Historic Letter Sheds Light on People Enslaved at Huntley

CW at Huntley_040514_0300_1A 173-year-old letter is teaching people about slavery and bringing neighbors together. The story blends local history, Historic Huntley, The Friends of Historic Huntley, George Mason’s Gunston Hall and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

betsey to John Washington re slavesIn January 2018, The Friends of Historic Huntley (FOHH) purchased a letter written in 1845 by Betsey Mason, Thomson F. Mason’s widow and former owner of, what is now, Historic Huntley in Alexandria, Virginia. The Curator of Collections at Gunston Hall, Samantha Dorsey, had emailed FOHH President Todi Carnes to tell her that a Betsey Mason letter was to be sold at auction in two days. Three hours later, Carnes emailed the FOHH board with a link to the letter asking if the Friends should attempt to acquire it. The suggested starting value was $600. By the end of the day, a majority consensus was established, and there was no question that FOHH should preserve this important piece of Huntley history. Several Huntley representatives immediately went to the auction house, The Potomack betsey to John Washington re slaves addressCompany in Old Town, to verify the letter’s condition. They found it in perfect condition on high quality paper complete with remnants of black sealing wax (indicating mourning).

The auction was the following day. I was among three Huntley representatives, none of whom had been to an auction, who watched, listened and learned for three hours. When the letter’s lot number was up, the auctioneer reported that off-site bidding was up to $1,200. Did he hear $1,300 from the floor? I was so surprised by the amount that I failed to put up the paddle. I had to be nudged into action, and that is how the Friends of Historic Huntley became the owners of this significant and coveted letter.

Why so eager to preserve this letter? The subject matter is slavery, which is of vital importance to telling the story of the people of Historic Huntley.

The letter is addressed to Fairfax County Magistrate John Augustine Washington III, great-grandnephew of George Washington and the last private owner of Mount Vernon.

Here is the letter in part:

To John A. Washington Esqr of Mount Vernon

My Dear Sir,

I am just informed that my negroes are to be tried before you for certain offences, which they are supposed to have committed against the law during the recent Christmas holidays. I am glad at least that they will receive their trial before a man of honor & sensibility to the rights of & feelings of the slave as well as the slaveholder & feeling that confidence in you, yield to this painful necessity, urged upon me however at a time by those who might under the circumstances of my family, have had a gentler feeling for me….

The letter’s purpose appears to be to influence the magistrate with flattery and to appeal for sympathy. Fairfax County Park Authority Historian Cheryl Repetti reached out to the Mount Vernon Estate while she was researching the letter’s contents, and a fortunate piecing together of historic documents resulted. Mount Vernon Special Collections Librarian Katherine Hoarn found a record of sentencing in John A. Washington’s journal. The accused are listed by name — Davy, Daniel Humphreys, Harry Ellis, Little Daniel and Sandy – and were charged with trespassing (probably to see family during the holidays). The outcome of the trial is a difficult reminder of the reality of slavery. Davy and Harry Ellis endured 15 lashes and Little Daniel 25.

Betsey Mason letter

The letter went on display for a year, beginning in September 2018, at Mount Vernon’s Lives Bound Together exhibit, continuing the shared benefits of neighbors collaborating. The letter will be returned to the Friends of Historic Huntley after the exhibit.

Photos of the letter are used courtesy of Friends of Historic Huntley.

Author Carolyn Gamble is a former Huntley staff member, long-time Huntley volunteer, and Friends of Historic Huntley board member.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

1 thought on “Historic Letter Sheds Light on People Enslaved at Huntley

  1. Cassandra McClerklin

    Great to see admission of some of the realities of slavery. The truth needs to be shared with both blacks and whites so that both are educated as to our country’s true history based on documents such as this.


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