House for Families
The surviving portion of a refuse-filled cellar located within the footprint of the 18th-century “House for Families” slave quarter was partially excavated in 1984-85 by the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology under contract with the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Staff of the MVLA Archaeology Department completed excavation of the feature in 1989-90. The cellar remnant, which was intruded by modern construction, is brick-lined and is roughly 6x6 feet-square; the height of the surviving walls is approximately four feet. Documentary data indicate that the associated quarter ceased to be occupied by 1793 and it is hypothesized that the excavated artifacts were deposited between 1759 and 1793.
Referred to as the “Quarters for Families” on a plan of the estate made by Samuel Vaughan in 1787 and as the “House for Families” in a letter, this building apparently housed the majority of the enslaved workers living at the “Mansion House Farm,” one of five farms making up the Mount Vernon plantation. The slaves living at the Mansion House Farm primarily served as house servants and skilled craftsmen. The earliest known reference to this structure may be George Washington’s note in 1761, that “lightning struck My Quarter and near 10 Negroes in it.” A painting attributed to Edward Savage (dated to 1792) shows the quarter as a substantial building, two stories in height, at least six bays in length, and with chimneys in each gable. That it was a frame building is indicated by a reference to reusing the “old plank ripped off the old Quarter” for weather board on a “Necessary” being built to accommodate the inhabitants of a “New Quarter.” The structure was demolished in the fall or winter of 1792/93, after new brick quarters had been built flanking a nearby greenhouse completed in 1787. Washington directed his plantation manager to remove the “old quarter” in a letter dated October 14, 1792.
Excavation history, procedure and methods
Initial fieldwork at the site was conducted in 1984-85 by archaeologists working for the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology under contract with the MVLA. The northern portion of the cellar fill was excavated, extending up to a cross-section that bisected the feature approximately one foot from the south cellar wall. Upon completion of that work, the cellar was backfilled and recovered with brick paving. In the winter of 1989-90, archaeologists employed by the MVLA reopened the site and completed excavating the feature. Unfortunately, during the removal of the backfill, a substantial portion of the cross-section collapsed. Those soils (47DELTA) were processed as a single mixed provenience, and were waterscreened through one-quarter-inch wire mesh. The remaining intact portion of the fill was excavated stratigraphically, with all soils removed and subjected to flotation off-site.
Summary of research and analysis
While the collapse of the cross-section made it impossible to completely re-examine the profile recorded in 1985, a considerable portion survived, enabling a relatively detailed re-evaluation of much of the stratigraphic sequence. This resulted in the interpretation that the previous investigators combined a number of what appeared to be separate strata, especially those comprising the middle section of the profile. More precisely, soils excavated as five layers in 1984-85 were reinterpreted in 1989 as actually comprising sixteen strata – all of the surviving portions of which were excavated separately at that time. The mixing of the strata during the earlier excavation hinders intra-feature analyses, but at least four separate depositional phases (dating between 1759 and 1793) are suggested based primarily on seriating the ceramics according to ware types. Artifact analysis proceeded by examining each of the assemblages according to the four depositional/temporal phases. The great majority of artifacts were found to originate in one of the phases. Artifact samples recovered from the other phases were determined to be too small to yield dependable results. Therefore, final analysis considered all artifacts from the four phases as comprising a single unit.
Documentary sources indicate that the quarter was demolished either in late 1792 or early 1793 following completion of the new slave quarter wings attached to the nearby greenhouse. A stratum comprised mainly of brick and mortar rubble, with nails, plaster, and domestic materials, constituted the uppermost layer of cellar fill and appears to derive from the destruction of the building. Below that layer, several strata that include coal, slag, ash, and iron fragments seem to represent the deposition of waste from the nearby North Grove blacksmith shop. That shop was in operation throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. The lower three feet of cellar fill is comprised primarily of numerous thin layers of mixed silty loam, suggesting that the space was filled in multiple discrete episodes during occupation of the structure above. Numerous large mendable ceramic fragments were recovered along with a number of large and relatively intact objects, such as pewter spoons and an iron hoe. Many fragile bones were also found, including several complete fish skeletons. Taken together, this evidence suggests that these layers represent primary trash deposition.
Interpretation of the House for Families artifact assemblage has focused on the correlation of what appears to be a relatively rich material culture with slaves who are hypothesized as enjoying a position of preferment due to their proximity to and presumed intimacy with the Washington household. The high quality of domestic materials provides additional evidence that slaves living near the planter’s household benefited from that proximity by receiving second-hand items. Analysis of the faunal materials (over 24,000 bones representing 53 taxa) suggests a diet that was more diverse than may have been the norm.