Since 1989, archaeologists employed by the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest have explored the landscape of Jefferson’s plantation retreat in eastern Bedford County, Virginia. The North Hill site is associated with a complex that consisted of an overseer’s house, barn and quarters known historically as the “Old Plantation.” This settlement, most likely established in the third quarter of the 18th century, was abandoned following Jefferson’s redesign of the plantation landscape in the 1810s. The North Hill site sits on a raised terrace near the historic center of the property. No documents make direct reference to it. Archaeologists named the site for its location north of the Quarter Site and Old Plantation.
Staff archaeologists surveyed the eastern property boundary in 1993 in preparation for the planting of a tree screen to block the view of modern development (Heath 1993). The discovery of significant sites in this area, including the North Hill site, altered the planting plan, and it has not been implemented. Surface-collected artifacts from an adjacent property owner's garden confirmed the location of a late 18th- or early 19th-century site on the terrace. Staff and volunteers dug additional test units across the site in the spring of 1994, and a combination of staff, field school participants and volunteers conducted excavations between 1995 and 1998. Barbara J. Heath directed the project with the assistance of field supervisor Michael A. Strutt and laboratory supervisors Alasdair Brooks and Heather Olson.
The remains of a short-term domestic site occupied by an enslaved household between c. 1770 and 1785 were discovered at the North Hill. A subfloor pit (Feature 6), two small exterior pits (Features 7 and 8), three short trenches of unknown function (Features 3, 4, 5), the bottom layers of fill in an erosion gully (Feature 25), and thousands of domestic artifacts recovered from plowzone deposits relate to this period of occupation. Two narrow trenches (Features 1 and 2), the top layers of fill in the erosion gully (Feature 24), and artifacts recovered from plowzone deposits in the southeastern units of the block excavation suggest the location of an early 19th-century site just outside of the project area. Subsequent agricultural use of the terrace resulted in a shallow, eroded plowzone overlying truncated features.
The Reverend William Stith patented Poplar Forest in 1745. His daughter, Elizabeth Pasteur, inherited the property in 1755 and sold it to her cousin Peter Randolph in 1762. Randolph sold Poplar Forest to business associate John Wayles in 1764 (Chambers 1993:2-4). No evidence has yet come to light to indicate the presence of a farm operation prior to Wayles’s ownership; however by 1769 Poplar Forest was an active plantation with a resident enslaved workforce producing tobacco for sale. When Wayles died in 1773, his daughter Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and her husband Thomas inherited the nearly 5,000 acre property.
No maps contemporaneous with Wayles’s ownership are known to exist. However, two later 18th-century plats provide clues about the early plantation landscape. An undated map believed to have been drafted circa 1781 (N-255, Wenger 1997) shows an overseer’s house and barn located on a hilltop southeast of the North Hill site in an area known by Jefferson as the Old Plantation. The settlement is also depicted in a 1790 map of the property draw by Jefferson (Boyd 1961:190), along with a separate quarter farm in the northwest corner of the Poplar Forest tract known as Wingos.
Jefferson’s January 1774 slave roll lists a family consisting of Guinea Will, his wife Bess, and children Hall, Dilcey and Suckey living at Poplar Forest along with a blacksmith called “Billy boy.” Five other young men and women were enslaved at the Wingos quarter. Later that year, Jefferson transferred another family and two individual slaves to Poplar Forest, presumably settling them in the vicinity of the Old Plantation. By 1783, eight households consisting of 35 individuals lived and worked on the property as a whole (Betts 1987:7, 16, 24). It is unclear how many of these people lived in the vicinity of the Old Plantation. Archaeological evidence suggests that a single household occupied the North Hill.
Court records and county tax rolls provide additional information about the makeup of the enslaved community during the early 1780s. No records make direct reference to the site now known as the North Hill.
Excavation history, procedure and methods
The North Hill site lies on the western edge of a terrace sited above a deep ravine and historic spring. The majority of the site was covered with grass prior to excavation. The eastern line of excavation units had been severely disturbed by roto-tilling during the 1980s and early 1990s as neighbors encroached on the site with their vegetable garden. The entire site was plowed in the 19th century which resulted in significant erosion. In some areas, excavations revealed veins of bedrock within 6 inches of the surface. It is probable that shallow features were lost to plowing and erosion.
In 1993, archaeologists tested the eastern edge of the site along the route of a proposed tree screen with three rows of auger holes spaced 25 feet apart east-west and at staggered 25 foot intervals north-south. Each auger hole was scraped to identify soil layers and look for features and artifacts. Soil removed by the auger was trowel sorted to locate artifacts. Auger holes containing artifacts or features were expanded with shovels into 2 foot square test units to provide additional data.
In 1994, archaeologists conducted a standard Phase 1 survey across the terrace, excavating a total of seventeen 2 foot square test units at 25 foot intervals. Based on the results of the survey, 50 10 foot square excavation units, 3 5 foot-by-10 foot and 1 partial 10 foot square were excavated. Data from the 2 foot test units was merged into the larger 10 foot squares where appropriate. When finished, block excavations at the site measured 80 feet-by-110 feet at their greatest extent.
Each 10 foot square unit was further subdivided into 5 foot square quadrants once topsoil was removed to increase spatial control over recovered artifacts. Quadrants were given a number designation, with quadrant 1 in the northwest, quadrant 2 in the northeast, quadrant 3 in the southwest, and quadrant 4 in the southwest.
Plowzone sealed a number of features. These included a 4.7 foot square subfloor pit (F06) believed to be associated with a dwelling, two small pits located outside of the projected line of the dwelling (F07 and F08), a backfilled erosion gully (F24), three short trenches of unknown function (F03,F04, and F05), and two intersecting, narrow trenches (F01 and F02) that formed part of an early 19th-century fence line associated with a site outside the project area.
All topsoil and plowzone soil was removed by shovel. Features were hand-trowelled. All soil from the site was dry screened through ¼ inch mesh except for feature samples selected for flotation.
Phytolith, pollen and soil chemical samples were collected. Samples from feature fill in the subfloor pit, exterior pits, trenches and erosion gully were collected for flotation. In all, approximately 25%-50% of soil from these contexts was collected in the field, from which a 1 liter sample for chemical and microbotanical analysis was saved, and the remainder was floated using a Shell Mound Archaeological Project (SMAP)-type flotation machine. Soil chemical samples were collected systematically from plowzone and subsoil from one quadrant of each 10 foot square across the site.
Summary of research and analysis
Archaeological evidence from the North Hill site, although sparse in comparison to that recovered from the nearby Quarter site, suggests that a single cabin stood in the center of the ridge from c. 1770 to 1785. The argument for the existence of such a building is based primarily on the presence of a stratified subfloor pit (F06) containing numerous domestic artifacts dating from this period. Supporting evidence, though more speculative, includes the presence of two rodent burrows that perhaps indicate the placement of a gable-end wall line along the east side of the structure, and artifact distribution data that indicate concentrations of wrought nails and burned artifacts in the hypothesized area of the structure. Additional distribution data indicate that the area between the subfloor pit and the rodent burrows contained few artifacts, a pattern that is consistent with data from the interior of Structure 1 excavated at the Quarter Site. Clay daub in the upper layers of pit fill, combined with thousands of hand-wrought nails, suggests that the cabin that contained the pit was log with clapboard siding and/or a shingle roof. The absence of additional subfloor pits suggests that the dwelling was occupied by a single individual or a family.
Evidence suggests that deeper layers of pit fill represent debris deposited by the occupants of the cabin, while upper layers relate to the destruction of the building, perhaps in a fire. An analysis of the distribution of artifacts relating to the building itself (daub, brick/daub and nails) shows a significantly higher concentration of each of these materials in the upper layers of the feature. Other domestic artifacts, animal bone and eggshell appear to concentrate in the occupation layers, while botanical remains were recovered throughout the feature.
A TPQ of 1775 has been assigned to the subfloor pit based on the presence of light colored creamware in its deepest layers (Miller et al. 2000:12). Ann Smart Martin has argued that although creamware was available to the wealthiest consumers in Virginia shortly after production began in 1762, most of the middling and poorer households did not acquire it until after the American Revolution (Martin 1994:178). A lack of pearlware, introduced in 1779-1780 and in common usage by mid-decade, suggests that the cabin was destroyed and the pit filled before 1785.
An erosion gully (F24) filled with domestic trash lay 35 feet southwest of the pit. Ceramics found within the lower layers of the erosion gully and the subfloor pit include tin enameled earthenware, English combed slipware, Westerwald stoneware, a variety of lead-glazed earthenwares and creamware. Several ceramics crossmends between the two contexts underscore their contemporaeity.
Two linear trenches (F01 and F02) averaging 0.4-0.5 feet in width converged and cut the eastern edge of the gully. The east-west trench ran approximately 29 feet before it was obliterated by plowing. Excavators traced the north-south trench for a distance of 46 feet when time limits precluded further testing. The two trenches contained the remains of small post molds at their bases, suggesting that they represent the remains of a fence constructed with narrow posts set into the ground. The fence post-dates the occupation of this site, and is believed to be associated with a hypothesized early 19th-century site located southeast of the North Hill. The upper level of gully fill appears to be contemporaneous with this hypothesized later structure, while the deeper layers appear to have been filled at the same time the subfloor pit was filled.
Faunal evidence at the North Hill revealed that the primary meat diet of site occupants was pork and beef, although wild mammals such as opossum, rabbit, woodchuck, squirrel and raccoon were also present. Chicken bones and eggshell indicate the consumption of poultry and eggs. A single bone from a fresh-water fish (bass or sunfish) was also recovered (Andrews 1999).
Botanical remains collected at the site underscore what was grown in the early plantation period, and shed light on the diet of inhabitants. The recovery of native domesticated grains and legumes, imported European and African cereal grains, and domesticated fruits offers strong evidence of subsistence farming during this period at Poplar Forest. The nearly equal proportions of native grains and legumes (principally maize) and imported domesticates indicates that whoever lived here had a relatively rich and varied diet (Raymer 2003).
Just over one quarter of the plant food remains represent naturally occurring fruits, nuts and edible and/or medicinal herbs--species that fell outside of the plantation provisioning system. All of these plants grow either in open fields, including agricultural fields, or edge zones which were created by the clearing of local forest cover. The frequency of native wild grains in the seed assemblage suggests that slaves might have been encouraging their growth in the area surrounding their house.
Pollen analysis supports the macrobotanical evidence. European cereal pollens were abundant in the fill of the subfloor pit and present in the fill of the gully as well. Concentrations of pollen from blackberry or raspberry and chenopodium supports the notion that these plants, though wild, may have been deliberately cultivated or encouraged to grow near the cabin (Jones 2002).
Botanical evidence can also be used to shift perspective from the specifics of the site to the broader plantation landscape of which it was a part during the 1770s and 1780s. Charcoal from the earliest sealed deposits suggests that original hardwood forest remained in close proximity to the cabin, and that residents had convenient access to it (Raymer 2003).
The North Hill site has provided important comparative information about the material conditions of slavery at Poplar Forest, the use of space within quarters by enslaved households and the exploitation of plantation resources by enslaved residents over time.