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 Quarter Site is located on a west-facing slope south of the North Hill site, west of the 18th-century Old Plantation complex and approximately 600 feet east of Jefferson’s octagonal brick mansion built between 1806-1810. Occupants of the site experienced Poplar Forest’s transition from a quarter farm with a plantation manager and absentee owner to a villa retreat in which Jefferson became more actively involved in plantation management and design.
Staff archaeologists discovered the site in 1993 during survey of the eastern property boundary in preparation for the planting of a tree screen to block out modern development (Heath 1993). Staff quickly recognized its significance and plans for the screen planting were set aside. A combination of staff, field school students and volunteers conducted excavations at the Quarter between 1993 and 1996. Barbara J. Heath directed the project with the assistance of field supervisor Michael A. Strutt and laboratory supervisors Susan Trevarthen Andrews and Alasdair Brooks. Staff named the site as the first Poplar Forest quarter investigated archaeologically. Subsequently, a c.1770s-1780s quarter (the North Hill site) and two antebellum sites (Site A and the South Tenant House) have been investigated.
Erosion gullies predating site occupation suggest that the Quarter was placed on exhausted agricultural land resulting from late 18th-century cultivation of plantation fields. The c. 1790-1812 site contained the remains of three log structures and associated landscape features including an enclosed yard, fence lines, middens and a possible garden, as well as a 20th-century fence line. Subsequent agricultural use of the area in the later 19th century resulted in a shallow, moderately eroded plowzone overlying truncated features.
Documentary and archaeological evidence suggests that enslaved members of the Poplar Forest community possessed a variety of plantation-related and artisanal skills. After the 1780s, most people belonged to extended, sometimes multigenerational families and lived in kin-based households on the property.
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.
Maps provide clues about the transition from the 18th-century to the 19th-century plantation landscapes. An undated map believed to have been drafted circa 1781 shows an overseer’s house and barn in an area known by Jefferson as the Old Plantation (N-255, Wenger 1997). This settlement, in turn, was contained within the larger quarter farm watered by the Tomahawk Creek and named for it. A separate quarter farm known as Wingos was located in the northwest corner of the property. In 1790, Jefferson gave Wingos to his daughter Martha and Thomas Mann Randolph when they married. A map recording this transaction also depicts these settlements (Boyd 1961:190). The Bear Creek quarter, east of Wingos and north of Tomahawk, was in operation by 1790.
Two early 19th-century maps of Poplar Forest locate the overseer’s house at Tomahawk within the “Mansion House field” (N266 and UVA 9090a). The structures discovered archaeologically at the Quarter site fell within the boundaries of this field, although neither map depicts them.
A small population of enslaved people resided on the property in 1774. The majority arrived in the following decade as a result of Jefferson’s efforts to consolidate his holdings through land sales and the relocation of people. By 1795, 50 enslaved people lived at Poplar Forest. That number increased to 73 by 1805, and to 86 by 1810, of which 57 men, women and children lived at Tomahawk where the Quarter Site was located (Betts 1987:30, 60,129). Among them were members of the Hubbard family including Nace “the former headman, and the best we have ever known,” his stepsister Hanah “who cooks and washes for me,” her husband Hal, who along with Will worked as a smith, and Hal’s mother Bess who made butter and spun. Some of these men and women also worked as laborers in the fields alongside others such as Hanah’s brother Phill Hubbard and her daughter Lucinda (Betts 1976: 465-467).
In a memorandum written in the winter of 1811, Jefferson instructed his Tomahawk overseer that “the removal of so many negroes from this to the other place will require a good deal of work there to lodge them comfortably” (Betts 1976:467). It seems likely that Jefferson was removing slave housing at or near the Quarter Site. By the winter of 1812, work had begun to transform the Tomahawk landscape to fit his new vision for the property. An 1813 plat records these changes, depicting the eastern boundary of Jefferson’s newly-designed curtilage (Joseph Slaughter survey, September 1813, UVA 5533 ). The course of the fence cut through the Quarter Site, clear evidence that by the winter of 1812 when the fence was erected, the Quarter had been abandoned.
Excavation history, procedure and methods
The Quarter Site is located on a gentle slope that gradually becomes steeper toward the north and west, just east of a spring. Two backfilled erosion gullies found during excavation provided strong evidence of the effects that previous agricultural activity and topography had on the formation of the site during the 18th and early 19th centuries. 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. Excavators scraped each auger hole 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 (Heath 1993).
In one auger hole, archaeologists uncovered the edge of a feature, distinguished from subsoil by a deposit of dark brown organic loam. This test excavation was expanded to a 2 foot square and then to a 10 foot square, revealing the partial outline of a rectangular pit. A grid of four 10 foot square units, oriented on magnetic north, was imposed over and around the feature to allow for its definition and for the discovery of additional artifacts and features. By the end of the season, a total of eight 10 foot-by-10 foot units and two 5 foot-by-10 foot units had been opened.
In the spring of 1994, archaeologists undertook additional testing to define the limits of the site discovered the previous year. Using the soil auger, excavators dug a series of holes south and west of the site. Auger holes that contained artifacts were expanded to 2 foot square units. If further artifacts were discovered within these test pits, these were expanded again to 5 foot-by-5 foot or 10 foot-by-10 foot units.
Finally, additional testing was undertaken west and north of the site during the spring of 1995. Excavators dug a series of 2 foot square units by hand in a grid extending off of the edges of the block excavation. Together, these units revealed the boundaries of the site to the north, south and west. Testing to the east was not undertaken since this land is privately owned. By the end of 1996, fifty-five 10 foot-by-10 foot units, seven 5 foot-by-10 foot units, five 5 foot-by-5 foot units, one 5 foot-by-10 foot-by- 5 foot unit and five 2 foot-by-2 foot units had been excavated at the site. At the time of completion, an area measuring at its largest 80 feet-by-105-feet had been excavated to subsoil.
Layers and features relating to three structures, five fence lines and two backfilled erosion gullies were uncovered. Structure 2 consisted of an ash-filled pit, two postholes and two layers of fill sealing a shallow depression believed to represent an eroded earth floor. Structure 3 included a stratified midden believed to have formed beneath the floor of a pier-set building and four postholes and possible repairs.
Portions of four historic fence lines and one modern line were also uncovered, as well as the remains of two erosion gullies. One gully was filled with field stones and appears to predate the construction of the Quarter Site, while the second was open during its occupation and contained a variety of domestic artifacts within its fill.
All topsoil and plowzone soil was removed by shovel. Features were hand-trowelled. All soil from the site was dry screened through ¼ in. mesh except for feature samples selected for flotation. During the 1993 season, feature fill from subfloor pit contexts 829C-F and 1003B-D was collected and wetscreened through window mesh. Light fraction materials were collected non-systematically. Beginning with the 1994 season, subsequent soil samples were processed using a Shell Mound Archaeological Project (SMAP)-type flotation machine.
During the 1993 excavation season, excavators collected soil samples from feature fill for use in future chemical and microbotanical analysis. Further research on soil analysis during the winter of 1993/1994 resulted in the decision to systematically collect samples of plowzone and subsoil for chemical testing as well, a policy that was implemented beginning in the 1994 season.
Summary of research and analysis
Archaeologists discovered the remains of three structures at the site, all facing to the northwest and placed in a roughly east-west alignment. Structure 1, measuring 25 feet-by-15 feet along the exterior, sat on the edge of a gentle slope. It was most likely supported by a stone pier in the northwest corner and by wooden posts set at each remaining corner. The post holes that define the outline of the cabin vary in diameter and spacing and likely contained wooden supports used to raise the cabin’s sills above the ground and to level the floor of the structure (Heath 1999a).
Structure 1 was divided into two equal-sized rooms, each measuring 12.5 feet-by-15 feet along the exterior of the building. Evidence locating chimneys was scarce; however it is likely that they were located on the gable ends of the building with a single fireplace heating each room. Post holes along the east and west walls, along with quantities of daub found in and around the cabin, indicate that carpenters built the chimneys of wood and clay. Artifact densities and chemical concentrations in the yard immediately north of the house suggest the location of a door on the western end of the north wall. Given the evidence for the partition wall, it is likely that another door at the eastern end of the north wall gave access to a fenced yard on the north side of the building (Heath 1999a).
Staff excavated three subfloor pits within the building. A single, stratified pit measuring 3.5 feet-by-4.8 feet was located within the southwestern room, with a tpq of 1795 based on the presence of painted pearlware in the bottom layer of the feature. Two overlapping pits, each measuring 3 feet-by-4 feet, were located in the northeastern room. These two features had suffered from extensive erosion. Only a small portion of each remained intact. Both pits postdate 1795, based on the presence of painted pearlware in the earlier feature.
Structure 2 measured approximately 13 feet square along the outside wall lines. Strata within the structure represent episodes of intentional fill over an earthen floor, perhaps as a response to the gradual erosion of the original floor surface over time. The profiles of the layers indicate that they seal a shallow, bowl-shaped depression in subsoil. A small, circular pit filled with ash and a large, flat stone was located beneath the floor fill in the southeast corner of the structure. The walls of the ash pit showed no signs of burning. The number and variety of domestic artifacts excavated within and around the structure indicate that, whatever its original purpose, for at least part of its lifespan, the building was home to one or more people (Heath 1999a).
Structure 3, measuring approximately 18.5 feet to a side along the outside, originally stood on one of the steepest part of the hillside, directly over a backfilled erosion gully. Although archaeologists found no evidence for them during excavations, it seems likely that piers once supported the northern and western walls of the building, and that the building was floored with wood. Evidence suggests that a door opened along the north wall near the northwest corner of the building, and a chimney stood along the east or south wall (Heath 1999a).
Like other plantation outbuildings in the region, Structures 1, 2 and 3 were built of log. The recovery of thousands of structural, roofing and trim nails within and around each structure—and the near absence of more durable construction materials such as stone, brick or mortar—confirms that the buildings were certainly made of wood. Large pieces of daub found in a feature just outside of Structure 2 retain log impressions from either walls or chimneys associated with that building. Charcoal samples removed from post holes associated with Structure 1 indicate that it sat on supports fashioned of hickory (Raymer 2003).
Evidence of a variety of enclosures and boundaries provide the skeleton of the quarter landscape. A worm fence separated Structures 1 and 3, and a post-in-ground fence ran west of Structure 3. Residents of Structures 1 and 2 shared an enclosed yard measuring approximately 12 feet-by-30 feet High artifact densities and elevated levels of phosphorus and calcium indicate the location of middens along the inner and outer edges of the yard fence, while the interior of the yard was relatively clean. The placement of the yard on the side of the houses facing away from the documented location of the overseer’s house suggests that residents were able to negotiate some level of privacy in their living conditions (Heath and Bennett 2000).
East of Structure 1, a complex of postholes and plant-related disturbances suggest the location of a garden oriented in the same northeast-southwest line as the buildings. This area was characterized by low artifact densities and elevated levels of potassium and phosphorus, perhaps related to additives used as fertilizer. Only a small portion of the area was excavated, and the majority now lies on land no longer owned by the Corporation. It is unclear whether this garden served the quarter alone, or is the remains of the plantation “truck patch” associated with the Old Plantation.
Botanical remains collected at the site underscore plantation agricultural activities and shed light on the diet of inhabitants. Macroplant remains representing 15 species were recovered, of which 80% were domesticates and 20% were native wild species. The recovery of native domesticated grains and legumes, imported European cereal grains, and domesticated fruits offers strong evidence of subsistence farming during this period at Poplar Forest. Native edible herbs, nuts and fruits indicate the continued exploitation of the environment by enslaved people to supplement plantation rations and garden produce (Raymer 2003).
Botanical evidence also illuminates the broader plantation landscape during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Charcoal from sealed deposits suggests that hardwood forest resources in the vicinity of the Quarter had diminished, and site residents were using a less diverse and efficient assemblage of wood, dominated by pine, for fuel (Raymer 2003).
Faunal evidence at the site revealed that the primary meat diet of occupants was pork and beef, although wild mammals such as white-tailed deer, opossum, rabbit, and squirrel were also present. A single chicken bone and eggshell indicate the consumption of poultry and eggs (Andrews 1993, 1995, 1996).
A diverse assemblage of domestic artifacts was recovered from the Quarter. Extensive analysis of ceramics and glass, stone pipes believed to have been produced on-site, objects related to personal adornment, and tools has been completed to date (Brooks 1996, Canel 1996 Heath 1999b, Olson and Heath 1999).
The Quarter Site has provided important comparative information about the social and economic development of the enslaved community, including the changing material conditions of slavery at Poplar Forest and the development of consumerism among the enslaved, the use of space within quarters and the exploitation of plantation resources by enslaved residents.