Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bottles & Shells Mark Property Bounds

Typically, when archaeologists find scatters of oyster shell or bottle glass in an area under investigation, the obvious and generally accurate conclusion that we come to is that we have found trash that somebody threw out and, therefore, we have located a site. Such finds in the Port Tobacco area of Charles County, and perhaps farther afield, could represent something quite different: a surveyor marking property bounds.

Theophilus Hanson, Charles County surveyor in the late 18th century, laid out Mattingly's Hope for Richard Gambra on the eighth of September 1784. He marked the beginning and end of each course of the survey with a large stone. On each stone he inscribed a Roman numeral, I through X, which he described as "a large stone fixed in the earth with some oyster shell under and around it." One or two ocassions we could dismiss as coincidence, the stone happening to be placed on an ancient Indian shell midden (trash heap); but ten points over 459 acres!

One month later, on October 1, 1784, Hanson laid out the 510 acre tract Plenty for Thomas Stone. For two of the eleven bound points he noted a locust post and one or three stones "fixed in the earth" with "some Glass" or "some Glass bottle" under them. Most of the other points were those of adjoining tracts. Pete and I have looked at three other Hanson surveys from the 1790s. None of those mentioned the use of shell or glass.

Presumably, the oyster and glass highlighted the boundary stones and locust posts that otherwise would have been difficult to distinguish from random occurences of stones and trees. Locust posts are particularly troublesome as property markers because, while they can last a century or more, they have a tendency to root. See the photograph below of an old post that gave root to a tree that now encapsulates much of the old post. I took this photograph at Southampton Farm near Bel Air in Harford was one of several examples around a possible family cemetery site. I noted several other instances at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Havre de Grace, Harford County, several weeks ago.

Locust fence post and the tree that took root from it.

As more of the land around Port Tobacco was resurveyed after the confiscations from Tories during the Revolutionary War and the many foreclosures after the war, such special markings may have become less necessary. The new tracts were surveyed more meticulously and there were fewer vacancies between patented lands.

Find a stone that you think is an old boundary stone? Probably few were ever highlighted with oyster or glass--Theophilus Hanson was an unusually meticulous surveyor for the 18th and 19th centuries--but the combination certainly supports the possibility that it is a genuine boundary stone from the late 18th century.


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