Place  /  Discovery

This Peaceful Nature Sanctuary in Washington, D.C. Sits on the Ruins of a Plantation

Before Theodore Roosevelt Island was transformed, a prominent Virginia family relied on enslaved laborers to build and tend to its summer home.

Mason set about improving the woodland and marshy retreat, which soon gained yet another moniker: Mason’s Island. In some cases, he leased enslaved people from other enslavers in the area. Advertisements placed in local newspapers in early 1793 indicate he was looking for “12 to 15 stout young Negro fellows” to work for a year “in the neighborhood of my ferry-house.” Mason also brought in enslaved workers from his home and his business in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, as well as properties in Virginia inherited from his father.

These laborers likely conducted the initial tree-clearing and grading of the island, in addition to cutting lumber and making bricks for construction projects. They then built the family’s white, Classical Revival-style mansion, completing work by 1802.

Maps of the island depict rows of neatly ordered crops like cotton and maize, with smaller, private grounds located south of the house (including a kitchen, an icehouse, slave quarters and workshops) and larger, more public grounds to the north.

The island’s enslaved staff resided there year-round, maintaining its pleasure gardens and walking paths; tending to the fields, orchards, grapevines, gardens, trees and lawns; and caring for horses and sheep.

The Masons, meanwhile, only lived on the island during the spring and early summer, spending the rest of the year at their home in Georgetown. When the family was on the island, enslaved people handled the day-to-day cooking and cleaning. They also attended to guests at lavish parties and events. Famous visitors to the island included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Louis Philippe I, king of the French.

“Tea, coffee, cakes, fresh and preserved fruits were presented to the guests, who sat or walked about, conversing or silently admiring the dancing under the shade of the trees, illuminated by lamps,” a partygoer later recounted. Such was the level of entertainment expected in elite society: Described by Jefferson as “one of the wisest statesmen that Virginia ever bred,” Mason served as president of both the Bank of Columbia and the Patowmack Company, a brigadier general in the D.C. militia, and the commissioner general of prisoners during the War of 1812.

Summarizing the island’s allure, a 20th-century writer observed that “no pains or expense were spared to make it one of the most attractive spots in the country.” Mason’s 1849 obituary noted that the site “was the center of attraction to every enlightened stranger.”

The Mason family’s ties to slavery

Mason grew up in an environment where slavery was the norm. His father, George, owned 25,000 acres of land and operated large plantations in Virginia, relying on enslaved people to work as carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, knitters, distillers, cooks, laundry maids and field laborers. George was likely the second-largest enslaver in Fairfax County, after George Washington, whose Mount Vernon estate enslaved 317 people at the time of his death in 1799. The elder Mason claimed ownership of 128 people in 1782; his will listed 36 enslaved workers by name.