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OMEKA Part 4: Fisheries at Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon

Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon both sat alongside the Potomac River where they operated fisheries to feed their slaves and line their pockets. In the early 19th century Alexandria Gazette Gunston Hall was listed as for sale with six shad and herring fisheries two of which the ad assert command the river channel.1 George Washington once described Mount Vernon’s 10 miles of shoreline were “one entire fishery”.2 

Mason’s father, Colonel George Mason III purchased the exclusive rights to fish for shad and herring at Simpson’s Bay or Baxter’s Bay at the mouth of Occoquan Creek and obtained the right to construct any buildings for salting and packing fish or operating a fishery. This lease would be valid for three lives and be given to his son George Mason. Mason granted the reversion of these rights in 1956 to Catesby Cocke in order for the undisputed titles to the fisheries during his lifetime. Barrels of salted shad and herring were traded in the colonies as well as packed and sent to family and their dependents during winter.3 George Washington also sold barrels of fish which were caught in the Potomac by his slaves to the Caribbean for plantation owners to use to feed their slaves.4 Washington operated multiple fisheries at Mount Vernon as well and purchased another tract of land with a fishery from John Posey, a neighbor who owed money to creditors and needed to sell his plantation.5,6

At Gunston Hall, garfish scales were found in great numbers in slave sub-floor pits. Other fishbones, scales, and spines were found more often in the kitchen yard trash pits than any other food item.7 The Polish Count Niemcewicz who wrote of his visit to Mount Vernon in the late 1790s stated that the gar was not desirable and was only used as food for slaves. The most desirable species of fish like the sturgeon, smallmouth and largemouth bass weren’t found and the fish that were recovered were small and usually weighing less than one pound.8


1 George Mason, “Gunston for Sale,” (Alexandria Gazette 1818), 3.

2 George Washington, “To Arthur Young, December 12, 1793” The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (University of Virginia Press 2008)

3 Pamela Copeland and Richard K. MacMaster, “Colonel George Mason III” in The Five George Masons (University of Virginia Press 2016), 67.

4 Jessie MacLeod, “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon: Biographies,” in Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (Nimick Forbesway Foundation 2016), 4.

5 George Washington, “Diary Entry: February 3, 1770” The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (University of Virginia Press 2008)

6 Mary V. Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret (University of Virginia Press, 2019), 24.

7 David Shonyo, “Archaeological Investigations at Gunston Hall Plantation: Report on 2013 Activities,” (Gunston Hall Plantation 2014), 25. 8 Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, 226

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