Betsey Mason was described as a woman who took “all by storm.” She married Thomson Francis Mason, the mayor of Alexandria from 1827-30 and a grandson of George Mason IV, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. After Thomson died in 1838, Betsey managed the Federal period villa and farm now known as Historic Huntley and located in Huntley Meadows Park, for more than 20 years.
Thomson’s will entrusted Betsey to manage his estate as she thought ‘prudent’ – an unusual degree of discretionary power over the sources of the family’s considerable wealth. He named one constraint, however, that Betsey could not remarry. The law of coverture prevented married women from making contracts, buying or selling property, and from suing or being sued. If Betsey remarried, her husband would control Thomson’s estate, not Betsey.
She was only in her 30s when Thomson died, a young woman with nine children ranging in age from 19 to infancy.
Betsey decided to remain a widow and manage the Mason estate. Among other things, she opened an iron foundry near Harper’s Ferry. In 1859, Betsey gave her two sons Huntley and more than 85 men, women, and children whom they enslaved at Huntley and on other Mason properties.
A son-in-law, aggrieved by this decision and anxious to gain control of his wife’s inheritance, sued Betsey, claiming that she should divide the property more equally and that she was managing the estate poorly. The courts sided with Betsey, including the Virginia Supreme Court. The case caused a bit of a stir in Richmond and prompted diarist Mary Chestnut to observe, “I am always on the women’s side.” When Betsey finally divided the remaining estate among her children in her will in 1872, she was careful to state that properties left to her daughters were to be independent and free of the control of their husbands. Five years later, the Virginia Assembly would recognize the right of married women to own and control property separate from their husbands by passing the Married Women’s Property Act.
While Betsey’s managerial skills and independence are admirable, we also have to recognize that the Mason’s wealth was built on the enslavement of people who had little say in the decisions that affected their lives and those of their families. Most, but not all, of the 85 people Betsey gave to her sons were transported to Arkansas. Those who were too old or too young to work were left behind at Huntley. We do not know if these families were ever reunited.
Historic Huntley is located at 6918 Harrison Lane, Alexandria, Virginia. The 19th century architectural gem is located near the main entrance to Huntley Meadows Park. Historic Huntley was used as a summer retreat, a grain farm, an encampment for Civil War troops of the 3rd Michigan Infantry, and eventually was converted to a dairy farm. Ownership changed several times, and over the years the house endured considerable deterioration and vandalism.
The Park Authority obtained the house and its surrounding 2.5 acres in 1989, and for the next two decades it was open only during semiannual events and for school and scout tours. The rehabilitation of the manor house was completed in 2012. The buildings now are open for scheduled programs and tours as well as Saturday tours from late April through October.
Author Dr. Cheryl Repetti is a historian at Huntley Meadows Park and Historic Huntley.