Slaves living on a prosperous plantation on the James River in Virginia more than two centuries ago appear to have found ways to join in the flourishing consumer culture of the day, according to archaeologists from the College of William and Mary.
Excavations at the site of a new highway bridge near Richmond have turned up fragments of imported English ceramics, stemmed wine glasses, fancy buttons and other pricey items amid the remains of a log slave cabin.
Some may have come from the planter's house, said Tom Higgins, project archaeologist with the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research.
"But we also believe many of these objects may have been acquired by the slaves' own initiative. Slaves were in a real sense involved in the market economy of the region. They were able to sell crafts, and barter and make purchases at local stores," he said.
"Part of our goal is to explore the various means and ways that slaves could acquire these fancy goods, and this variety of goods, and how they could struggle to improve the quality of their lives and the conditions in which they lived," Higgins said.
The dig, on a bluff overlooking the James River, has also turned up traces of Indian occupations from as early as 3500 B.C. to the first contacts with the English in 1607.
"This may be one of the habitations depicted on Capt. John Smith's map of the region. That's especially exciting," Higgins said.
Smith, the military leader of the 1607 English settlement at Jamestown, led expeditions up the James and other rivers of the Chesapeake Bay. He explored and mapped the region and visited many tidewater Indian villages.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is to break ground Tuesday on a bridge over the James just south of Richmond. The work will destroy much of the archaeological site. The dig, begun last December, will be completed next month under the guidance of Higgins; Dennis B. Blanton, director of the archaeological center; and VDOT archaeologists Tony Opperman and Mary Ellen Hodges.
They believe the slave cabin was part of a tobacco plantation known as Wilton. Established in 1747 by William Randolph III, Wilton eventually grew to more than 2,500 acres, worked by as many as 105 slaves at its peak in the 1780s.
'Conscious of status'
Excavations elsewhere in the region have revealed that slaves on wealthier plantations of the mid-18th century lived better than those in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Higgins said. It was a time when white owners were busy acquiring the latest fashions and household goods from Europe.
"In my opinion, slaves by the 1760s were almost caught up in a consumer movement, so to speak, where they were more conscious of fashionable goods and fashionable dress," he said.
"I think they were really struggling and taking a great deal of initiative to improve the condition of their lives and were also much more conscious of status," he said. "There's no question that many slaves considered themselves to be of higher status than many poor whites. There are records of slaves going to the store and making purchases, buying ribbon to put in their hair and clothing-related objects."
At Wilton, despite evidence of a very crude log dwelling -- with the root cellars and mud-and-sticks chimney typical of slave quarters of that period -- the archaeologists found thimbles, a clothes iron and fancy buttons and beads.
"Researchers now are looking at slave crafts, avenues they had for earning money," he said. Although they may have been sewing for the Randolphs, "it's also possible women were sewing and mending clothes, and producing articles of clothing they may have been able to sell or exchange."
Docks gave access
The site is situated close to one of the plantation's ferry docks. Higgins believes the slaves probably worked at the landing, loading tobacco and unloading supplies.
"It would have been an excellent location to barter or make purchases from the boats," he said. "It's very likely many of these items were obtained without the Randolphs' knowledge."
Heavy ash and char at the site indicates the cabin burned around the time of the Revolution. Artifacts from a later occupation -- up to the 1830s and '40s -- include ceramics, bottle glass and food remains. But Higgins said it is not yet clear whether those slaves lived as well as their predecessors.
Wilton fell on hard times by the early 19th century as tobacco stripped the soil of its fertility. Visitors described the place as dilapidated. The number of slaves fell to fewer than 30 by 1833. Heavily in debt, the Randolphs sold it in 1846.
The plantation house was dismantled and moved to Richmond in 1932, where it is now open to the public.
Pub Date: 10/10/98