Saturday, February 9, 2008

PTAP in Review

The Port Tobacco Archaeological Project began in August 2007. A small but merry band of professional archaeologists were quickly augmented by an equally merry band of volunteers as we set out to discover the archaeological deposits of an entire town, Port Tobacco. The town's origins stretch back to the early 1600s but it was not until the early 1700s that it became the port town for which it is known. Before the arrival of European settlers, Native American inhabited the area and local legend says that a village was once located within the current town limits.

Back to our merry band of professionals and volunteers (by the way, many of our volunteers have more archaeology experience than your average professional and several are graduates of the Certified Archaeological Technician Program), we began our work in the south end of "downtown" Port Tobacco. Shovel test pits were excavated at 25-ft intervals with the goal of identifying the locations of remnant building foundations, roads, trash deposits, and anything else no longer visible on the surface. The heat and drought made the digging difficult but we were rewarded with artifacts in every one of our test pits.

Using the late 1800s maps of the town, we could correlate some of the deposits to known buildings and property owners. But, our finds were not limited to the 1800s. We recovered material from the 1700s and possible the 1600s, and even Native American artifacts that are hundreds to thousands of years old. Our excavations continued into early December and in that time we recovered over 25,000 artifacts.

The archaeology of Port Tobacco is unusually rich. The reason for this is the same reason for the town's demise. Soil erosion brought sediment into the Port Tobacco River at such a rate as to choke off the port of Port Tobacco. The town's economy could not recover from the loss of the port and the move of the County courthouse to a railroad town. People left Port Tobacco. The sediment that filled the river also blanketed the town, preserving it for archaeologists of the future. In addition, a lack of new development kept these deposits from being disturbed. What we have at Port Tobacco we have because of the demise of the town.

Our main goal is to recover the history of Port Tobacco, from Native American occupation right up to the present time. We are working with the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco which has already reconstructed the 1800s courthouse and restored one of the three remaining 1700s houses. More reconstructions are planned, as are interpretive displays and trails.

To the passerby, Port Tobacco is gone. To the archaeologists and historians working there, Port Tobacco is being resurrected. If you would like to join us, just say so. We accept volunteers of all levels for everything from archival research using your home computer to field or laboratory work at the site.

The Port Tobacco Archaeological Project is a grant-funded public archaeology project, which means that we want the public to be involved and we want the public to benefit. That is the main goal of this blog, to let you know what we are doing and to allow you to participate.

Please note that the properties that comprise the town of Port Tobacco are all privately held. Please do not trespass on private property. We have landowner permission for those properties included in our archaeological study. The Port Tobacco Courthouse is the only property currently open for public tours.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Tomorrow is the last day to submit a logo idea for our contest. If you have submitted a logo but did not see it posted here then please resend it to me. In fact if anyone has sent email to my Yahoo address and not received a response I apologize. Yahoo has been sending a random portion of my incoming mail straight to th trash for weeks now and I have only just discovered the issue. They acknowledge that it is a server problem, and promise to fix it soon.

Tomorrow is also the start of the 6th month of our blog! In honor of the event I am working on a recap post to bring any new readers up to speed. I am not sure which day it will be posted but it will go up soon.

Have a good weekend.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

More Than 200 Years of Confusion

Pete and I continue piecing together the various land patents that comprised the area in and around Port Tobacco. The pieces often are difficult to fit together and today, we found an important reason why we often encounter trouble. Take a look at the plat for Moore's Ditch Resurveyed, dated January 1, 1790, and patented (Certificate 756) for 305 acres.

As you can see, surveyor Theophilus Hanson noted the placement of Moores Ditch relative to three other tracts: Goodrichs, Lines [aka Lynes] Delight, and part of Beeches Neck. Notice the profusion of lines? These tracts overlapped in some areas and, in other areas, were separated by vacant lands.
Even Theophilus Hanson, with his precise distances and bearings, could not make perfect rational sense of the patented lands. He contended with 'elder' surveys that were not only imprecise, but inaccurate. Broken topography and rolling hills, thick forest in some places, and crude surveying instruments (that probably required, but seldom received, periodic maintenance and recalibration) contributed to the confusion. Surveyors also were aware that magnetic north constantly shifted and they tried to account for the change when resurveying older tracts by assuming one degree of variance every twenty years.
The result is a hodge-podge of surveys that can be reconstructed and related to current maps, but there remains always a degree of imprecision and uncertainty.

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.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Execution in Port Tobacco

The New York Times is proving to be an interesting source of information about Port Tobacco. The edition of February 10th, 1877, details the capture, arrest, and execution of two men for the murder of John W. Everett. Surprisingly, it was the first execution in Charles County in 52 years.

Mr. Everett was a store clerk who was found bludgeoned in an upper room of a store in Glymont. Several people were immediately arrrested for the crime, but released for lack of evidence. Col. L.W.B. Hutchins of Charlotte Hall took over the case. Soon after, Charles Henry Simpson and Martin Henry were arrested and carried to Leonardtown. They were then removed to Port Tobacco for trial, convicted after 3 days, and sentenced to hang.

Apparently, back in the day, a public execution was a festive occasion. On February 9th, the streets of Port Tobacco were packed with thousands of spectators, anxious to see the hanging. Simpson was described as a "blood-in-the-eye-nigger" and Henry as "not as sharp." The execution was completed by 11:30 am and the bodies buried by 1 pm. The crowds went home.

As they say in the business: "That's entertainment!"

Monday, February 4, 2008

Research Update

Well it's been close to two months now since we were last in the field and I can't wait to get warm weather back to go out again!

As Jim stated the other day we are working on several different aspects of our research at the moment. I have been (and still am) working on digitizing all of the maps and plats and deeds that we can get our hands on to make some semblance of the Port Tobacco town and surrounding area.

I am also working on going through the State Archives to find anything on Port Tobacco, Charles Town, and Chandler's Town, all of which are the names for our wonderful town. The other day I came across two different supplements to laws in the 18th and early 19th Centuries that intrigued me. Here they are:

Session Laws, 1801 Chapter XVII
A Supplement to an act, entitled, An act to establish and regulate a market in Charles-town, in Charles county, and to prevent perfons from suffering goats, hogs and geese, to go at large in the laid town.

Hanson's Laws of Maryland 1763-1784
An ACT to prevent the raising of geese and swine in Elizabeth-town in Washington
county, Leonard-town in Saint-Mary's county, and Charles-town in Charles county.

Now the question is why? Commerce seems to be the most likely culprit. Let me know what you think.

- Peter

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Post About Port Tobacco From Elsewhere

Today, a Civil War blogger posted a letter about Port Tobacco, written in 1863. This is the second Charles Bates letter written from Port Tobacco to be posted on the Crossed Sabers bl The first letter is here.

According to Charles Bates, he and his company took up residence in the courthouse, almost exactly 145 years ago. He describes the courthouse as newly painted and renovated but describes the rest of the town as "played out".