Signs on Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88.5-acre nature preserve nestled in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., note that John Mason—son of George Mason IV, author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—once owned “an elegant summer home” on a small rise in the middle of the now-verdant landscape. Between 1792 and 1830, Mason’s “stately mansion” was the “center of Washington and Georgetown society,” reflecting its owner’s status as a prominent merchant and banker. The signs innocuously report that the Mason family ran a ferry business and established a plantation on the island.
Left unsaid is the fact that Mason enslaved people on this plantation, exploiting their labor to build and care for his estate. The dark history of the island—known today as a haven for hikers and birdwatchers looking to escape the bustle of the city—has long been overlooked in favor of promoting the site as a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s “conservation president.” (The island was transformed into a wooded memorial to Roosevelt in the 1930s, a century after financial troubles forced the Mason family to abandon the island.) But that narrative is changing, with staff at the National Park Service (NPS), which owns and maintains the island, taking steps to correct the record.
Franice Sewell, a park ranger with NPS, says the agency’s internal training sessions now emphasize the island’s history of slavery, encouraging staff and volunteers to acknowledge this dark chapter during visitor engagement experiences like tours. She adds that NPS is actively “trying to amplify unknown stories.”
NPS historian Emily Button Kambic points out that a recent archaeological study commissioned by the agency addresses the island’s history of enslavement. She says NPS is engaging in other efforts “to expand historical research on sites of enslavement so we can tell more full and accurate stories.” The next phase of research is “to more intensively study individual sites [and] learn as much as we can about the lives of enslaved and free [Black] people.”
Enslaved people on Theodore Roosevelt Island
Known by the Europeans who claimed it in the 1600s as My Lord’s Island or Barbadoes, the island was later called Analostan, a name derived from the Indigenous Anacostan people who once lived there. Mason’s grandfather, George Mason III, bought the island in 1717 but did not settle on or develop it; neither did Mason’s father, who inherited the site in 1735 and passed it down to his son upon his death in 1792.
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.
Despite his own role in perpetuating slavery, George also took steps to eradicate the institution. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he withheld his signature from the Constitution because it did not abolish the slave trade. As Gunston Hall, George’s estate in Mason Neck, Virginia, notes on its website, the planter and politician “clearly presents us with a paradox: Why did this prominent gentry slave owner argue in the public forum against the institution of slavery, yet free none of his own slaves?”
Mason inherited at least two enslaved people from his father: “Harry (the son of house Poll) and Peg (the daughter of Chloe).” The United States census shows he enslaved 17 people in 1800 and 31 people in 1830. Other records offer clues to these individuals’ identities and duties. A property assessment dated to between 1800 and 1807, for example, indicates that Mason enslaved at least four men, four women and seven children at his lots, warehouses and other business spaces in Georgetown. Census records from 1820 show he enslaved 23 people on his “island and farm” specifically. A posthumous 1850 inventory of Mason’s estate names nine enslaved people: 40-year-old Davy; 24-year-old William; 26-year-old Joe; 12-year-old Ned; 8-year-old Robert and his 45-year-old mother, Milly; 18-year-old Laura; 14-year-old Little Harriett; and 52-year-old Old Harriett. According to a 2022 NPS study, Mason held hundreds of African American people in bondage over the course of his lifetime.
Mason and his father were the most prominent in a series of wealthy white enslavers linked to Roosevelt Island, but they were far from the first or the last. In 1822, Mason leased his mansion, land, servants and farmhands to landscape architect and horticulturist Richard Southern, who cultivated the soil for farming, including the propagation of tomatoes. In 1825, Mason mortgaged the island; eight years later, in 1833, the Bank of the United States foreclosed on the property after Mason was unable to repay his debts.
A succession of other people then purchased the land, among them John Carter of Georgetown, who “brought the land under commercial cultivation” in the 1840s, growing peach trees, rose bushes, asparagus, parsnips, carrots and cabbages, according to a 2008 NPS survey. Carter’s business partner, Alexander Garden, “supplied the workers employed to cultivate the fields,” NPS notes. In the early 1850s, William A. Bradley, a Maryland enslaver and the former mayor of Washington, rented out the majority of the island to tenant farmers. Given the time period these men operated in, they may have used enslaved labor on the island.
Transforming Mason’s Island into Theodore Roosevelt Island
The city of Washington emancipated enslaved people on April 16, 1862, ending the practice of slavery on Mason’s Island and elsewhere in the nation’s capital. During the Civil War, Union troops occupied the island, which also served as a camp and training grounds for the First District of Columbia Colored Volunteers, a Black regiment soon renamed the First United States Colored Troops.
Between May 1864 and June 1865, the island was used as a refugee camp for the freed Black people who flocked to Washington following emancipation. Despite the U.S. government’s presumably good intentions, the camp was poorly managed, becoming overcrowded with 1,200 starving, sick people who lived in “disease-ridden squalor,” per the 2008 NPS survey. Louisa J. Roberts, a member of the Association of Friends for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, wrote that the refugees lacked “the bare necessities of life.”
Thanks to the intervention of Roberts and others like her, conditions in the camp improved. In August 1864, the government started using the island as an employment depot, appointing the formerly enslaved refugees to jobs in Washington and elsewhere. Because the government was trying to move people off the island as soon as possible, many adults were forced to accept whatever employment was offered, often resulting in the separation of families.
After the Civil War, Bradley rented out the island for recreational activities like picnics, a medieval-style jousting competition and dances. Following Bradley’s death in 1867, the island fell into disrepair, leading the Washington Post to declare it “the haunt of disreputable characters.” Still, various companies and organizations rented or used the island, mostly for the benefit of the region’s white population. Among them were the Columbia Athletic Club, which counted the island’s future namesake, Roosevelt, as one of its members; the Analostan Boat Club; and the Analostan Gun Club.
Bradley’s estate also used the island as collateral against various debts, allowing multiple entities to gain partial ownership of the land. Most notably, the American Colonization Society—an organization established to encourage the relocation of free Black people to Africa—gained a 10 percent stake in the island. The Black community and the abolitionist movement widely opposed the group, which Mason had belonged to during his lifetime.
By the early 20th century, the island was all but abandoned—a “scene of dismal devastation,” per the Post. Several private developers gained ownership of it but never brought their plans to fruition. Finally, in 1931, the Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the island, giving it to the U.S. government the following year to transform into a memorial to the 26th president. The association hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to reimagine the island, which was “to be preserved as nearly as possible as in its natural state.” The Civilian Conservation Corps executed Olmsted’s vision, demolishing the mansion and other ruins before planting new vegetation.
Amid the din of airplanes flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, cars zipping by on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the trill of red-winged blackbirds, visitors to the island might spot an errant brick, an old jar or daffodils blooming in the spring—all evidence of the island’s former occupants. In the dead of winter, an icy frost sometimes settles over the island, and branches strum against each other like violins. As for the voices of the enslaved and the dispossessed, the island is unsettlingly silent.