Notes upon a Survey Made: 250 Years of Land Stewardship at Gunston Hall Plantation

I was lucky to do some survey work for Gunston Hall Plantation, which is a majestic place to visit, and the former home of a great Virginian, George Mason IV. He was the quiet revolutionary, the one who preferred to write and let others orate, the one who stayed home to tend his vast plantation, and let others legislate. Mason, an often neglected hero, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, hailed since as "the touchstone for the conscience of free men for all time." There were sixteen Articles in Mason's declaration, but none so stirring as the first: That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain rights—namely, the enjoyment of life; liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. Thomas Jefferson freely acknowledged his use of Mason's words, writing in 1825, "The fact is unquestionable, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our really great men, and of the first order of greatness."

Well before he defended individual freedom, George Mason was tend-ing his beloved plantation, Gunston Hall. The fourth generation born on American soil, George Mason was a member of Virginia's planter aristocracy, which took as its model, according to historian Parke Rouse, Jr. "the English country squire, an upright and hearty citizen who served as vestryman, considered it his duty to hold political office, and who was educated to be as much at ease in London as by his own hearthside."

Upon reaching his majority in 1746 (his father died when he was ten), Mason began constructing his beautiful plantation on the banks of the Potomac River. He employed no steward or secretary, preferring to manage his holdings as he was raised and taught. Under Mason's stewardship, Gunston Hall grew to more than 5,000 acres and included fields planted in corn, tobacco, and wheat, managed forests and orchards, deer parks, and lots of construction projects—boat landings and vessels, barns, workshops and dwellings. In their midst and surrounded by formal gardens was Gunston Hall manor, a twenty-room brick house in the Georgian style. In a 1964 essay, former director Kenneth P. Neill wrote "It was a place for plain living and high thinking, a small house crowning a vast estate, a home of wealth with a library at its heart."

Mason began building Gunston Hall in 1754. The estate flourished for a century, but passed out of family hands in 1867. Over time the property decreased in size, but Gunston Hall's decline was checked in 1947 when it was deeded to the State of Virginia. Now Gunston Hall has gone full-circle—just as in Mason's time, surveys of the land serve to preserve and protect his beloved home and grounds. For purposes of long-term planning, research, and archaeological excavations, we were there to make accurate maps of the existing terrain, with horizontal and vertical datum on major features, including the buildings, roads, utilities and significant vegetation. The manor house and its immediate grounds were targeted as the priority. The study area, as outlined by Mr. William Meyer on Berry Engineers' 1959 topo map, scaled 423 by 1277 feet, approximately twelve and one-half acres. The area encompassed the tree-lined drive, the visitor's center, the mansion, and the formal gardens south of the mansion. The primary focus was a long-due examination of the landscape architecture: testing, studying and comparing the existing gardens with archaeological and archival indications of Mason's actual layouts. To this end, a topographical survey was needed to furnish the horizontal and vertical reference control, and to map the existing grounds and utilities, and finally, to provide a digital framework for subsequent data.

The original garden was obscured by a Colonial Revival garden, completed in 1927. The one surviving element from George Mason's original landscape was the formal boxwood t-shaped hedge, grown to a "biomass as high as eight feet and 35 feet across," according to an August 2001Washington Post article. These ancient boxwoods were found to be 250 years old, making them the most significant Colonial plantings yet alive. Each of 140 boxwoods were measured, tagged and located. Ironically, the museum's board must decide what to do about these boxwoods when deciding how to restore Mason's landscape vision; the mighty shrubs obscure what is now perceived to be the original design intent.

Based on John Mason's "Recollections" and archaeological evidence, Gunston Hall's landscape was a far grander affair than anyone had ever supposed. George Mason designed his property to provide dramatic presentations of the manor house, both from the river and from the landward side. Visitors by carriage would arrive through a 1,200-foot boulevard of carefully planted native cherries that led to the central doorway. Guests arriving by boat would see high above them a formal garden with a wide central walkway leading to the mansion's south portico. The spatial sequence linked the main elements. Sen-ior archaeologist Christine Jirikowic summed it up this way: "From the perspective of the house, the garden provided a portal through which to view Mason's holdings, the river, and the world beyond. Conversely, from the perspective of the onlooker viewing Gunston Hall from the river, the garden would have focused the eye on the mansion."

Mason's talents as a designer should come as no surprise. Like many of his contemporaries, including his neighbor and friend George Washington, Mason was proficient with surveying equipment, methods, and calculations. As a member of the landed gentry and the eldest son, Mason was raised to assume the mantle of stewardship, and a thorough education in mathematics and surveying was applied. In The Colonial Plantations of George Mason, Robert Moxham explains the colonial need for this knowledge: "As a safeguard against adverse land actions during a period when boundaries were not firmly established in legal precedent, the basis for proving one's claim to land often rested in factual data derived from surveys. Moreover, the early court records recount many complex land disputes which hinged on the interpretation of survey notes, instrumentation methods and technical aspects of colonial land laws. Intimate knowledge of these factors doubtless was a valuable asset to any landowner."

Mason displayed admirable skill when he surveyed Dogue's (now Mason's) Neck in 1754. The boot-shaped parcel, encompassing roughly 3,500 acres, was bounded on three sides by water, namely Gunston Cove, the Potomac River, and the Occoquan River bay. Mason chose to undertake the survey in February when the marshes and creeks could be easily crossed, "they being hard frozen." The survey party began from a well-established line, "Bushrod's Back Line," where an intersecting creek flowed toward Occoquan Bay, and proceeded counter-clockwise around the Neck, traversing through 36 stations, and ending on Bushrod's Back Line 483 poles from the point of beginning. Along the way, Mason described and tied various features by distance ...Xing (crossing) another bit of Marsh wch. Fork'd about 10 chains wide at 210 P - in Xing this Marsh we were about 5 chains from the Creek Side & about 2 Chains below the fork of sd. Marsh and by bearing/bearing intersection from this place Mr. Cocks Fish House bore N6.Wt. (West) his dwelling House N12.Wt. Mr. Peakes House N.54.W. Four stations later, Mason's notes read from this Place Mr. Cock's Fish House bears N31.E. his dwelling House N21.E Mr. Peakes House N9.Wt. Upon completing the Dogue's Neck traverse, Mason re-occupied a station at the edge of the Great Marsh and traversed around its landward side "to know the Quantity of Acres contain'd." Finally, Mason returned to Bushrod's Back Line and extended it as a control baseline "to survey the 300 acres wch. my Father purchased of Holt's Heirs." Because Mason's notes show that he was traversing Dogue's Neck with Bearings and his distances were measured in Poles, those familiar with colonial surveying texts will deduce that Mason was raised with John Love's Geodaesia (London, 1688). Love was the first to describe traverse-by-compass bearing, "By the help of the needle, to take a plot of a large wood, by going round the same, and making use of that division of the card that is numbered with four 90-degree or quadrants."

Mason probably picked up compass and chain again when he laid out the boulevard leading to the mansion. His son John explained it's mathematical precision: "What was remarkable and most imposing in this Avenue, was that the four rows of trees were so aligned as to counteract that deception in our vision—which, in looking down long parallel lines, makes them seem to approach as they recede—advantage was taken of the circumstance, and another very pleasant delusion was effected. A common center was established, exactly in the middle of the outer doorway of the Mansion, on that front—from which were made to diverge at a certain angle the four lines on which these trees were planted—the planting commencing about 200 feet there from and so carefully and accurately had they been planted, and trained, and dressed in accordance each with the others, as they progressed in their growth, that from the point described as taken from the common center and when they had got to a great size only the first four trees were visible." When visitors came to call on George Mason, he would position them in the center of Gunston Hall's north doorway, point toward the avenue, and ask, "How many trees do you see before you?" "Four," the visitor would reply, for they were gazing at the first four trees. Mason then would say, "Be good enough to place yourself now close to either side of the doorway, and then tell us how many you see?" According to Mason's son John: "The answer would now be with delight and surprise, but as necessarily, 'a great number, and to a vast extent, but how many it is impossible to say!'"

As I said before, I felt privileged to contribute to the lasting legacy that is Gunston Hall Plantation. After the work was finished, I received a nice letter from the Director, in which he wrote: "The completed topographic survey is a remarkable resource that will serve us well as we proceed with the archaeological investigation and restoration of George Mason's garden. Moreover, with the data in a digital format, you have provided us not only with a snapshot of Gunston Hall at one point in time but with a living document that can grow and expand as our knowledge about Gunston Hall grows and expands."

I like to think that George Mason would approve, as well.


Special thanks to Mr. Sidney O. Dewberry and Dewberry LLC for support, encouragement, GPS, and administrative services in making the Gunston Hall survey possible.

About the Author

Mary Rouse Root, LS, is an eleventh-generation Virginian, the niece of author/historian Parke S. Rouse, Jr., and the Editor of Backsights, the journal of the Surveyors Historical Society.

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