Richard Barnes Mason

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Richard Barnes Mason
5th Military Governor of California
In office
May 31, 1847 – April 13, 1849
Preceded byStephen W. Kearny
Succeeded byPersifor Frazer Smith
Personal details
BornJanuary 16, 1797
Lexington Plantation, Fairfax County, Virginia
DiedJuly 25, 1850(1850-07-25) (aged 53)
Jefferson Barracks, St Louis, Missouri
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Margaret Hunter
Military service
AllegianceUnited States United States of America
Branch/serviceCavalryBC.png Cavalry
Years of service1817–1850
RankUnion Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Union Army brigadier general rank insignia.svg Bvt. Brigadier General
Unit8th U.S. Infantry
1st U.S. Infantry
CommandsFort Gibson
1CavRegtDUI.jpg 1st U.S. Dragoons
Jefferson Barracks
Battles/warsBlack Hawk War
Second Seminole War
Mexican–American War

Richard Barnes Mason (January 16, 1797 – July 25, 1850)[1] was a career officer in the United States Army and the fifth military governor of California before it became a U.S. state. He came from a politically prominent American family and was a descendant of George Mason, a framer of the U.S. Constitution and father of the Bill of Rights.

Gen. Mason is especially important to the history of California, because as military governor of the occupied territory, he wrote the official report that led to the California Gold Rush.[2][3]

Mason was "an aristocratic Virginian, a large portly man, six feet in height. He possessed all the peculiarities of a Southerner, accentuated," but he was known to have confined Jefferson Davis to quarters, who was under his command.[4] A Lt. James Abert described him so, "It would be presumption in me to speak of so accomplished and well known an officer; but I cannot refrain from expressing my grateful sense of the kindness and hospitality with which we were received and treated by himself and his amiable lady, and indeed, by all the officers and ladies attached to the command."[5]

Early life[edit]

"Richard Barnes Mason, born in Fairfax County, Virginia, January 16, 1797, was the son of George Mason and Elizabeth Mary Ann Barnes Hooe, who were married April 22, 1784."[6] His grandfather was famous founder George Mason. Richard Barnes Mason inherited a considerable estate, consisting mostly of land and enslaved men and women. Upon the death of his father, he and his siblings frequently squabbled over the division of the estate and the profits made by selling enslaved men and women. In 1823, Richard complained to his brother George that "I wish you would make some exertion to pay me for Tom Clarke [an enslaved man who the family sold]. It is now six years since you sold him, and I have not yet received a cent. It is not right that, you should, who inherited half my father's fortune, withhold from me, who got none, what is so justly my due." Like so many other enslavers and prominent Virginians, Mason's wealth was heavily dependent upon the labor and bodies of the people he held as slaves.

Military career[edit]

Mason was commissioned into the Army in 1817, and was stationed at various places in the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes. While serving, he frequently speculated in land and wrote to his family and friends with tips on where they could make the greatest fortune by speculating in land and relocating with the enslaved men and women who they claimed ownership of. In 1820, he told his brother to "advise Gerard by all means to sell his landed property and move with his Negroes to KY or the Missouri." Barnes frequently complained to his siblings about his low pay, and implored them to send his money or his "negroes" so that he could work them in Kentucky.

He served in the 1st U.S. Infantry during the Black Hawk War. In 1833, he transferred to the 1st U.S. Dragoons as its first Major. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1836. During the Mexican–American War, he served in New Mexico Territory and California, rising to the rank of colonel in 1846.[5]

Following the war, he was appointed military governor of California, serving from May 31, 1847, until April 13, 1849. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, Mason made a report of the finding to President James K. Polk. That official description of the massive gold discovery is credited with sparking the California Gold Rush, resulting in the settlement of the land.[5]

Mason died in 1850 at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri and was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery.[1][5]

In the US Federal Census of 1850 for Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis County, Missouri, dated 18 August 1850, the following annotation is located at the bottom of the third page: "Brig Genl Mason died at Jefferson Barracks July 1849 of Cholera."[7] However, The St. Louis Intelligencer reported the General's death on Saturday, July 27, 1850, (p. 3, cols. 1, 4.)[8]

Marriage and children[edit]

Mason married Elizabeth Margaret Hunter on 28 January 1836.[1] Richard and Elizabeth had three daughters:[1]

  • Emma Twiggs Mason Wheaton (17 October 1836 – 16 February 1864)[1]
  • Elizabeth Mary Ann Sally Mason (20 August 1838 – 19 November 1912)[1]
  • Alice Graham Mason (c. 1843 – 10 February 1847)[1]


In 1882, the Post at Point San Jose in San Francisco, California, was renamed Fort Mason in his honour, and served as an Army base for more than 100 years.[9] There is also a Mason Street in downtown San Francisco.


Richard Barnes Mason was a grandson of George Mason (1725–1792);[1] son of George Mason V (1753–1796);[1] brother of George Mason VI (1786–1834);[1] grandnephew of Thomson Mason (1733–1785);[1] first cousin once removed of Stevens Thomson Mason (1760–1803), John Thomson Mason (1765–1824), and William Temple Thomson Mason (1782–1862);[1] first cousin of Thomson Francis Mason (1785–1838) and James Murray Mason (1798–1871);[1] second cousin of Armistead Thomson Mason (1787–1819), John Thomson Mason (1787–1850), and John Thomson Mason, Jr. (1815–1873);[1] and second cousin once removed of Stevens Thomson Mason (1811–1843).[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Gunston Hall. "Richard Barnes Mason". Gunston Hall. Retrieved 2008-02-15. External link in |publisher= (help)[dead link]
  2. ^ Mason's Report of the Gold Discovery
  3. ^ John Putnam, "The official report that sparked the gold rush", 'My Gold Rush Tales.'
  4. ^ James C. Parrott, Annals of Iowa, Des Moines, Fort Des Moines (No. 1), Iowa, vol. III, nos. 5-6, Third Series, p. 367.
  5. ^ a b c d Caroyln Foreman (March 1941). "Chronicles of Oklahoma". Oklahoma Historical Society. 19 (1): 15–36. OCLC 1554537. Archived from the original on 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  6. ^ CAROLYN THOMAS FOREMAN, "GENERAL RICHARD BARNES MASON," 'Chronicles of Oklahoma' Archived 2007-11-17 at the Wayback Machine, Volume 19, No. 1 March, 1941.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2007-05-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ "Golden Gate National Recreation Area – Fort Mason History Walk" (PDF). National Park Service. p. 12. Retrieved 2007-12-18.

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