How Archaeology Began on The Hill
What Is Archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of past culture through the objects that people leave behind. These artifacts become clues to the experiences, beliefs, and values of those who have gone before. And, in a place like The Hill that has been omitted from the written histories of Easton and Talbot County, archaeology enables us to fill gaps in the written record. Land records provide evidence of people’s presence, but archaeology gives us a window into their daily lives—what they ate, how they played, what they bought, and how they worked each day to meet the joys and the challenges of life. Artifacts also become touchstones to stir memories and oral histories. Marbles reminded one Hill resident of his childhood games; a sewer pipe reminded another of her visits to her grandmother’s house in the country before indoor plumbing. Archaeology is also a great equalizer. Because everyone, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, leaves physical traces of their lives. In this way, the material world brings us together and our excavations on The Hill have given glimpses of a diverse array of activities that made this place what it is.
As we work to preserve the legacy of The Hill for the future, archaeology is also a tool of preservation. What lies beneath the ground can help to re-establish the significance of a site even when what is visible above the surface has been erased or forgotten. The Hill is part of Easton’s historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The sites we have excavated contribute to The Hill’s national significance because, in the language of federal preservation law and regulations, they “have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory” and because the sites are sufficiently intact to maintain the integrity of the stories that what is buried can teach us.
University of Maryland Field School
Sites and Research Goals of Each
The Civil War and Buffalo Soldier Home
The Civil War and Buffalo Soldier Home is also called The Home of the Family of the Buffalo Soldier in our 2013 archaeological report. The lot was first developed and the house built in 1879. John Green, a black Civil War veteran, and his wife Eliza Skinner Green were the first residents. The house later came into the hands of the Gardner family. A Gardner family member went through the house in and discovered reenlistment papers for Sergeant William Gardner in a trunk. Sergeant Gardner had served as a Buffalo Soldier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and served in the West and in the Philippines. He never lived here, but some of his family members did.
In 2002, after many years of neglect, the house was listed for demolition by the Town of Easton. Historic Easton, Inc., and the Housing Authority attempted for many years to raise money to restore the house but were unsuccessful. At their invitation, archaeologists selected this site as our first excavation in 2012 in order to learn more about the property and bolster efforts to save it. We recovered two U.S. Army uniform buttons dating to John Green’s time of service, along with household goods, children’s toys from the side yard between the house and the one adjacent to it, and other artifacts.
After the excavation, the Easton mayor’s office granted extra time for securing restoration funds before the building was to be demolished and, in 2018, through a grant from the State of Maryland, the standing house at this site was restored as a part of the Housing on The Hill initiative. During this time, the house was raised and a full foundation was put in place of the brick piers on which it was originally built. The raising of the house revealed an abundant collection of late 19th-century pharmaceutical bottles and animal bones, both butchered food waste from the house’s previous occupants and the remains of animals living under the house while it was abandoned. All of this sat on the surface under the house. Archaeologists collected samples of these surface artifacts before the remainder of the site was excavated by machinery to build the foundation. The site no longer has integrity beneath and around the house, but the collection continues to be fruitful for research. This site is designated 18TA440 in the Maryland Historical Trust archaeological site registry.
The Talbot County Women’s Club Site
What is now the home of the Talbot County Women’s Club was purchased as a larger parcel by James Price in 1795, at that time running all the way from Talbot Lane to Hanson Street. Price worked as the county’s register of wills. He employed a free black nurse in the care of an orphan girl who was placed in his custody. In the first years of the 19th century, Price added a large brick house to the frame dwelling already standing. He married, raised children, and bought several enslaved African-Americans, most of whom worked land he acquired outside of town. After the Civil War, the Price family sold the lot to Mordecai and Deborah Dawson. This family continued to employ African-American servants, who were now free and paid rather than enslaved. From 1891 to 1946, William Wright owned the property and rented apartments in the house to middle-class white families. The Women’s Club acquired the property in 1946 and renovated the house in a Colonial Revival style.
Archaeology here in 2013 focused on the rear and side yards of the house, areas where both enslaved and free African Americans would have worked. Part of a kitchen was identified in the rear yard that enslaved cooks would have used preparing meals for the Price household. The Dawsons employed an African-American cook, who lived at the house with her family. She also would likely have worked in this kitchen, especially in the summer months when work in the house’s basement kitchen because stifling.
During the renting portion of the house’s history, from 1891 to 1946, residents contributed to a large sheet midden, or trash pile, spread out across most of the backyard. This midden includes large amounts of coal and coal ash from the heating of the house, as well as household trash and children’s toys.
This site is designated 18TA439.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Organized in 1818, the congregation of Bethel A.M.E. Church purchased this property in 1820. African Methodism is very strong on the Eastern Shore and Easton’s congregation held prominence in the local network of churches during the 19th century. The current church building dates to 1877 and Frederick Douglass dedicated it in 1878 on a return visit to the county of his birth. Much of this original lot was lost by the church in the late 1820s because financial hardship forced them to sell their land to one of the church’s trustees, Joseph Chain, who then was forced to declare bankruptcy. Several houses were built on the property in the mid-19th century while it was out of church hands. The identities of residents during this period are unknown. When they reacquired it, piece by piece, in the late 19th century, the church left the houses standing and these became black homes by 1910 (when the census first makes it possible to trace the race of tenants). One of the houses was used as a parsonage for the minister and oral histories indicate that weddings were held there rather than in the church. In the 20th century, all these houses were razed and the church used part of the lot as a playground while running a Head Start day-care center out of the church fellowship hall. Today, the church uses the grassy lot mainly for parking.
Asbury United Methodist Church
The James and Henny Freeman Site
Eliza Skinner Green Dobson House
Eliza Skinner Green Dobson was born in 1856 and worked as a domestic servant for a local doctor. In 1879, Eliza married John Green and began living here. Green was a “hod” carrier by trade, a very specialized, skilled vocation that involved mixing mortar for masonry and may have contributed to the construction of Asbury and Bethel churches.
When John Green died in 1895, his widow married William Dobson, whose nephew was Sgt. William Gardner, a Buffalo Soldier in the U.S. Army,. and was a veteran of the Spanish American War.
Digging for Answers
The Hill’s free black community dates to the late eighteenth century. However, documentary and oral history indicated that the standing built environment at the site dated only to the period of the ﬁrst African American owners of the site, from circa. 1879. Shedding light on the development of the community through time, archaeological remains documented at the site suggest that this period was the ﬁrst inhabitation of the property, despite the inhabitation of other properties nearby for the one hundred years prior and reveal evidence of activities including gardening, play, and trash disposal.
US Military Button
The 1907 military discharge papers of Sgt. William Gardner were found in the attic of this house after it was abandoned. The documents detail 26 years of“honest and faithful”service in the Ninth Colored Regiment,Troop E from 1890-1907 and note a post in Kansas and combat duty in the Philippines during the Spanish American War.
Archaeologists discovered two military buttons Circa. 1900 and an Army knife on the site that may have been connected to William Gardner.
James Price House
In 1800, the household of James Price, who acquired the property in 1795, included three free African Americans. By 1790, already more than one thirteenth of the Talbot County population were free African Americans but very few of them owned the land on which they lived. Most, therefore, rented space. Typical of these manumitted men and women were three free African Americans living here with James Price in 1800. We can assume though listed as members of his household, they were not his blood relatives.
Digging for Answers
Researchers excavated 13 shovel test pits (STPs) at intervals of 20 feet in both side yards and the back yard of the Women’s Club property Following this testing, archaeologists excavated six ﬁve-foot-by-ﬁvefoot and one 2.5-foot-square test units in areas of interest in all three yards. Both STPs and units were tied to the house and the town grid and were placed by measuring with tapes from a corner of the Women’s Club building. Excavators recorded horizontal positions for all points and, because the ground is very ﬂat onsite, measured elevations from ground level.
1794 US Penny
Archaeologists usually use coins mostly for dating purposes. They bear stamps of the year in which they were produced and motifs that can be readily identiﬁed to help determine the dates of soil deposits. The penny recovered from under the kitchen, shows a different side of coins. The coin deposited in the late nineteenth century bears the stamp of 1794 and one of the ﬁrst images ever pressed onto a U.S. penny, that of Lady Liberty holding a cap on a pole. This symbol illustrates Revolutionary era ideals of American freedom and equality.
Bethel AME Church
In 1818, the African-Methodist Episcopal convention in Baltimore sent Reverend Shadrack Bassett to Easton. He preached to about 100 people from atop an oxcart about beginning a new African-american church. The new congregation ﬁrst met in a blacksmith shop before purchasing this property and the lot to the south in 1820 and building a church. The current building was built in 1877 and dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1878.
Early on, churches fostered mutual aid societies through which black communities redistributed resources to those in need to insulate one another against a racist “free” market.
Digging for Answers
Researchers excavated 18 shovel test pits (STPs) at intervals of 20 feet in side yard and the back yard of the Bethel AME church property. Following this testing, archaeologists excavated seven ﬁve-foot-by-ﬁve-foot and one 2.5-foot-square test units in areas of interest. Archaeologists found the foundations of three buildings including the church parsonage that was built in the mid 19th century. They also found evidence of a clay deposits on the site used to make bricks for local homes possibly the Poney House on Hanson Street built in 1790 and once owned by a prominent African American family.
Soldier’s Belt Buckle
Archaeologists discovered a belt buckle believed to be from the Civil War era among the remnant of the church’s parsonage building prompting questions about the Military belt buckle with Maryland State insignia is awaiting cleaning and conservation. Research revealed a similar belt buckle in a private collection with a similar stamped image. Belts with this type of buckle were typically worn across the chest on and used for carrying ammunition caps.
…Joseph Chain, situate lying and being in the town of Easton on which the building called the Bethel Church now stands….