Alexandria Library -- Special Collections

Document of the Month

June 2005

Letter from William Robinson to Thomson Francis Mason

Retaining His Services in the Matter of a Runaway Slave, November 21, 1818

Page 1 Pages 2 and 3

Thomson Francis Mason (1785-1838) was the grandson of George Mason IV of Gunston Hall and the son of Thomson Mason of Hollin Hall. He served on the Alexandria Common Council, was elected Mayor of Alexandria four times, served as Justice of the Peace three times, and was the first judge of the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia. He also practiced law and served as President of both the Alexandria Canal and Middle Turnpike Corporation. William Robinson was a planter with property in Alexandria and a small farm (about 40 acres) west of the city.

Frederick was a blacksmith who belonged to Robinson. It appears that Frederick had been rented out to James Atkinson, a blacksmith on King Street, when he made his escape. Robinson wrote that Frederick had also worked in E.P. Taylor's smithy. (According to Artisans and Merchants, Evan P. Taylor was a coachmaker at 207-209 S Fairfax. The source also notes that Taylor was dismissed from the Society of Friends for "using intoxicating liquors to excess and frequenting taverns").

In seeking legal advice from Mason, William Robinson gave a detailed physical description of Frederick, his habits, and his skills.

Frederick was re-captured. Several months after this letter was written, Robinson placed an ad in the Alexandria Gazette on February 6, 1819: "For Sale: I will sell a very valuable blacksmith, aged about 24 years. William Robinson, Near Centreville, Fairfax co."

Frederick ran away a second time. On June 30, 1819, Robinson placed this ad: "100 Dollars Reward. Ran off from my plantation on the 25th inst. a bright Mulatto slave, named, FREDERICK, (commonly known by his associates as Frederick Bankhead.) He is about 25 years of age, 5 feet 8 or 10 inches high, active and intelligent, stammers a little when spoken to, with a large scar on his upper lip, grey eyes and curly hair, which he generally keeps cut and combed in fashion. He had on when he ran away, brown linen trowsers and shirt, a leather apron and a checked handkerchief, red and blue, tied around his waist, a pair of New England sale shoes, no other clothing with him."

Here is a transcript of the letter William Robinson wrote to Thomson Francis Mason:

Studley Nov. 21d, 1818


My waggon(sic) left home this morning with a load of wheat with a letter to Miner to draw for the proceeds of that load. Since then I have received a letter from James Atkinson, blacksmith near Leg tavern, Alexandria dated 13th Nov 1818 apprising me that Fredrick eloped from his service on Monday the 9th at night.

Atkinson says I am entirely at a loss to account for his conduct unless it has arisen from a wish to return to Mr. Taylor, or from a false impression that he may be sold. I apprehend that the Marshall has been incautious, or that Frederick has learned in some other way that he was under execution and probably would be sold. I do declare he has had no intimation from me directly or indirectly, and I apprehend that he will endeavor to make his escape to the north If so it will be a dear kick to me, the loss of property to the amount of $1200 and have to pay $392.57 including costs. Frederick is about 24 years old, five feet 9 or 10 inches high, stout and active, well made not fat has an impediment in his speech & a large scar on his upper lip, a bright mulatto with grey eyes curled hair & commonly keeps it cut and combed. This fellow was formerly accustomed to wait in the house and take care of Harry & is about such employment very active & smart. For the last 6 years he has been continually kept with the best blacksmith & is supposed to be a tolerable workman. He was in E.P. Taylors blacksmith shop for I think 3 years and was with Atkinson previous to his elopement. I will thank you to see Atkinson immediately and learn more of the particulars & what kind of cloths (sic) he had. I wish you to act in this business as if the fellow belonged to you, under all the existing circumstances & advise me by the bearer what that course will l be. As I have took to you for aid in all my difficulties I have taken the liberty to address this letter to your immediate attention, flatter myself it will not be in vain. Apprise Minor of the circumstances as soon as possible. Should we be the proper person to advertise him, it is immaterial to me what reward you offer. Use your own judgement.

In haste,
I remain
Dearest Friend
Wm Robinson

On Sundays or Holydays Fredrick is generally very neat in his person. I have seen him at such times with blue cloth wind jacket and trousers and a vest. Good shoes and stockings and a walking stick a good furred hat.

Transcription and research assistance by Rita Holtz, May 2005

Related Resources
  • Alexandria Gazette, 1784-1989 (microfilm #00001)
  • T. Michael Miller. Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia, 1780-1820
  • Lathan A. Windley. Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History From the 1730s to 1790
  • Mona Breeding Heath. "Thomson Francis Mason: Obscure Figure in Alexandria, Yearbook: Historical Society of Fairfax, 1981
  • Manuscript Box 135, Folder 22: Thomson Mason Papers -- Correspondence -- Wm Robinson -- Retain T.F. Mason to Handle Runaway Slave Matter

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