Greta Swain—a PhD student in history at George Mason and a key contributor to many projects at RRCHNM—has successfully defended her dissertation. For a long time now I’ve been trying to persuade people to use digital history methods to say something meaningful about the past, and not to stop with creating tools and databases. And that is just what Greta has done in a remarkable way. In her dissertation she has created a fantastic database tracking the social history of the family of George Mason IV and the people he enslaved. And she has created a compelling series of maps and network visualizations showing how both free and enslaved people used the upper Potomac River for kinship and economic development. Besides being a masterclass in how to use digital methods for historical interpretation, the dissertation has broad implications for the understanding the history of waterways and commercial development in early America.

Below is the title and abstract for the dissertation. As with all dissertations, it will take some time for the final version to be submitted, but you’ll want look it up once it has been.

Greta is off to be a postdoc at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University this fall.

Potomac Networks: Waterways, Commerce, and Enslavement in the George Mason Family, 1700–1828

While George Mason IV is best known as a Virginia political writer, tobacco planter and slaveholder, Mason IV was also an opportunistic Chesapeake businessman, taking advantage of an aqueous landscape bisected by the Potomac River. Through a focus on waterways, aquatic business ventures and local connections, this dissertation presents a new approach to the Mason family. In the eighteenth century, the Potomac River was not a divider, but rather a connector of people, places and enterprises along its shores. The Mason family built landholdings and houses, networks and businesses, on both sides of the river. Through digital analysis and visualizations, this dissertation argues that both the Mason family and the people they enslaved deployed waterways like the Potomac River to create opportunities and form strategic connections which furthered their own economic or personal goals. For the people the Masons enslaved, waterways often perpetuated the cycle of enslavement, but sometimes furnished opportunities for freedom. At a time when many of Mason IV’s peers were failing financially from their almost exclusive investment in land-based tobacco agriculture, Mason IV maintained economic stability by using waterways to diversify his sources of income. Ferries and fisheries, fueled largely by enslaved labor, became main contributors to the family’s eighteenth-century Potomac prosperity. In addition, the family’s success was bolstered by Mason IV’s skills as an expert networker. Mason IV did not hesitate to use the people with which he was connected as resources. He promoted his businesses and the family’s power and prestige through dense webs of relationships that stretched across the Potomac region and beyond. Mason IV’s networks and influence allowed him to manipulate Potomac region events and decisions so as to benefit the community but also himself. In short, we see how the Potomac River played a critical role in the lives, networks, and socioeconomic trajectory of the Mason family over several generations.