Four different groups of African and African-American slaves occupied the Utopia Quarter (44JC787) for almost exactly a century, between the 1670s and 1770s at roughly 20- to 30-year intervals. The four groups created four discrete sites situated in close proximity to one another on the same landform, but located far enough apart so that there is only a slight overlap between the first two occupation periods. In fact, several hundred feet separate Utopia IV from the other three occupation areas, enough distance to merit assigning a different site number—44JC787—to this portion of the site. Utopia IV occurred during the third quarter of the 18th century when Lewis Burwell IV owned the Utopia property. Prior to Burwell, Utopia had belonged to Thomas Pettus, Jr. from ca. 1675 to 1700, then James Bray II from 1700 to 1725, then Thomas Bray II from 1728 to 1736, then James Bray III from 1736 to 1744. Burwell acquired control of Utopia by marrying James Bray’s III widow Frances Thacker Bray in 1745 (Fesler 2004a).
The James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. (JRIA) excavated Utopia IV in the spring and summer of 1994. The site is located within the residential and recreational community of Kingsmill on the James, outside the town of Williamsburg, Virginia. Kingsmill is owned by Anheuser Busch, Inc., which funded the excavation of Utopia IV as part of its mandate to preserve and study the historical resources on its property. The site is situated on valuable real estate that Busch planned to develop into house lots. Prior to breaking ground on the new neighborhood, JRIA fully excavated Utopia IV.
With the sudden death of James Bray III in 1744, Utopia and the slaves living there reverted to his father Thomas Bray II. Frances Thacker Bray remarried the owner of the neighboring Kingsmill plantation, Lewis Burwell IV, in January 1745 (Stephenson 1963:19). Immediately prior to the marriage, Thomas Bray II agreed to deed the Utopia property and 29 slaves to Frances in exchange for relinquishing her dower rights (Burwell v. Johnson 1758).
Lewis Burwell IV owned and operated Utopia for 30 years, from 1745 to 1775, occupying the nearby 1,500-acre Kingsmill plantation and its impressive mansion house (Kelso 1984b:44-45, 87-96; Walsh 1997:43). Concerned about the conflict brewing with Great Britain, Burwell pulled up stakes at Kingsmill and Utopia in 1775, deeded the plantation to his son, Lewis Burwell V, and moved several hundred miles west to an estate in Mecklenburg County (Goodwin 1958:27-28; Wells 1976:25-26; Brown 1994:57). Evidence suggests that Utopia was abandoned in 1775 or shortly thereafter (Goodwin 1958:81-82, 85-89; Wells 1976:30, 36).
Records indicate that Burwell IV periodically hired doctors to attend to the ailments of his slaves, to extract abscessed teeth, and that he hired midwives to help some of the mothers deliver their babies (Walsh 1997:173-177). He also allowed his slaves to be baptized. Between 1747 and 1768, at least 73 of his slaves were baptized (Walsh 1997:153, 249-251).
Tax lists survive for Burwell’s IV James City County slave population for the years 1768 and 1769. In 1768, Burwell was taxed in James City County for 65 tithes and the following year for 62 (Goodwin 1958:xxxi). Almost all the tithes were adult slaves, meaning that he owned between 50 and 60 adults and perhaps twice that number if children are included. Thus, by the late 1760s, it would appear that Burwell owned roughly 100 slaves in James City County. The number of slaves living at Utopia is unknown.
The historical record is again mute for almost 15 years until two surviving tax lists were made of Lewis Burwell’s IV slaves for the years 1782 and 1783. The lists were transcribed from Burwell’s own hand and divided into a half dozen taxable groups. According to the lists, Burwell employed three overseers in 1782, and two in 1783, one of whom, John Avory, seems to have lived on a separate quarter with a family of slaves.
Table 1: Lewis Burwell IV 1782 Tax List
Burwell IV 1782 Taxable Property List Free White Men Male Slaves Female Slaves
Group 1 (John Avory - overseer)
Group 2 (Thomas Allen - overseer)
Group 3 (Burwell IV)
Group 4 (Thacker’s Estate)*
Group 5 (John Bragg - overseer)
Group 6 (Burwell V Slaves)*
Table 2: Lewis Burwell IV 1783 Tax List
|Burwell IV 1783 Taxable Property List||Free White Men||Adult (>16) Male Slaves||Adult (>16) Female Slaves||Male Child (<16) Slaves||Female Child (<16) Slaves|
|Group 1 (John Avory - overseer)||1||1||1||1||3|
|Group 2 (Burwell V Slaves)*||1||13||11||23||16|
|Group 3 (Burwell IV)||1||1|
|Group 4 (Thacker’s Estate)*||20||19||21||18|
|Group 5 (John Bailey - overseer)||1|
|Total||4||35 (148)||31 (148)||45 (148)||37 (148)|
* In 1782 and 1783 Burwell paid the taxes on two large groups of slaves that belonged in name only to his deceased son Thacker’s estate and to his son Lewis Burwell V.
The 1782 list does not make a distinction between adults and children, whereas the 1783 list does. A comparison of the two lists indicates that Burwell’s slave population increased from 1782 to 1783, from 139 to 148. Moreover, between 1782 and 1783, Burwell’s workforce remained relatively constant. Twelve names on the 1782 list are missing from the 1783 list, suggesting an annual attrition rate of approximately 10 percent, mostly attributed to the deaths of small children and infants. The 1783 tax list includes 22 additional or different names compared to the 1782 list. Four of the new slaves are listed as adults and 18 as children, suggesting that Burwell’s slaves were bearing children at a rather extraordinary rate with more than half the adult women giving birth that year.
Excavation history, procedure, and methods
Evidence of Utopia IV was first discovered during a Phase I survey of the area in 1993 (Fesler 1997). During the course of the survey period, artifacts turned up in several test holes concentrated on a high terrace above a branch of Warehams Pond, several hundred yards inland from the James River. One of the test holes penetrated into a subfloor pit, and another into what turned out to be a trash pit.
Throughout the site area at Period 4 Utopia, archaeologists excavated 158 shovel test hole units at intervals of 10 ft. The backfill from each shovel test was sifted through ¼” hardware cloth and all artifacts as well as a soil chemistry sample were collected. Once the shovel testing was completed, an excavating machine removed the topsoil and plowzone from 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 then 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 feature 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. Archaeologists collected a 50-liter sample from each context within each subfloor pit at the site. The samples were processed through a soil flotation system. Heavy and light fractions 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.
Utopia IV consisted of 46 features or macro-features. The macro-features included three structures that left no architectural footprints (except for possibly a line of four shallow postholes possibly associated with the Structure 140). Subfloor pits accounted for 24 of the individual features, 22 in Structure 140, and one in Structures 150 and 160. Three borrow pits were located on site, created by the builders to extract clay during the construction of the structures. Nine trash pits of varying sizes and depths were arrayed throughout the site. Several anomalous features also were encountered and excavated. All 46 features were excavated in their entirety and produced 19,040 artifacts.
Table 3: Period 4 Utopia Features
Type of Feature N JRIA Field Numbers Description
FE140, FE150, FE160
One duplex and two smaller housing units
Subfloor pits in Structure 140-1
FE9, FE10, FE11D/E, FE11/12, FE12A/W, FED/L-N, FE13, FE29, FE40, FE41A,
Subfloor pits in west duplex of Structure 140
Subfloor pits in Structure 140-2
FE5, FE6B/G/H, FE6C-F/J/K, FE6L/M/N, FEP/Q, FE6R, FE7, FE8, FE30A-D, FE30E/F, FE31, FE36
Subfloor pits in east duplex of Structure 140
Subfloor pit in Structure 150
Probable subfloor pit inside Structure 150
Subfloor pit in Structure 160
Probable subfloor pit inside Structure 160
FE1, FE2, FE14, FE15, FE18, FE32, FE33, FE35
Trash pits arrayed around the site
FE16, FE20, FE21-28
Three debris-filled pits originally dug to extract clay
Set of Postholes
FE37, FE38, FE39ab, FE39cd
Possible shallow postholes assoc. with Structure 140
Possible posthole for Str. 160
Possible Pier Supports
Possible pier support holes for Structure 150
FE34, FE43, FE44, FE47
Two anomalous features inside Str. 160, and two near Str. 140
The method of construction for the Utopia IV structures differed from the three previous periods. Instead of framing the buildings on posts set into the ground, the carpenters either laid sills on the ground surface (or in shallow trenches) and erected a log building, or built the cabins on shallow pier supports (see Carson et al. 1981). The cabins left no architectural footprint, although a line of shallow postholes along the south wall of Structure 140 may represent the remnants of piers or later repair or shoring up of that wall. Remnants of piers also may be present for Structures 150 and 160. Lacking a footprint, archaeologists estimated the sizes of each of the three structures based on the subfloor pits enclosed by them. Structure 140 contained 22 subfloor pits, was approximately 22 ft. by 32 ft. in size. It functioned as a duplex (essentially two houses standing back-to-back) and was divided into two compartments with independent exterior entrances. The sizes of the other two housing units, Structures 150 and 160, could not be determined from the single subfloor pit located inside each, but based on the possible pier supports, Structure 150 may have been roughly 15 ft. by 17 ft. and Structure 160 was perhaps less than that.
The three borrow pits were located in proximity to each of the housing units, with the largest, Borrow Pit 21-28 (DAACS Feature F21) nearest Structure 140. Trash pits were arrayed throughout the yard area and some of them can be directly related to debris from specific housing units. For example, the contents of Trash Pits 14, 15, and 18 (DAACS Feature F14, F15, and F18) can reasonably be associated with activity in Structure 140.
Other than borrow and trash pits, landscape features were absent at Utopia IV. The lack of post-and-rail fences, for example, may be explained by changing fencing technology. Like post-in-ground structures, by the mid-18th century post-and-rail fences were being replaced by less labor-intensive and functional worm fences made of logs or rails stacked on the ground. Worm fences could be easily dismantled and moved, leaving ephemeral archaeological traces, whereas post-and-rail fences were more permanent. An artifact distribution and soil chemistry study of Utopia IV strongly suggest that a fence was located immediately to the west of Structure 140, forming an enclosed yard or animal pen that abutted up against the main house (Fesler 2001). The remainder of the yard and the space between the three structures stayed unobstructed, similar to the open yard spaces encountered at other occupation areas at Utopia.
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 (2000a, 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 (1984b).
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.