Thursday, August 28, 2014

Farmstead, Fort and Tavern: Williams Fort in White County, Illinois

Hello and apologies for the long hiatus in archaeology posts! Today's post is a fascinating study by Cally Lence and Monica Shah Lomas of American Resources Group. Williams Fort, located in White County, Illinois, offers a rare glimpse into a small, family run farmstead and tavern that experienced dramatic change during the War of 1812.


Williams Fort was occupied from about 1811 to 1838 by Aaron and Tabitha Williams. American Resources Group tested and mitigated the site for White County Coal of Carmi, Illinois, in 2005 and 2006. The site principally functioned as a farmstead but was briefly fortified during the War of 1812 period and served as a rural tavern during the 1820s and 1830s.

Williams Fort is in Hawthorne Township within White County on a sandy ridge at the eastern margin of a historic prairie in the lower Wabash River valley of southeastern Illinois. This 1876 state atlas map contains superimposed data from multiple sources, most notably the extent of Big Prairie (in green) in 1809, and the locations of six forts estimated from a combination of old hand-drawn maps and descriptions in the 1883 county history. These civilian defenses were supported by an organized militia stationed in the prairie. Aaron and Tabitha Williams moved to Big Prairie in ca. 1811. A historical account of the New Madrid earthquake, the first of which occurred on December 16, 1811, ties the family to the area by then as one of their daughters was badly burned while cooking when the earthquake hit.

 When we began the Phase II testing project at the Williams Fort site in 2005, we were not expecting to discover any evidence of a blockhouse or fort. In fact, previous investigations by another group suggested only the possibility of a tavern at the site. Unmistakable sections of the stockade wall trench began to emerge during the testing phase and was exposed in full during the mitigation phase of the project.


The stockade wall formed a roughly squared enclosure with an elongated southeastern corner. A squared bastion projected from the center of the north wall, and a gate was located directly opposite on the south wall. Baked clay and daub recovered along the stockade footprint would have been used to chink gaps between the posts. The slightly irregular stockade footprint meant that existing buildings had been incorporated into the enclosure.

The stockade wall appeared to contain four horizontal log buildings. Openings at the southwest and southeast corners were interpreted as the location of two blockhouses. The one at the southeast corner was the first or main blockhouse judging by the significant activity occurring to the southeast. Compacted subsoil at the proposed blockhouse locations suggests dirt-floored buildings. Two rectangular cabins—the earliest buildings at the site, joined by the bastion, were located at the two openings along the north wall.

No wells or cisterns were located within the enclosure meaning that little time was spent inside. While the absence of a water source within a fort was not unusual based on comparative data, it was certainly more precarious judging by accounts of settlers being attacked or killed while fetching water.

The height of the Williams’ stockade was extrapolated from known building techniques to average 11 feet with some deeper-set taller posts ranging from 12 to 14 feet.

The taller posts may have been used for special functions like the two associated with the gate accommodating a set of hinged swinging doors on the south wall. This was the only provenience where numerous modified antler tips and tines were found.



The hypothesized cabins on the north wall each contained shallow, rectangular subfloor pit cellars (Features 2 and 19) with very high artifact and faunal density. These were the two earliest features, and interestingly, they also produced most of the site’s gunflints and lead balls. Though there is no written record of Williams Fort having been attacked, three Kaskaskia iron arrow points recovered here and at a neighboring farmstead that was excavated at the same time offer strong evidence of conflict with the local Indians. 



The site’s first well (Feature 16) was found under and just outside the stockade wall trench. This feature offers the best evidence for the construction of the fort after the site was already established. This well is thought to have collapsed during the 1811 earthquake and might be the reason it was filled and not included within the stockade. 
Three activity areas were identified outside of the stockade: Area 1, in the center; Area 2, to the south; and Area 3, the site periphery to the north and east. Artifact assemblages from the features suggest that there was a progression of development from north to south at the site.

The most intensively used activity area outside the enclosure was Area 1, which is adjacent to the southeastern corner of the stockade and is associated with the farmstead and tavern. Area 2 is located about 20 m south of the fort. The types of features, artifacts, and density of faunal remains support food processing activities, such as smoking, curing, and butchering occurring here.

The well (Feature 42/50) in Area 2 is the site’s second well, though it was still built very early, probably right after the first well collapsed during the 1811 earthquake. Due to its location directly south of the gate, it would have been easily accessible from the fort when confined within the stockade. This well was located in the floor of a square cellar almost 5 feet below the surface. A large number of redware storage vessel fragments from this feature is indicative of a cold storage function on the upper “shelf” of the well. Post molds around the periphery of the feature may have been supports for a building, possibly a barn. Adjacent to the south side of the cellar and well was a midden dense with faunal remains.

Area 3 encompasses the eastern and northern peripheries of the site. The most significant aspect of this area was the identification of at least four fire pits, which are thought to represent campfires associated with the militia during the first decade of site occupation.

The largely vacant space within the stockade, in conjunction with the fact that published accounts by two early travelers in 1817 made no mention of a stockade, indicates the fortification had been dismantled early on, probably around 1815 after the potential threat of Indian attack had diminished with the close of the war. 


More than 2,300 historic artifacts were collected, three-quarters of which were associated with food preparation, storage, and service vessels. The Feature 7 well directly east of the stockade was the site’s last well based on artifact analysis. The contents of this well also offer the best evidence for a rural tavern in the final years of occupation, specifically this cache of artifacts found in one massive heap in the well. Aaron and Tabitha Williams’ probate records also support the presence of a tavern based on the inventory of 31 bed sheets, two trumpets possibly used to herald arrivals and departures of stage and mail coaches, and a large number of tea and tablewares and serving vessels.

The closest redware potteries to the site would have been 8 miles northeast in New Harmony, Indiana, and 20 miles north in Albion and Wansborough, Illinois. One small redware fragment with a bright green copper glaze is French in origin. The stoneware was probably made out east since it was generally not being produced in Illinois before the 1830s. One stoneware fragment bears an incised exterior decoration painted in cobalt with an outline of a house or cabin—a design that was popular from the late 18th century to the 1840s.

Decorative motifs on tea and tablewares are primarily handpainted fineline floral soft pastel and earthtone varieties that were popular in the 1810s and 1820s.

This rich glassware assemblage is very rare for a rural frontier-period site in southern Illinois and provides the best evidence for a tavern dating to the late 1820s through the 1830s. Vessels in the collection include pattern-molded flasks, a large molded beehive bottle, large globular bottles, cylindrical bottles, tumblers, stemmed glassware, a decanter, a salt cellar, a pocket flask, a cruet or caster for condiments, and several wine or port bottles.

Among the personal and sewing artifacts was a British military button from an officer’s coat that dates to the late 18th to early 19th century. The silver coin is a cut Spanish Real 1 also known as a “piece of 8".

Based on the architectural assemblage, windows on the buildings at Williams Fort were covered with animal skins, fabric, or greased paper rather than glass, and log construction was utilized. Wells are thought to have been lined with wood. A relatively large sample of horseshoe nails and equestrian artifacts compared to other farmstead sites in the region may be indicative of a higher than average number of travelers or visitors to the site. 

Williams Fort was abandoned by 1838 after Aaron Williams died. Although Tabitha lived for four more years, the 1840 census reported her living in her son’s household, probably nearby but not at the site.
The fortification was strictly civilian in nature but more extensive than was suggested by written accounts and produced important comparative data on an early 19th century fortified farmstead in southern Illinois. Although noted in the literature as a blockhouse, our excavations revealed a stockade wall with two log blockhouses at the southwest and southeast corners and a bastion flanked by two log cabins on the north wall. The Williams Fort stockade wall was taken down around 1815, and the residence and activity areas moved from the north towards the southeast and south. 

Aaron and Tabitha Williams never applied for a tavern licence, and the only evidence for a tavern at the site was from the probate records and the excavation of the terminal-period well yielding a large primary deposit of drinking and food service vessels supporting a public establishment during the final decade of site occupation. This may have been a more formal expansion of activities already occurring at the site as settlers’ forts served as community centers and gathering places.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Check out Caulk's Field this Weekend!

How often do you get to witness a battle reenactment based on a complete archaeological analysis of a battlefield? Probably never - but if you can get out to Kent County, Maryland this weekend, you will have a chance to witness archaeology coming alive! That's just so cool. You should totally go.

Schedule of events is right here, even more information about goings-on in Kent County right here, and our post about the archaeology of Caulk's Field is right here!


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Brookeville 1814

The town of Brookeville, Maryland has a new interactive website highlighting the town's involvement in the War of 1812! Here is what it's all about:
As the sun set on August 26, 1814, a weary James Madison rode into the town of Brookeville, Maryland. The President of the United States had been on the move for nearly three days since he left Washington ahead of the British troops marching to capture the city.
In Brookeville, the President found a small but prosperous industrial town overflowing with other refugees from Washington. After a night spent at the home of leading residents Caleb and Henrietta Bentley, Madison and his attendants returned to Washington the next morning. His stay made the town "U.S. Capital for a Day," a title the town still proudly claims today.
Brookeville 1814 explores the people and community that welcomed the President and the town's place in American history.
Check it out here: http://msa.maryland.gov/brookeville/index.html

Find out about upcoming War of 1812 events in Brookeville here: http://uscapitalforaday.org/

And check out the pictures of the archaeological dig at Madison House right here: http://uscapitalforaday.org/archaeology/


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Archaeological Potential of a Burned Capital

Today's post comes to us from Kevin Bradley, a former intern for DC's Historic Preservation Office through the Washington DC District Leader Program (DLP). Kevin recently completed his Master's degree in Public Anthropology at American University, and is currently working for JMA in Philadelphia. While he was still with the DC HPO, he addressed a problem familiar to every urban archaeologist: how much has the intensive development of the modern landscape obscured (or obliterated) the physical remains of the past?

The Archaeological Potential of a Burned Capital 

Recently, the Washington, DC Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO) Archaeologist, Dr. Ruth Trocolli, and her staff incorporated the GIS Cut/Fill tool in their efforts to identify archaeological sites within the city. Since August 24th and 25th of this year will be the 200th anniversary of the burning of the capital by the British Army, we decided to explore a few notable sites from the invasion in 1814 to find out what this new analysis would add to an understanding of the city’s history.

One of the main responsibilities of the DC HPO Archaeologist is to ensure the integrity of the city’s archaeological resources. Quite often this means providing information and as much guidance as possible to archaeological companies contracted to conduct studies within the District, such as historic documents, maps, references, and geographical information systems (or GIS) data. GIS, in particular, is an extremely valuable resource for archaeologists. The DC HPO uses GIS to map previously discovered sites and locations of surveys, as well as landscape features. In other words, it helps archaeologists keep track of the ever-changing urban environment in Washington, DC, including the construction of roads, bridges, and buildings, the installment of numerous utilities, and the changing elevations and shorelines of the city. All of these activities may have an impact on archaeological remains. The GIS tool, “Cut/Fill”, helps archaeologists understand these changes to the landscape even better.

What is a Cut/Fill analysis? It is a simply a method of calculating the elevation changes in a landscape over a period of time. Most cities are not built on unaltered terrain. Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure are easier to build on relatively flat surfaces. Therefore, higher elevations, such as hills, tend to be leveled and low lying spots, like valleys and streams, get filled. Comparing the elevations from, say, an 1888 topographic map and a current topographic map may tell us how much earth has been cut away or added in between the two periods, potentially destroying or preserving buried archaeological features in the process.

Battle of Bladensburg (Copyright Gerry Embleton; Courtesy NPS/Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail)
Washington, DC, like every other city, has changed dramatically since 1814. While excellent archaeological work has been conducted around the city boundary on the site of the Bladensburg Battlefield, little work in the District has focused on the British march through the city. Performing a Cut/Fill analysis of broad areas where these activities took place will help determine if archaeological sites are likely to be present and provide some idea of their integrity. What follows is the result of performing this analysis on a few select sites and what the results indicate about potential material remains.

Eastern Avenue Ortho 2012 (DC HPO GIS)
1888 US Coastal and Geodetic Survey (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
The American defeat at Bladensburg on August 24, 1814 completely opened up the nascent capital city to the British. Part of the battle (or at least the retreat) spilled across the current DC/MD boundary. As you can see from the 2012 Orthographic aerial photograph (above), this portion of Washington, DC is heavily urbanized. Fort Lincoln Cemetery (top right of the photo) lies on the Maryland side of the boundary line and abuts the District along its southwest border. The second image shows an 1888 US Coastal and Geodetic Survey map overlaid on top of the 2012 photo. You may be wondering why a map produced 74 years after the event is being used for comparison. Unfortunately, reliably detailed maps of Washington, DC are few and far between prior to about the Civil War. The 1888 map represents one of the more comprehensive early maps. In order to determine elevation change, topographic lines from different time periods must be compared. Once two sets of topographic lines are obtained, a rendering of the terrain can be produced within the GIS program and a Cut/Fill analysis will determine where changes in elevation have occurred.

Eastern Avenue Cut/Fill (DC HPO GIS)
Eastern Avenue Area of Interest (DC HPO GIS)
The image above is a simple outcome from running the analysis. The red represents areas that have been filled (where the soil has increased in volume) and the blue represents areas that have been cut (where the soil has lost volume). Grey represents no change, which you can see from the image, is not common. The degree of cut and fill activity represented in this image is unsurprising given such a developed area. Noticeable in this map are features, such as Bladensburg Road located in the northwest of the cut and fill area, indicated by a thin line of fill, and a creek, present on the 1888 map in the southeast corner, which has since been filled, indicated by the large red blotch in its place. The yellow box in the second image represents an area of interest for the DC HPO archaeology staff – a presumably relatively undisturbed area just across the city boundary from Fort Lincoln Cemetery, where archaeological remains of the battle were previously located.

The British pursued the fleeing Americans southwest along present-day Bladensburg Road until they reached the city gate. Though this area is not specifically identified on maps or in primary sources, it is assumed that the British halted and camped just outside the current intersection of Florida Avenue (then Boundary Street), Bladensburg Road, Benning Road, Maryland Avenue, and 15 Street. The image below was created from the same 1888 topographic map as the previous Cut/Fill analysis. Again, we can see sporadic episodes of cut and fill throughout the area, though lines clearly follow roads and buildings at times. The partially transparent close-up image shows how areas, especially under ball fields and buildings, have been graded to make level surfaces. If you’re wondering why this particular map took such an odd shape, it’s because the production of any map is reliant on available data (see the 1888 map, below). The notch omitted from the Cut/Fill map represents the former site of the Washington Brick Company where no topographic lines were recorded, though the nature of work at brick yards virtually ensured that any archaeological deposits would have been destroyed.


British Encampment Site (DC HPO GIS)
British Encampment Site, Close-Up (DC HPO GIS)
1888 US Coastal and Geodetic Survey, British Encampment Site (NOAA)
While the main force of the British army was camped outside the city gate or still marching down the road from Bladensburg, General Robert Ross, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and a handful of British soldiers continued down Maryland Avenue towards the US Capitol building to discuss the city’s surrender. A few hundred feet prior to the East Lawn of the Capitol, the British were fired upon from a structure located on the northwest corner of the Constitution Avenue and 2nd Street, NE intersection – the current location of the Sewall-Belmont House. After razing the building, the British 3rd Regiment entered the city and proceeded to burn several public buildings (and a couple private structures) over the course of the following 24 hours.

U.S. Capitol after burning by the British (George Munger, 1814, Library of Congress)

Perhaps most infamously (for Americans), the British showed no hesitation in storming up Capitol Hill and setting fire to the still incomplete government structure that sat atop it, incinerating the House of Representatives, as well as collections that comprised the Library of Congress (LOC). While the British soldiers supposedly set up camp on the East Lawn of Capitol Hill, General Ross established his headquarters in the private home of Dr. James Ewell; an end row house on the northeast corner of 1st and A Streets SE (the former intersection can be seen in the 1872 map below).

Carroll Row, ca. 1880 (Levin Handy, Library of Congress)
1872 Bastert-Enthoffer Topographic Map (Library of Congress)
The 1888 US Coastal and Geodetic Survey used to produce the two previous Cut/Fill maps did not record elevation data in the city proper (the historic federal city). Therefore, the 1872 Bastert-Enthoffer Topographic map (above) was used in its place. The 1872 topographic map also provides elevation data at five-foot intervals; though, you may notice that the topographic lines are not as detailed as the 1888 map, meaning fewer elevation points were likely obtained to create those lines. Hence, the resulting Cut/Fill map may be less precise in its measurements than previous maps.

Capitol Hill Cut/Fill (DC HPO GIS)
Nevertheless, the Cut/Fill map of Capitol Hill (above) produced expected patterns (i.e., cut and fill along roads and the edges of squares). If we trust the reliability of this map, though, a large swath of the East Lawn of the Capitol has been cut away, unfortunately, removing any potential evidence of a campsite. Dr. Ewell’s house, however, appears to be located in an area of fill. The Cut/Fill map, though, may not always tell us everything we need to know…

Library of Congress construction, 1889 (Levin Handy, LOC)
The image above shows the construction of the current LOC building in 1893 on the site where Dr. Ewell’s house once stood. Notice the depth cut for the foundation of the LOC most assuredly affected any potential archaeological remains. The point is that while a Cut/Fill map may indicate an area of fill, archaeologists must incorporate other research to determine whether intact buried historic layers remain.

These are just a few of the sites related to the British invasion of Washington, DC. From the Capitol, the British spread out through the city and burnt or ensured the destruction of other notable structures, such as the President’s Mansion (White House), the Navy Yard, the US Treasury, and others, before exiting the city on the night of the 25th.

The DC HPO is in possession of few confirmed artifacts related to the War of 1812.  Archaeology presents a unique opportunity to inform current DC citizens of and connect them to this extremely formative and often overlooked event in the city’s (and country’s) history. The Cut/Fill tool is a valuable first step in exploring the archaeological viability of these sites. Of course, archaeologists will never know the validity of any desktop analysis until shovels are actually put in the ground, but the potential of this GIS tool to predict intact site locations seems promising.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Meet William Beanes

Here's an interesting event: you can join The Center for a Healthy Maryland for the Fifth Annual Hunt Lectureship on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. This year’s speaker is Paul Plamann, Park Ranger at Fort McHenry, who portrays MedChi Founder, William Beanes, M.D.

Dr. Beanes, a country physician from Southern Maryland, was taken captive by the British Army and Francis Scott Key was dispatched to negotiate for his release. While doing so, the Battle of Baltimore began, and Fort McHenry was bombed for more than 25 hours. When the smoke cleared, Key and Beanes could see the massive flag flying over Fort McHenry, and knew that the Fort had not fallen and Baltimore was safe. Francis Scott Key was moved to write the verses which became our national anthem – the Star-Spangled Banner. You can read more about the fascinating life of Dr. Beanes right over here at the MedChi blog.

The Fifth Annual Hunt Lectureship will begin with a reception at 5:45 and the lecture will begin at 6:30 with the singing of the National Anthem. Tickets are free, but reservations are necessary. Please e-mail events@medchi.org, or call 410-539-0872, ext 3337.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

MedChi and the War of 1812

MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, is now a partner of Maryland's War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission! The Medical Society was originally known as the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland, but nowadays that's been shortened to MedChi. MedChi was founded in 1799, and fortunately for everyone, they maintain an archive that documents their long and fascinating history.

In 1814, MedChi’s physicians were present at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, and nearly 30 of their physicians were involved in other War of 1812 battles. The MedChi archive's blog will feature several articles about MedChi members' role in the war over the next few months. You can check out their blog right here: http://medchiarchives.blogspot.com/, and start learning about early 19th-century medical practices!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Go Dig Hampstead Hill!

Are you in Baltimore, or do you plan to visit soon? If so, you should head out to Patterson Park, where Baltimore Heritage and their partners are conducting an archaeological investigation looking for the remains of the fortified line that defended Baltimore from a British land attack during and after the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. The project is an opportunity to research the history of the battle, celebrate Baltimore’s history, and preserve Hampstead Hill and the Eastern Defensive Line for future generations to discover.

You can find out more about the project here, or sign up to volunteer here, or just check out their Open House on April 19th (more information here). I have it on very good authority that they're finding all kinds of cool stuff!