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CHAPTER FIVE

GUNSTON HALL INTERPRETIVE PERIOD

What is an interpretive period? It is a single date or era that a historic site selects to give greater clarity to its interpretation. An interpretative period allows a historic property to focus on specific interpretive themes -- themes which it deems important to the realization of its mission statement.

In 1994, the Board of Regents selected 1780-1788 as the interpretive period for Gunston Hall based upon the recommendation of museum staff. In choosing this period, a variety of factors were considered, including Mason's involvement in the political events of the day, his personal life, and business activities. Weight was also given to the architectural development of Gunston Hall and to Mason's household furnishings.

What does the selection of this specific interpretative period mean for Gunston Hall? It means that physically the house and its collections will reflect the years 1780-1788. The architectural development of the house, the decorative finishes (paint, wallpapers, etc.), and the furnishings will represent the way George Mason and his family lived during this period.

Public Life

Gunston Hall Plantation's mission is to educate the public about George Mason and his unique contribution to the universal cause of human rights. Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776; by 1780-1788, the influence of that document was felt on both a national and international level. Throughout much of this period, George Mason was representing Fairfax County in the Virginia Assembly. In 1787, Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where, in an act of conscience, he chose not to sign the Constitution. That act, and its connection to his belief in a national bill of rights, is central to the interpretation of Gunston Hall. By including 1788, the interpretive period encompasses the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Mason's last public political involvement, one tied to that very issue of conscience.

George Mason was involved in the formation of our nation and our national government. The interpretative period selected -- the final years of the Revolutionary era -- ties together all of Mason's accomplishments. He had evolved from a simple planter to a nationally respected political force, from an individual loyal to Great Britain to an American citizen.

Personal Life

The period selected began with an important personal change for widower George Mason -- his marriage in 1780 to Sarah Brent. The addition of Sarah Brent and her ten-year-old nephew George Graham to the household at Gunston Hall was just the beginning of a period of change and family milestones for the Masons.

Eight of George Mason's children, ranging in age from 10 to 27 in 1780, lived at home during some or all of the years between 1780 and 1788. Eldest son George Jr, and third son Thomson both married in 1784, bringing their brides to live at Gunston Hall. During the years that these two sons and their wives were in residence they presented George Mason with four grandchildren, creating what was surely a lively, multi-generational household. By the end of 1788, both young families had removed from Gunston Hall into homes of their own. Daughters Nancy and Betsy lived at home during these years as did daughter Mary, until her marriage in 1784. Also at home, in between periods away at school or on business, were sons William, John, and Thomas as well as Sarah's nephew George.

In addition to the various family members, there were at least two employees who may well have been living in the house during this time. Mr. Constable, a tutor from Scotland, was in Mason's employ in 1780 and 1781, being described in John Mason's recollections as “especially engaged in that Country to come to America . . . by my Father to live in his house and educate the Children.” Also possibly part of the Mason household during this period may have been a Mrs. Newman who according to John Mason was “The Tutoress for my sisters . . . [who] remained in the Family for some time.”(1)

Mason Family: 1780-1788

Even within the chosen interpretative period, the composition of the Mason household changed. In many respects, the period can be viewed as two smaller periods, allowing even greater interpretative flexibility. The period 1780-1783/4 began with George Mason's marriage. During these years, all three unmarried daughters were at home, possibly with Mrs. Newman serving as governess and companion. Also in residence until sometime in 1781 was David Constable, overseeing the education of Mason sons John and Thomas as well as Sarah's nephew George Graham. The boys remained at Gunston Hall until 1783, when all three departed to live away from home and go to school. The oldest Mason son, George Jr. was in France until some time in 1783 and sons William and Thomson were sporadic residents at Gunston Hall due to the demands of the War and business concerns.

The period 1784-1788 saw some significant changes at Gunston Hall. Seventeen eighty-four was a pivotal year for three of the Mason children. Daughter Mary married and left home. Sons George and Thomson also wed and began their married lives and families while living at Gunston Hall. By December of 1788, they had moved into their own homes. Along with the comings and goings of the Mason children, extended family members resided at Gunston Hall for prolonged periods. (2) This four year period also encompassed several milestones in George Mason's public life. During these years he attended the Mount Vernon Conference, the Constitutional Convention, and the Virginia Ratifying Convention.

Other Factors

In considering the business side of Mason's life, the decade of the 1780s was also important for the interpretative period. By the era of the 1780s, Gunston Hall was a mature and fully developed plantation. The plantation's physical plant encompassed about 30 outbuildings and an entire community of workers -- enslaved and free. Like many planters during this period, Mason experienced repercussions from the war, the government under the Articles of Confederation, and changing international markets. Through all the difficulties created by these fluid conditions, Mason continued to manage his own business enterprises with consummate skill, a task made more difficult by recurring ill health.

Additional weight was given to the selection of this period by a number of other factors. Physically, the house was complete by this period. The landside porch was added to the house just before or during this period. Interior finishes were updated in the ground floor domestic spaces and perhaps in other areas in the house, possibly in conjunction with George Mason's second marriage. All documented George Mason furnishings were in the house by this period. These include objects for which there is only written documentation such as merchant accounts as well a number of objects with strong family histories such as the Hesselius portraits, silver beverage and tablewares, and items of furniture such as the English card table and numerous sets of chairs.

The largest known Mason household order dates to 1780. Not only does it list specific objects being acquired for the Mason household, but by inference, it also reflects upon Mason's probable patterns of acquisition during the period in question. Ceramics included in that order suggest that Mason was updating and adding to his household furnishings, possibly as a result of his remarriage. It also suggests the likelihood that Mason continued to purchase household goods necessary to replace goods that were subject to breakage and wear and tear from daily use.

Summary

An interpretative period of 1780-1788 does not preclude the inclusion in tours of information about other periods in George Mason's life or the evolution of the house and plantation through time. The presence of Ann Mason, George Mason's first wife, can be made palpable through the exhibition of her portrait among the furnishings of Gunston Hall and by drawing upon the rich accounts to be found in the recollections of her son John. Likewise, the physical backdrop of the house can be used as talk about the final years of Mason's life, including the marriages of daughters Nancy and Betsy in 1789 and the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Indeed through verbal interpretation, the entire history of Gunston Hall will still be part of the story of the site.

However, the selection of the period 1780-1788 focuses the interpretation of Gunston Hall on a time that was pivotal in both the lives of the Mason family and the nation as a whole. During these years, George Mason was the patriarch of a large, multi-generational family and one of the founding fathers of a fledgling nation. By interpreting 1780-1788, a full and rounded portrait of George Mason, his life and times, will be presented to the public.

1.“Recollections of John Mason,” transcribed by Terry Dunn and Estella Bryans-Munson, Gunston Hall Plantation Library and Archives, 1989; revised, 1999, 39.

2. Ann Thomson Mason, daughter of Thomson Mason of Raspberry Plain, lived at Gunston Hall for a time during the 1784-1788 period before her marriage to Richard McCarty Chichester. See Letter in John Thomson Mason file, Gunston Hall Library and Archives ( original in John Thomson Mason Papers, Maryland Historical Society).



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