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Pilgrimages to American Landmarks – Gunston Hall

By Bertha Louisa Robinson
Washington, District of Columbia
Published in the Journal of American History in 1910.

Researches into The old world Antecedents of the Founders of Gunston Hall an Historic Mansion of the Old South * Progenitor of The Masons in America was Commander of the Troopers of Battle of Worcester under the Standard of the House of Stuart – Journey to Ancient American Landmark

THIS pilgrimage to an historic mansion on the bank of the Potomac River, down in Old Virginia, is like a journey back through the generations, in which one meets the men who were building a nation. In it one stands in the presence of the gallant manhood that surrounded Washington, and grasps it by the hand, hearing the words of greeting fall from the lips, and feeling the impulse of the patriotism that ran through the veins of the First Citizens of the Republic.

In making this journey to historic Gunston Hall, the mansion in which the distinguished statesmen of the first days of the American Nation gathered about the hospitable blazing log on the hearth and discussed the policy of a government yet to be born, the author not only observes the present condition of the “house that made history,” but has collected the traditions and romances that still cling to this ancient estate. It is such pilgrimages as this that vitalize the past ages and make them live again in the hearts and imaginations of the generation.

This journey to Gunston Hall was made by the author in the course of historical and genealogical investigations into the foundations of the Masons in America. An exhaustive research of the archives in Washington has been made, and the results are-recorded in these pages. The old mansion stands as a monument to a strain of blood that has become instilled into the history of the nation. It was a master of Gunston Hall who drafted the first Bill of Rights in America, a document which was a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence-Colonel George Mason, a Virginian gentleman whose master mind had much influence upon the movement of the times. This Bill was largely based on the English Bill of Rights of 1688. Its phraseology was followed in the constitutions of many of the states.

Colonel Mason, the master of Gunston Hall, stood on the floor of the Federal Convention of 1787 and appealed for a clear stipulation of the rights of the individual citizen as over against his government, and when it was rejected he refused to sign the Constitution of the United States of America and withdrew from the assemblage to lead a strong opposition party against its ratification. This was the first great political contest in the United States, and so strong did the opposition become that the First Congress was forced to carry through amendments of this nature, and these stand today as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. With this in mind, this pilgrimage to old Gunston Hall, the estate of the first insurgent leader in American politics, is especially interesting.-EDITOR

Old Southern Mansion of Gunston Hall

ON the right bank of the Potomac, a few miles below Mount Vernon, stands “Gunston Hall,” the famous residence of the Mason family, one of the oldest and most respectable in Virginia. This curious old mansion is a venerable and most interesting relic of the past. It is no longer surrounded by thousands of highly-cultivated acres as in the eighteenth century, but raises its ancient walk in the midst of a great body of forest, and the glory of the place has departed from it; but there the house still stands, unchangeable in a world of change, ponderous, “solid set,” and so durable in construction and material that it promises even now, when it is more than a century old, to outlast many a house built yesterday. Gunston Hall derives its chief interest, in an historic point of view, from having been the residence of George Mason, the author of the famous “Bill of Rights,” a paper which preceded and laid the foundation for the Declaration of Independence. The place in itself is full of attraction. Everything about it being old, has a tendency to make one think of the dead society of the eighteenth century. The original estate consisted of about seven thousand acres of fertile land, a considerable part of it among the richest on the Potomac; Gunston Hall estate was known to be next to Mount Vernon in its productive character. Gunston Hall stands some distance back from the Potomac, which it overlooks -facing east and west. The grounds around the mansion were formerly very extensive, which was the taste of that day. The walks were edged with rows of box, the most popular of all evergreens of early days. These have been permitted to grow year after year, unclipped, until now they are no longer shrubs, but trees, and in some places nearly interlock their branches above the walks. The remnants of the old orchards, and the ruins of the once numerous outhouses, add to this picturesque neglect; and give to the spot an aged air which is very impressive. The house is a large one, built of imported brick from England. Over the window and at the angle of the walk are cut stone ornaments. The roof is very large, very steep, and flanked by four chimneys, which are visible from a considerable distance. Set in the roof, on each front, are five dormer windows-two lighting each attic corresponding with the hall of the first floor. When George Mason lived at Gunston Hall there were no railways, or telegraphs, or morning newspapers; men travelled in stagecoaches, or old, lumbering chariots, drawn by four or six horses, through muddy roads and thought thirty miles a day rapid travelling. They burned wax candles; were glad to get a newspaper once a month or so; and, when they wanted a new suit of clothes, a new book, or a bottle of wine, they were obliged to send to London for it. At that time Alexandria was a mere village. Washington City, at that time, woods. As the grounds upon which the Capitol stands were covered with woods therefore George Mason and George Washington had their own ships, in which they sent their tobacco and grain to London-the vessels bringing back their wine, books, embroidered coats, ruffled shirts, and hair-powder, twice or thrice a year. And yet these people seem to have lived in great comfort at Gunston Hall and elsewhere. They had great log-fires blazing in huge fireplaces; the long tables groaned under a profusion of things eatable and drinkable. Attentive servants waited ready to fulfill your least wish at a nod-in a word. The planters lived what seems to have been happy lives, under the blue skies of a bright climate, surrounded by all the cheer of home. Sometimes we laugh at them, thinking we are altogether superior to them. That conclusion is somewhat doubtful. During the time when George Mason lived at Gunston Hall, it became a great resort of company and nearly every famous person in America at one time or other entered its broad door-way and sat at its hospitable board. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lafayette, were entertained in turn; George Washington and George Mason had similar views and tastes-both loved hunting and country pursuits.

Several years after the Civil War, Gunston Hall, in dilapidation, was acquired by Colonel Edward Daniels, and partially restored during his ownership. Colonel Daniels came to Virginia from the northwest. He edited the Richmond journal, and was an intimate friend of President Grant. He aspired to the Senate, from Virginia, and once ran for the House of Representatives against Eppa Hunton. Gunston Hall, though no longer in the Mason family, has been well preserved, and the ravages of time, with the more fatal devastation of war, have so slightly affected it that it may be taken as one of the best types of Virginia colonial mansions. In solidity, and in the character of its material and finish, it is superior to Mount Vernon. The cellars are as substantial as when first built and extend under the whole house. They consist of four rooms with a passageway between them. The wine-vault, opposite the staircase leading up into the first floor, has been closed up. Here was stored the Madeira, the favorite imported wine of the early Virginian, with the beverages produced from the home distillery. A large oven is in one of these cellarrooms and in the others are alcoves, used in former days for keeping wines and other stores, which it was desirable to place in cool recesses. One of these cellars was used at one time as a winter dairy. The house has been freshly painted in recent years, and has bright red brick walls with cut-stone facing at each angle. Its steep roof and tall chimneys present to the eye of the visitor a quaint and attractive appearance. From the front entrance, opposite the old road, there was an avenue of cherry trees reaching to the gate, “the white gate” as it was called. Then the English hawthorn hedge led up to the “red gate,” which opened on the public road. You enter the house on this side, through a square porch with four pillars and an arched doorway, by a flight of broad steps, the old fire-stone blocks now cracked and uneven.

This porch was once plastered, and remains of the old plaster are still to be seen. On the front door, also, may be traced the marks in the wood where the old brass knocker, a lion’s head, once rested. A window on each side of the door looks out on the porch, and both door and windows are broad and low, the latter having deep window-seats. The wide, handsome hall, however, is high, and the general effect of the house on the first floor is airy and spacious. The hall is wainscoted and paneled in North Carolina pine, and the woodwork of every door, window and cornice is elaborately carved. The wide staircase leading up to the second floor has balusters of mahogany, also ornamented in the same manner. The doors are of mahogany. In the center of the hall is a carved arch with a huge acorn pendant in the middle, and this is also elaborately carved. The hall opens out on a pentagonal porch at the river front of the house, and on the left of this entrance is the drawing-room. Here the woodwork is exquisitely carved-doors, windows and mantel-the cornices almost reaching to the high ceiling. All this hand carving is said to have been the work of convicts sent from England. The great wide fireplaces of the olden times have been altered in comformity with modern ideas of comfort, and the superb mantlepiece that was once to be seen in the drawing-room has long since disappeared. On each side of the chimney in the room is a carved alcove reaching to the level of the cornices over the door and windows. These alcoves, with shelves, held old china, silver and bric-a-brac. A space was left over a mantel, framed in the woodwork, to hold a mirror or a picture.

The drawing-room was formerly handsomely wainscoted in walnut and mahogany, but during the Civil War much of the wainscoting was injured, and the walls have since been patched up and papered; unfortunately the old, rich, carved woodwork having been painted white to contrast with the dark papering used there. The woodwork elsewhere has been given a darker hue, more in harmony with the original coloring. The dining-room, is the same size. This room, since Colonel Mason’s time, has been used as a drawing-room. Here the wainscoting and cornices are less elaborate; on each side of the mantel is a deep closet instead of an alcove. The two corresponding rooms across the hall are separated by a narrow passage, and at the end of the latter was the back staircase leading into the second floor, and the stairs leading down into the cellars. Both of these stairways have been closed up within recent years. The passage opened out on a little porch with an arched doorway, and this too has disappeared. Of the two rooms on this side of the hall, the one opposite the drawing-room was occupied by Colonel Mason and his wife, and was called in old Virginia parlance, “the chamber.” The other room was at one time used as the “nursery.” Tradition has it that Washington, Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, have slept in this room. Ascending the wide staircase in the hall, half-way up, over the first landing, is a window in the wall, corresponding to one over the front door. At the head of the stairs there are three arches supported on four pillars, one pillar on each side against the wall and two in the center. Between these middle pillars a lamp may be suspended. The arches and pillars are of dark, old, carved wood. The room on the second floor opens on each side of a hall which runs at right angles to the hall below, and terminates at each gable-end of the house. These rooms are small and low-pitched, with dormer windows and wide, low window seats. A steep staircase leads up from one of these rooms into the attic, where were kept, fifty years ago, old disused spinning wheels and spinning machines that doubtless had seen good service in Colonial days. A round window at each end of the house lights this upper region; and by a ladder-like staircase, one ascends now to a sort of villa-tour placed on the roof for viewing the landscape. This is a modern addition; scarcely in keeping with the old mansion, though the beautiful views of the river that it affords would almost reconcile one to the innovation.

The tall outside chimneys make a noticeable feature in their appearance, but, as has been said, the old fashioned, huge fireplaces and tall mantels that should be found with them have disappeared. On the river front of the house one descends the steps from the pretty pentagonal porch, with its carved red and white pillars and latticework, its benches on the four enclosed sides, the fifth being the doorway into what was once a well-kept lawn. The porches on both sides of the house are embowered in fragrant rose bushes, so venerable in their size that they look as though they might have flourished here a hundred years ago. A box hedge, its bushes grown now to the stature of small trees, on either side of the path, leads from the lawn to what was called the “falls.”

George Mason died in 1792, at the age of sixty-six and was buried in the graveyard at Gunston Hall. In the midst of a beautiful grove of cedars, not far from the building, is the cemetery of the Mason family; and here are the remains of George Mason, his wife, and numerous members of his household. His own grave is unmarked, but tradition tells us that his body was interred beside that of his wife.

Over Mrs. Mason’s grave is erected a massive marble tablet, bearing the following inscription:

“Once she was all that charms and sweetens Life-
A Faithful Mother, Sister, Friend, and wife;
Once she was all that makes mankind adore:
Now view this marble, and be vain no more.”

This inscription was by the husband, to his faithful wife, who died in 1773.

Once more Gunston Hall changed hands. This time it passed to Mr. Joseph Specht of St. Louis, and by him was completely restored, and beautified by shrubbery and flowers. Mr. Specht died about three years ago, and the place remains in possession of his heirs, but at the present time the only tenants are W. S. Freeman, the colored overseer, and his wife.

Colonel George Mason, the great-grandfather of George Mason of Gunston, was a commander of a troop of horse at the battle of Worcester, where he fought for the standard of the House of Stuart; and escaping from this fatal field, disguised himself and was concealed by some peasants until an opportunity offered for him to embark for America. A younger brother is said to have accompanied him to Virginia. They landed at Norfolk, and George Mason’s brother, William Mason, married and died at Norfolk, Virginia. George Mason went up the Potomac River and settled at Accomkick, near Pasbytanzy, where he was buried. Colonel Mason himself is believed to have been born in Staffordshire, and to have lived there until the time of his leaving England. In the church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-on-Avon, are the vaults of the Mason family with a number of memorial tablets and monuments inscribed to its different members. Colonel George Mason (1st) was not a Warwickshire man, but a Staffordshire man. There is a record of his father having been interested in the London Company in 1609, which company promoted the settlement of Virginia. One of the Mason’s fellow refugees was another royalist, Colonel Gerard Fowke, a son of Roger Fowke of Berwood Hall and Gunston, a hamlet in Staffordshire. James M. Mason, in 1865, when in England, visited the original Gunston Hall, which was owned by the Gifford family-the same Gifford family who were royalists with Mason and Fowke, and who owned Boscoled, near Gunston, when Charles II lay in concealment after Worcester.

In the second parliament of Charles I, 1625, a William Mason represented Aldborough, Suffolk, while in the parliament of 1628 Robert Mason represented Winchester, Southampton County. Old records show that some of Colonel Mason’s neighbors were Colonel Gerard Fowke, John Leare, Sir Thomas Lunsford, Captain Giles Brent. In 1675, Colonel Mason was associated with Lieutenant-Colonel John Washington and Major Isaac Allerton in the Indian campaigns in that year, in Maryland and Virginia. He was a burgess in the Virginia Assembly of 1676 (Bacon’s Assembly), during the incumbency of the Royal Governor Berkeley. Colonel Mason (1st) died about 1686. His will was long on the file in Stafford Court House, but was destroyed about 1862, it is thought, by troops. George Mason (2nd) did not live at Accokeek, but on Dogue Neck, somewhere near the present ruins of Belvoir, the home of the Fairfaxes. That part of Virginia was then the northern frontier. Mason (2nd) was a Potomac Ranger, and in 1692 became sheriff of Stafford County. In 1694 he sold the old house at Accokeek to Robert Wright, but reserved the family burying-ground. This place came into possession of Nathanial Hedgeman in 1707, and remained in that family for 150 years. In 1696 he bought of William Sherwood 2,109 acres in Dogue Neck (later the Fairfax-Belvoir property), and 200 acres near Little Hunting Creek that later became a part of the Mount Vernon ,estate. In 1704 he bought the land on which Occoquan village now stands. In 1714, with James Hereford, he bought 2,244 acres about where Accotonk village now is. Colonel Mason at the time of his death was a large property holder. He had been married three times. The first wife was Mary, daughter of Gerard Fowke, the second of the name in Virginia. They had five children, George, French, Nickolson, Elizabeth, and Simpha Rosa. Colonel Mason’s second wife was Elizabeth, daughter of the Reverend John Waugh. She had one child, named Catherine. The third wife’s Christian name was Sarah, her surname is not known. Her children were Francis, Thomas, Sarah, Gerard, Anne, and Mary. Anne’s second husband and Mary’s first husband were sons of William Fitzhugh, the founder of the Fitzhugh family of Virginia. Of the sons of Colonel Mason only two, George and French, married and left descendants. George Mason (3rd) was the first son of Mason (2nd) and Mary Fowke. George Mason, the third of the name and line in Virginia, the father of George Mason of Gunston, was prominent in the affairs of the colony. He was a justice of the peace in 1713, and later became sheriff of Stafford County. In 1716 he was one of the party that accompanied Alexander Spotswood on his trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains, an undertaking of great consequence then. Others in the party were Robert Brooke, Beverly, the historian, Colonel Robinson and John Fontaine. In commemoration of this journey, Spotswood instituted the Order of the Golden Horseshoe, presenting to each of his companions the insignia of the order. Mason was appointed “Commander-in-chief of all of his majesty’s militia, horse and foot in the County of Stafford,” and in 1720 he was presented with the freedom of the City of Glasgow by the provost, bailies and the gold council of that city. This honor was brought about by the Scotch traders of the Potomac Country, of whom there were many. Mason was a member of the House of Burgesses, and in 1721 he was married to Ann Thomson, daughter of Stevens Thomson, Attorney-General of Virginia. By this marriage he had six children. Colonel Mason’s death took place in 1735, while crossing the Potomac from Virginia to Maryland. Mason (3d) did not agree with the administration of Governor Hugh Drysdale, successor to Spotswood, and in 1727 removed to a place on Chickamuxon Creek, Charles County, Maryland. He was drowned by the upsetting of a sail-boat. It was George Mason (3d) who planted a tract of land opposite Georgetown, about where Rosslyn now is, and who obtained by patent from Lord Baltimore the island now called Analostan, but set down in the old records as Necostin Island, Barbadees, My Lords’ Island, and Mason’s Island. In 1738 a ferry was established below Analostan Island, by Peter Awbery, owner of the land on the Virginia shore. In 1748, Mason bought this ferry and ran it from his land above Analostan Island to the Maryland shore. This ferry continued to run for about a century when it was succeeded by a toll bridge, which in time gave way to the Aqueduct or free bridge. George Mason (4th) of Gunston, was born in 1725, at the old Mason home at Occoquan Neck. The place was later called Woodbridge. After the death of his father he lived with his mother, Ann Thomson Mason, at the Thomson home at Chappawamsic, and with John Mercer, an uncle, to whom Mrs. Mason had leased the Occoquan home. In 1750 he was married to Ann Silbeck, daughter of Colonel William Silbeck of Mattawoman, Charles County, Maryland. He was a wealthy planter and merchant. Mr. Silbeck had settled in Maryland from Cumberland, England, and had married a Miss Edgar of Charles County. The marriage of George Mason and Ann Silbeck was celebrated by the Reverend John Moncure, rector of Overwharton parish, Stafford County. About 1755 Mason began the building of the house, “Gunston,” which he named in memory of his Fowke ancestry. George Mason was young, wealthy, handsome and talented. The picture of George Mason taken by Hesselins represents him in a fashionable short wig of the day, which conceals his own dark hair. His features are regular, the eyes hazel and full of expression, complexion clear and dark. One of the handsomest young men of his day, he is said to have been dignified and attractive in bearing, graceful and prepossessing; an expert horseman, liking races and balls. Mrs. Mason had small, delicate features, dark eyes, auburn hair, pink and white complexion. She was a great beauty, highly intellectual and noted for her sweet disposition. This was truly a love affair and proved a happy life. They had two children, George and William. One of the first enterprises to engage the activities of Mason was the Ohio Company for the colonization of Virginia’s western lands and for trade with the Indians. Other Virginians interested in this company were Thomas Lee, Lawrence Washington, John Mercer, George Mercer and Governor Dinwiddie. It was in the service of this company that George Washington made his first trip into the Ohio country. While Mason dwelt at Gunston Hall he had among his neighbors the following persons of prominence in the old chronicles Raleigh Travers of the great Raleigh family, who married a half-sister to Mary Bull, Colonel Peter Daniel of Crow’s Nest, John Mercer of Merlboro, Virginia, the Hedgemans, Mountjoys, Colonel Thomas Ludwell Lee of Berry Hill and Bellevue, Daniel Carroll Brent of Richland, the Fitzhughs of Boscolel and Bell Air, the Seldens of Sabrington, the Waughs of Belle Plains, Richard Henry Lee of Chantilly, William Fitzhugh of Ravensworth, John Augustine Washington of Bushfield, Richard Stuart of Cedar Grove, Henry Fitzhugh of Bedford, the Chichesters of Newington, Colonel Blackburn of Rippon Lodge, the Fairfaxes of Belvoir, and the Washingtons of Mount Vernon. Another neighbor was Martin Cockburn, an uncle of Admiral Cockburn, who was associated with General Ross in the capture of Washington. George Mason was for many years a member of the board of trustees of the town of Alexandria, having been first elected to this office at a meeting of the board in June, 1754.

The Christian name of George has descended in Virginia down to George Lee Mason, son of Major Robert Mason, of Charlottesville, Virginia. George Lee Mason lives at Edge Hill, once owned by the Randolph family in Charlottesville, Virginia.