Mason’s Recollections, served as the manservant to George Mason. John wrote, “[My father’s wigs] were dressed & prepared by his man James, a mulattoe man, who attended on his person and traveled with him.” As a personal servant to the master of the plantation, James held a unique position. He not only waited on George Mason, but he most likely served in the capacity of butler. James wore livery (or uniform) that distinguished him as he opened the door for visitors to Gunston Hall. A family friend would be escorted directly inside, but a traveler or someone there on business (Mason was the county justice of the peace) might be made to wait. James had authority and discretion.
In the hierarchy of enslaved individuals, James also had the greatest privilege and freedom of movement. He traveled many times with George Mason to Williamsburg, Richmond, and later to Philadelphia. His experiences in other places and his comparison to life outside of Gunston Hall filtered back into discussion with others in the slave community on his return.
James knew just about everyone that came or went around the Mason property. Working inside the mansion house, James frequently overheard conversations among the white family, travelers, and guests. He listened to concerns, problems, and fears — and passed that information back into the slave community. Although he worked daily among all of the domestic slaves, at night he returned to a separate community known as Log Town where he lived autonomously with his family and some of the carpenters’ families.
Nace,* a slave overseer, lived and worked on the Occoquan Quarter. In John Mason’s Recollections, he writes, “My father kept no stewart or clerk about him…. He…superintended, with the assistance of a trusty slave or two…all the operations at or about the home house.” Nace was one of those trusted slaves.
An overseer’s job required that he supervise the tasks assigned by the master. Usually, this position fell to a paid white overseer; slaves in this position were rare. For a slave, this position posed difficulties in several ways. First, there might be many times Nace had to enforce work that others preferred not to do. Thus Nace had to find a means to convince everyone to work together for the good of all. Second, Nace had authority over others in the community that was given by the master, but he had to earn the respect of everyone in the slave community also. If Nace misused or otherwise lost that respect among the other slaves, they could shun or isolate him and his family in retaliation. Additionally, the “remuneration” for a slave in this position might be more clothing or extra food for his family, things that others in the slave community might resent. Consequently, as a “middleman” on the quarter, Nace had to carefully juggle responsibility to the master and his place in his community.
Nace held an additional skill which Mason respected. Nace trained and broke horses for riding. George Mason demonstrated his admiration for Nace’s ability in a letter he wrote to John regarding his horse at Gunston Hall: “I have ordered Nace to take your sorrell Horse into his charge; he will fare much better with him, than with our careless Rascals at Gunston.”
Nace earned money with his skills also. On more than one occasion, Mason’s friend and neighbor, Martin Cockburn at Springfield Plantation, paid Nace for “breaking a colt” or “breaking a young horse.” Of all of the Mason slaves, Nace held the highest skill level and greatest position of responsibility.
* Nace was a common slave name. This man was not the son of Caja. However, Nace the overseer had a son (20 years younger) also named Nace and both lived on the Occoquan Quarter.
Gunston Nell (or House Nell) was distinguished from the slave woman Occoquan Nell by her name, reflecting the location of her work. Nell was possibly one of the enslaved women from the Eilbeck property in Maryland who came to Gunston Hall after Ann Eilbeck’s marriage to George Mason. Nell may have served as a “nurse” to the young Mason children, tending to their daily needs until they were old enough to begin lessons at the plantation schoolhouse or be tutored by the governess. Nell had at least two children of her own, Jack and Nell.
Most importantly, Gunston Nell practiced midwifery. This valuable skill may have been learned from her mother or another woman in her family. Nell would have traveled to any of the quarters to assist with the birth of a baby. Although it is unlikely that she assisted in the delivery of Mason family babies, it would have been comforting for Ann Mason to know that Nell was present if Dr.Craig was not available when her delivery time drew near.
Nell, like Nace, made money with her skill. She delivered babies for the slave women Leah and Megar at the nearby Springfield Plantation and was paid by Martin Cockburn for her services.
Tom and Liberty, both skilled carpenters, probably lived in the separate slave community Log Town with their families as John Mason suggests in his Recollections. As did James, these men “commuted” to work, going anywhere on Mason’s plantation where repair or construction was necessary and then returning to Log Town at the end of the day. Skills such as carpentry or blacksmithing were often passed from father to son among slave families just as the children of cooks often learned those skills while growing up.
Living in Log Town provided privacy and autonomy from the mansion house and its outbuildings where most of the other domestic slaves lived and worked. The slave families privileged to live in Log Town could talk without being overheard by the white family or other slaves. They could socialize, sing or dance, and they could mold their family life as they chose.