Four successive generations of African and African-American slaves occupied the Utopia Quarter (44JC32) for almost exactly a century, between the 1670s and 1770s at roughly 20- to 30-year intervals. From an archaeological perspective Utopia consists of four discrete sites that happened to be situated at the same location. The focus here is on the second generation of inhabitants, otherwise known as Period 2 at Utopia when James Bray II owned the property between 1700 and 1725 and built a compound of slave quarters at the site. Bray II succeeded Thomas Pettus Jr. who first established the site at Utopia in the 1670s by building a large quartering house for his enslaved African and English indentured servant fieldworkers. In the 1730s, Bray II’s son and grandson built another group of quarters at Utopia for their enslaved workers. Lewis Burwell IV used the same site to construct quarters for his enslaved Africans in the 1740s and 1750s (Fesler 2004a).
The James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. (JRIA) excavated Utopia II in the spring and summer of 1995. The site is located within the residential and recreational community of Kingsmill on the James, near the town of Williamsburg, Virginia, on property owned by Anheuser Busch, Inc. Because of the site’s ideal location on a high terrace overlooking the James River, Busch made plans to build townhouses on the property, thus providing the impetus to conduct an archaeological salvage excavation prior to development. As part of its mandate to preserve and study the historical resources on its property, Busch fully funded the excavation of Utopia II, and provided JRIA archaeologists ample time to excavate the entire site.
The original owner of Utopia, Thomas Pettus Jr., died unexpectedly in 1690 and within the year his widow, Mourning Pettus, had remarried James Bray II. After a decade of legal wrangling, Bray acquired formal ownership of the 1,280-acre Littletown/Utopia plantation in 1700 (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1938; Fesler 2000b). Archaeological evidence indicates that all of the buildings at the Utopia Quarter had been destroyed by fire by 1700 (Kelso 1984: 74, 79; Fesler 2000a: 49-51). Between 1700 and 1710 Bray reestablished a compound of slave quarters at Utopia, only a few dozen paces north of the original cottage.
Shortly before he died in November 1725, Bray II finalized his will, and his estate was probated in January 1726 (Bray 1725; Stephenson 1963). At the time of the probate, Bray owned 70 adult slaves, more than seven enslaved children, and an unknown number of indentured servants working on two large plantations, the 1,280 acre Littletown/Utopia plantation and the 2,220-acre Rockahock plantation located roughly 20 miles north and west of Williamsburg. More than 50 enslaved adults and children worked at Rockahock, distributed among six separate quarters. Table 1: List of Slaves Owned by James Bray II, 1725
* Rockahock Quarter is just one of six quarters located on the larger Rockahock plantation. Within the boundaries of his Littletown/Utopia plantation, Bray maintained an additional 24 adult slaves and four children at his home base at Littletown and at the two nearby field quarters managed by a slave foreman Jacko, and a forewoman Debb. The Utopia site functioned as either Debb’s or Jacko’s Quarter. The inventory does not indicate how Bray apportioned his slaves between Littletown, Debbs, and Jackos quarters, perhaps a sign that there was some amount of fluidity between the three venues and people moved about frequently depending upon staffing needs. Of the 24 adult slaves Bray kept close to him at these three quarters, the sex ratio almost reached parity—13 women and 11 men. Given the demographic snapshot of Bray’s slaves in 1725, women and men seemed to have worked at the same tasks and in the case of Debb a woman assumed the role of authority figure. Table 2: Enslaved Africans at Littletown/Utopia
Adult Female Slaves Adult Male Slaves Overseer or Foreman Horses Other Livestock
Women Men Girls Boys Total
Shortly before he died in November 1725, Bray II finalized his will, and his estate was probated in January 1726 (Bray 1725; Stephenson 1963). At the time of the probate, Bray owned 70 adult slaves, more than seven enslaved children, and an unknown number of indentured servants working on two large plantations, the 1,280 acre Littletown/Utopia plantation and the 2,220-acre Rockahock plantation located roughly 20 miles north and west of Williamsburg. More than 50 enslaved adults and children worked at Rockahock, distributed among six separate quarters.
Table 1: List of Slaves Owned by James Bray II, 1725
* Rockahock Quarter is just one of six quarters located on the larger Rockahock plantation.
Within the boundaries of his Littletown/Utopia plantation, Bray maintained an additional 24 adult slaves and four children at his home base at Littletown and at the two nearby field quarters managed by a slave foreman Jacko, and a forewoman Debb. The Utopia site functioned as either Debb’s or Jacko’s Quarter. The inventory does not indicate how Bray apportioned his slaves between Littletown, Debbs, and Jackos quarters, perhaps a sign that there was some amount of fluidity between the three venues and people moved about frequently depending upon staffing needs. Of the 24 adult slaves Bray kept close to him at these three quarters, the sex ratio almost reached parity—13 women and 11 men. Given the demographic snapshot of Bray’s slaves in 1725, women and men seemed to have worked at the same tasks and in the case of Debb a woman assumed the role of authority figure.
Table 2: Enslaved Africans at Littletown/Utopia
Excavation history, procedure, and methods
When William Kelso first excavated a portion of the Utopia site in the 1970s, he uncovered and excavated a 12 ft. by 16 ft. post-in-ground building (KM307). At the time, Kelso interpreted KM307 as an outbuilding in use during Period 1. However, as JRIA archaeologists opened up more of the site in 1995, it became apparent that KM307 was an outbuilding associated with the Period 2 occupation of the site.
Because of disturbances in the topsoil across the surface of Period 2 Utopia (in part inadvertently caused during the 1970s excavation of Period 1), the topsoil and plowzone was mechanically removed from overtop the site. Archaeologists used flat shovels and trowels to scrape down the site and expose and define the features. A plan map of the site was generated at a scale of ¼”=1 ft. and each feature received a context number. Trowels were used to excavate the features and all soil was sifted through ¼” hardware cloth. All features were bisected at least once and a profile and plan was drawn at a 1”=1 ft. scale. Some of the more complex subfloor pits were bisected several times. One-hundred percent of the soil from all subfloor pits was saved and processed through a soil flotation system. All postmold fill was saved and floated, whereas five liters of each posthole was floated. All other features were sampled and those samples were floated as well. Heavy and light fraction generated by the flotation machine were sorted by hand with the aid of a magnifying glass and incorporated into the artifact collection from the site.
The archaeological components related to Utopia II consisted of 31 features or macro-features. The macro-features included four post-in-ground structures, and a post-and-rail fence connecting two of the structures. The majority of individual features—19 of them—pertained to subfloor pits. All of the features were excavated in their entirety and produced nearly 30,000 artifacts.
Table 3: Period 2 Utopia Features
Type of Feature N JRAI Field Numbers Description
FE1, FE10, FE20, KM307
Three dwellings and one outbuilding
Hall Subfloor pits
FE2, FE3, FE4, FE21, FE30, FE35, FE36, FE36T, FE37
Subfloor pits fronting gable-end fireplaces in the hall
Parlor Subfloor pits
FE5, FE6, FE9, FE14, FE15, FE16, FE17, FE18, FE27, FE32
Subfloor pits located in the parlor of structures
Dry-laid hearth in Structure 1
Brick and debris area in Structure 10
Circular pit located north from Structure 20
Possible cooking pit in courtyard
Fence posts connecting Structure 10 and 20
Pit or Post
Indeterminate pit feature
FE134 and FE135
Possible small pit features
The carpenters framed the four Period 2 buildings on posts, as per the most popular form of vernacular architecture of the period (Carson et al. 1981). Structures 1, 10, and 20 served as housing units, while Structure KM307 was most likely used as an outbuilding. Structures 1 and 20 both measured 12 ft. by 28 ft. in size. Structure 1 contained six subfloor pits, most of them positioned at one end of the building around a dry-laid brick hearth. The only interior feature inside Structure 20 was a large subfloor pit positioned in the southwest corner of the building, most likely fronting a fireplace. Structure 10 was the largest of the three housing units with dimensions of 16 ft. by 32 ft. with an attached shed. Structure 10 had a large subfloor pit complex fronting a fireplace on its west end, while the east half of the building contained eight pits arrayed along the walls of the room. The fourth structure, a 12 ft. by 16 ft. outbuilding (KM307) with no internal features, was located to the south of Structure 20.
The buildings were positioned to form an open area courtyard in the center. A post-and-rail fence tied Structure 10 to Structure 20 to form a small enclosure. Archaeologists excavated a hearth-related feature in Structure 1 and in Structure 10, and five pit features of varying sizes in the yard. Feature 28 was a large circular pit approximately 6 ft. in diameter that appeared to be the top of a well shaft. However, excavation proved that it was only 4 ft. deep, perhaps evidence of an aborted well. FE133 was located in the courtyard outside Structure 1 and it most likely served as a small cooking pit.
Summary of research and analysis
A number of archaeologists have analyzed all or portions of the Utopia Quarter site since the early 1970s. Garrett Fesler has produced the majority of research on all occupations at the Utopia Quarter site including several technical reports, publications, and a dissertation (Fesler 1997, 2000a 2000b, 2001, 2004a, 2004b). Other archaeologists who have worked with the Utopia data include William Kelso, Patricia Samford, and Donna and Clifford Boyd.
In addition to technical publications, Fesler has written a dissertation that examined the composition and growth of households at the Utopia Quarter, and compared these findings with the wider Chesapeake region. The three types of archaeological data used to test and explore household and family formation processes at the site include artifact assemblages, subfloor pit morphology, and architecture and use of space. (Fesler 2004a). Preliminary findings suggest that house size at Utopia grew smaller over time. Fesler inferred that as the 18th century progressed, the site’s enslaved residents lived in housing units that could better accommodate smaller family groups. The gradual reduction in the number of subfloor pits within the dwellings at the three Utopia sites also suggests a changing group dynamic as family members began to share storage spaces. Fesler argued that consumption patterns at Utopia, as measured by the number of artifacts generated by each living unit, also indicated the steady growth of family groups. Overall, Fesler illustrated with multiple lines of evidence the likely evolution of what he considers the “slave family” (2004a).
In a separate article, Fesler analyzed gender relations at Utopia II (2004b), hypothesizing that three possible living arrangements—single-sex barracks, a village compound, or family households—may have been implemented at Utopia II. Fesler used architectural, spatial, and artifactual data to conclude that Utopia II most closely resembled an indigenous West or Central African compound, possibly with living arrangements segregated by gender (2004b). Fesler has also written several technical reports that detail the excavation of Utopia (2004a, 2000b) and a study of the spatial organization of the site by examining artifact distribution and soil chemistry patterns (Fesler 2001).
William Kelso led the first excavations at Utopia in the 1970s and described his findings in a technical report (1976). Kelso's research was eventually published in his book, Kingsmill Plantations 1619-1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia (1984).
Patricia Samford has used data from the subfloor pits at the site during the course of writing a dissertation (2000) and for an article (1999). Samford argued that some of the subfloor pits at Utopia may have been used as religious shrines, as well as for the more pedestrian use as storage for food and personal belongings.
Donna Boyd and Clifford Boyd:
Donna and Clifford Boyd conducted the osteological analysis of the skeletal remains from twenty-five human burials at Utopia (1996). Despite poor preservation in the thirteen burials containing skeletal remains, the Boyds were able to determine that the general health of the burial population, based on the dentition patterns of the adults, was relatively poor.