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George Mason gets memorial in D.C.

April 7, 2002 5:43 am


When America honors George Mason with a bronze sculpture and memorial in Washington Tuesday, Stafford County residents can take particular pride.

Mason is one of their own.

George Mason IV, author of both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, is being honored by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and other dignitaries for helping shape our nation's democratic principals.

He is the George Mason who was born at Dogue's Neck--now called Mason's Neck--in what was then Stafford County and is now Fairfax County. He built Gunston Hall and is the man for whom George Mason University is named.

But the Mason family--and the name George Mason--was well-established in Stafford long before George Mason IV was born in 1725.

George Mason I settled in the area in the early 1650s and probably had a supporting role in the name "Stafford" being attached to the newly formed county that separated from Westmoreland in 1664.

Both George Mason II and his son, George Mason III, increased the family's property and social standing in Stafford, and continued a tradition of leadership and public service.

That family tradition--along with the guiding hand of George Mason IV's mother, Ann Thomson Mason--helped shape the values and principles that led the most famous member of the family to a place on the National Mall.

Two of those ancestors--Georges I and II--likely lie in unmarked graves on a Stafford hillside near the site of the old family home beside Accokeek Creek.

Legend has it that George Mason I arrived in Norfolk in 1652 with Thomas and Gerard Fowke, who had been his neighbors in England. Mason, then about 23, was from Pershore and the Fowkes were from Staffordshire.

Tom Moncure, a Mason descendent and a county historian, said it is likely Gerard Fowke suggested "Stafford" as the name for the new county, with George Mason's concurrence.

Moncure said it is no accident that many of the great families of Virginia--the Washingtons, the Masons, the Lees--showed up in a relatively small area of Virginia at the same time.

"You had Cromwell in England and the Royalists were bailing out during the 1650s, when Westmoreland County and the rest of the Northern Neck were being settled," Moncure said.

"These people were well-educated, well-motivated and competent. They were people of substance. Smart and hard-working. And there was just so much land and resources here, they really would have had to go out of their way not to have been successful."

Mason eventually settled along Accokeek Creek, on a hill between present-day State Routes 608 (Brooke Road) and 621 (Marlborough Point Road).

Historian Jerrilynn Eby, author of "They Called Stafford Home," said Mason began with about 650 acres and gradually increased that to 1,150. The site was called Accokeek Farm, and later Rose Hill.

One of the best sources of information on the Mason clan is the book "The Five George Masons, Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland," by Pamela C. Copeland and Richard K. MacMaster. It describes George Mason I as a pioneer who helped bring the "institutions of rural England to the Virginia borderland."

"His descendants became one of the great Virginia families whose history is that of the settlement of a region and the building of a nation," according to the book.

George Mason I represented Stafford in the House of Burgesses, was the county's second sheriff and also served as a justice of the peace and vestryman. In addition, he was a colonel in the county militia.

In 1675, an Englishman in Stafford was killed by Indians from Maryland. According to Moncure, Col. Mason crossed the Potomac River with Capt. Giles Brent to avenge the crime. This incident touched off a conflict that culminated a year later in a challenge to royal authority known as Bacon's Rebellion.

"It's ironic that George Mason I was involved in the spark that lit the Revolution," Moncure said. "And then a hundred years later, his great-grandson would occupy a central role in the successful end to British tyranny."

Moncure said the role of the county militia should not be underestimated.

"You have to remember that the threat of Indian attacks was very real until the 1700s," he said. "Much of the area still was frontier. So the role of the Masons in the Stafford militia helped provide security that allowed the county to flourish."

George Mason I was married twice and fathered one child before his death in 1686 at the age of 57.

"George Mason I had come to a wilderness area and helped to make it into a settled one with laws and regulations governing its future growth," wrote the authors of "The Five George Masons."

"He left to his heir a position of importance in the new society developing along the shores of the Potomac, and a heritage of lands and goods much in excess of what he had in hand when he came to Virginia."

George Mason II and George Mason III also served as colonels in the militia, and both represented Stafford in the House of Burgesses.

"The Masons clearly had a big role in the political and social life in Stafford," said historian Eby. "The few literate families at the time had to fill the vital roles of justices and sheriffs. And the Masons were one of those important families."

George Mason II was born in 1660 at his father's Accokeek plantation. He served as sheriff and justice of the peace at various times, was active in county politics and also received payment from the county to build what may have been Stafford's first jail in 1690.

The town of Marlborough was laid out in 1691 on the same neck of land that included Accokeek Farm. According to Eby, George Mason II was granted a number of lots there and may have built a tavern in the town.

He sold Accokeek Farm after his father's death and moved to a farm on Chopawamsic Creek. The farm, more than 2,000 acres, was on the east side of present-day U.S. 1 near Boswell's Corner.

George Mason II built a home using blocks of local sandstone, planted an orchard, grew tobacco and raised sheep and cattle. He was married three times and fathered 12 children before his death in 1716 at the age of 56.

"Within his lifetime, George Mason II had seen the frontier pushed back and a plantation economy developed in what had been a wilderness in his younger days," wrote the authors of "The Five George Masons."

"In spite of the contacts he made during the sessions of the Assembly and his visits to Williamsburg, he always remained a rough-and-ready frontiersman."

Born in 1690, George Mason III was about 27 when his father died and was already a man of standing in the county.

Like his father, he amassed enormous land holdings in Stafford, Fauquier, Prince William and Fairfax counties. Tax records researched by Eby indicate that by the time George Mason III died in 1735, he owned 20,875 acres in Stafford alone.

Most of the land was leased out as small farms with the rent paid in tobacco. Mason found that leasing the property was generally more profitable than trying to raise crops on his own with slave labor.

Other sources of income included a fishing business and money from a ferry service across Occoquan Creek.

George Mason III also served as county sheriff and, like his father and grandfather, demonstrated a sense of adventure. In 1716, he rode with an expedition led by Gov. Alexander Spotswood across the Blue Ridge mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley.

He was married to Ann Thomson in 1721. A few years later, he moved his family to Charles County, Md., using the house at Chopawamsic Creek only as an occasional residence.

The 44-year-old George Mason III drowned in 1735 in a ferry accident on the Potomac River. The oldest of his three children, George Mason IV, was just 9 at the time, and the family soon returned to Chopawamsic Farm in Stafford.

There are many Mason family descendants living in Stafford today, but nothing remains of the original family homes or burial sites.

"You have to remember that most of the great houses in Virginia date to the middle of the 18th century," Moncure said.

"Before then, most people lived in simple, one-level houses. There's a perception that wealthy landowners in the very early days of America lived in luxurious homes that have survived for us today. They didn't. That's why we can't expect to see even ruins of the farm sites of the early Masons."

Eby says county records state that when George Mason II sold Accokeek Farm, he specifically reserved his father's tomb "and the burying place in which it stands." Moncure said it is likely that George Mason II eventually joined his father at the Accokeek burial site.

"That was the practice in those times--to maintain the family site," he said. "There's every reason to believe they both are buried there."

The Accokeek Farm property has been owned for the past 42 years by Paul and Nellie Guy. They call it Guy's Hill.

"There appears to be the remains of an old cemetery here," Nellie Guy said. "But it has pretty much filled in over time. There's nothing to see now."

The late Dr. Oscar Darter of Mary Washington College studied the Accokeek property during the 1950s. He reportedly found what appeared to be the foundation of a house at the edge of the woods. But, according to Eby, no description or drawing remains of the structure and no excavations have been done there.

Eby said that any gravestones at the site may have been moved or destroyed during the Civil War, when Stafford County was occupied by federal troops.

"The soldiers often shaped three stone markers into a makeshift fireplace," she said.

As for the Mason family property along Chopawamsic Creek, much of that area was taken over by the government to create Quantico Marine Corps Base in 1942.

"The large stone house at Chopawamsic Farm didn't survive the Civil War," Eby said. "The house stood right along the creek. There's nothing there now but lily pads, but it was a beautiful location for a home. The sounds would have been incredible out there at night--and so would the mosquitoes."

According to Eby, records show that George Mason III thought enough of Chopawamsic Farm that he arranged for a small burial plot near the orchard. After he drowned, however, George Mason III was buried at Newtown, a family home on the present-day Gunston Hall property in Fairfax County.

That burial ground is only about a quarter-mile from Gunston Hall's visitors center, but remains unmarked, according to Susan Borchardt, the historic site's deputy director for collections and education.

After her husband's death, Ann Thomson Mason was entitled to one-third of his property as her dower. She chose Chopawamsic Farm, and by all accounts displayed a keen business sense in successfully managing the Mason family interests for the rest of her life. She never remarried.

George Mason IV began his education at Chopawamsic Farm and lived there until he moved north to present-day Fairfax County at the age of 24.

Another Stafford resident who became an important part of Mason's life was his uncle and godfather, John Mercer of Marlborough Point.

"Mercer was a very big influence on Mason," Eby said. "He was a staunch patriot and a lawyer by trade. And he had one of the great libraries in Virginia."

Borchardt of Gunston Hall believes the family tradition of public service established by the Masons of early Stafford had a significant impact on George Mason IV.

"I think his own personality led him away from political service to some extent," Borchardt said. "He was good at politics, but I don't think he liked it. It was hard for him to sit through the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

"But good government was so important to him that he stepped up and did what he needed to do."

Mason said as much in his will, dated March 20, 1773:

"I recommend it to my Sons, from my own Experience in Life, to prefer the happiness of independance & a private Station to the troubles and Vexations of Public Business; but if either their own inclination or the Necessaty of the times shou'd engage them in Public Affairs, I charge them, on a Father's Blessing, never to let the motives of private Interest or ambition deter them from Asserting the liberty of their Country, and endeavouring to transmit to their posterity those Sacred rights to which themselves were born."

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.