A 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.
In 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 Company 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.
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.