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George Mason and Family: Legacy of Liberty

The Families of Mount Vernon

August 8, 2002

The legacy of George Mason — Colonial patriot, champion of individual freedom and protector of personal rights — touches Americans every day.

Americans enjoy the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, a document founded on his enlightened thought. Driving along Fort Hunt Road, motorists pass through the shadow of one of his many former landholdings in Northern Virginia. And motorists are likely to bump into one of the many members of the extended Mason family who still live in the Mount Vernon area. The Mason family — historic in scale, rich in character, and full of life.

To many, “George Mason” is just a college down the road in Fairfax, or the name of a street in Arlington. To a knowing few, he was one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1786 who refused to sign the document. He was even quoted as saying that he "would sooner chop off my right arm than to put it to the Constitution as it now stands."

Even less is known of the influence the Mason family had in the history and development of our corner of Fairfax County. He owned almost 30,000 acres in Virginia and Maryland, including 5,500 in what is now known as Mason Neck, the location of the family seat, Gunston Hall. His other holdings had some familiar names.

Hollin Hall. Mason’s son Thomson built the original Hollin Hall on Mason family property, living there until his death in 1820.

Woodbridge. George Mason’s father owned Woodbridge plantation on the Occoquan River opposite the Colonial town of Colchester. Mason left the land and the Occoquan ferry to his son Thomas.

Roosevelt Island. Another son, John, inherited Analostan Island, a 75-acre sliver of land in the Potomac between Arlington and Georgetown. It is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Clermont. John Mason also owned Clermont, a spacious country home in the Cameron Valley west of Alexandria. The Union Army converted Clermont to a smallpox hospital during the Civil War, and it burned to the ground near the end of the War. It was located just west of the current Eisenhower Connector exit on the Beltway.

Spring Bank. Spring Bank was also a Mason property. Occupied by one of the many Georges in the family during the Civil War, Spring Bank was razed in 1972 to make way for the old Kmart on Richmond Highway (now Michael’s).

Rose Hill. Now just a name of a subdivision just south of Franconia Road, it was a stately home built in 1771 by Daniel French on Mason land.

MASON HISTORIANS refer to the primary sons of the early Mason family by Roman numerals. George I emigrated from England in about 1651 and settled on Accoteek Creek in Stafford County. His son George II gradually gained control of land north of the Occoquan in the 1690s, and George III further enlarged the family holdings.

George III was living on Doegs’ Neck (now Mason Neck) in a home called Newton, when George IV, founding father George, was born in 1725. George IV built Gunston Hall and gave some of his land, which he named Lexington in honor of the early skirmish with the Redcoats in 1775, to George V. Next, and last, was George VI, whose widow, Eleanor Clifton Patton Mason, was the last Mason owner of Gunston Hall.

George IV, or George Mason of Gunston Hall, is the central figure in the family. A vestryman of Truro Parish, which included Pohick Church, Mason also represented Fairfax County at the Virginia House of Burgesses 1758-61. In May 1775, shortly after the Battle of Lexington, he represented Fairfax County at the Virginia Convention, at which he drafted the Virginia Constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The latter starts with Mason’s eloquent assertion of the natural freedom of man, words that Thomas Jefferson drew upon when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

BUT THE DRAFTERS of the U.S. Constitution refused inclusion of Mason’s landmark Declaration of Rights, leading to the potentially painful, chopping-off-the-arm threat. Later, the Founding Fathers added the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights, modeling it after Mason’s Declaration. Thus, George Mason No. 4 gained a respected position in American history.

Keeping with the social and reproductive traditions of the times, the Masons had large families. George Mason IV married his wife, Ann Eilbeck, in 1750, and they had 12 children, with their last, premature twins, dying shortly after birth in 1772. Ann herself died in 1773 of what the authors of “The Five George Masons,” Copeland and McMaster, called the "strain of continual childbearing."

Mason children married into other prominent Virginia and Maryland families, most with recognizable names — Chichester, Stuart, Murray, Hooe, McCarty, Lee, Patton, Randolph, Cooper, Grymes, Barnes and Mason. It was not unusual in those days to marry a cousin, and there are many connecting branches in the Mason family tree.

George Mason IV gave a parcel of land that abutted the northern boundary of Washington’s River Farm to his son Thomson. The son and his wife, Sarah McCarty Chichester, moved into their partially completed home in 1788, naming it Hollin Hall after an ancestral home in England. Thomson died in 1820, and his son George William (one of the many unnumbered Georges) inherited Hollin Hall. Forced from the house in 1827 when it burned down, the George William Masons moved into an outbuilding, the spinning house, now called Little Hollin Hall.

The George William Mason family moved to Kentucky in 1828 and his cousin, another George Mason (no number, no middle name), moved into Little Hollin Hall. In 1852 he sold it to Edward Gibbs, one of the many Quakers who bought land in the Mount Vernon area in the years before the Civil War. Little Hollin Hall has passed through a number of hands since then, including the family that owned Thompson’s Dairy, and it is now owned by Christopher and Martha Granger.

THE IMPOSING MANSION that stands today atop Mason Hill was built in 1919 by Harley Wilson and is owned by Mount Vernon Unitarian Church. It stands at or very near the location of its namesake.

George Mason, no number, nephew of Thomson and grandson of George IV, was living at Little Hollin Hall, before selling to Gibbs, when he bought another country manor called Spring Bank in about 1844 and moved there. Built by Robert Patton in the early 1800s, Spring Bank stoically suffered the ravages of the Civil War, withstood the ignominy of conversion to apartments during World War II, shrank from the creation of a trailer park in its orchards in the 1950s and bit the dust in 1972.

If walls could talk. A tenant before Mason bought the house and property. He was John Armfield, who, with his partner Isaac Franklin, ran one of the country’s largest slave-trading businesses in Alexandria.

Union troops camped at Spring Bank, stripping the grounds of trees, produce and stock, leaving Mason to curse them roundly in a manner one observer termed "sublime and picturesque." George, who had three wives, two of them cousins, died in 1870, and the house and land remained in the Mason family until the late 1880s. One of the main academic buildings at West Potomac High School was named in honor of Spring Bank.

Next week, in Part 2, the Mason family descendants.