Project casts light on house lost to past

Arlington: Excavation of a historic Custis family home reveals clues about the lives of the 17th-century gentry.

September 08, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OLD PLANTATION CREEK, Va. -- It must have been a sight -- three stories of brick and mortar towering above the marshes and flat, sandy fields here where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic.

In the mid-1670s, a time when even the well-to-do were scratching to make a stake in the Virginia Colony, wealthy planter and tobacco merchant John Custis II outdid his fellow gentry, building a home historians say was the "most magnificent in the Chesapeake" on an isolated spot near the southern tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Now, more than three centuries later, the home Custis called Arlington -- one of five brick structures built in Virginia during the 17th century -- has piqued the interest and quickened the pulse of archaeologists, Colonial scholars and a small band of "dedicated amateurs."

They are conducting a methodical research project to unveil the secrets of the plantation where the disparate cultures of Europeans, African-Americans and Native Americans were interwoven on what one archaeologist described as "one of the most significant historical properties in the nation."

"What we're trying to do is to tie history together," says Elizabeth Mapp, a board member of the nonprofit Arlington Foundation. A group of Virginia Shore residents created the foundation in 1997 to block a developer's plans for a subdivision on the waterfront site, where Native Americans had lived for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.

"In some ways, it's more of a project for a sociologist than an archaeologist," Mapp says. "It goes beyond artifacts and whatever we can learn about this fantastic house. We want to find out as much as possible about the people and how they interacted."

Drawing on the expertise of researchers at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the College of William and Mary and various state agencies, the Arlington Foundation is about to offer the first public glimpse of artifacts painstakingly removed by archaeologists from the sandy soil. The 7.3-acre site today is a broad meadow that -- except for the graves of John Custis II and his grandson John IV and a historical marker -- offers not a hint of the story that lies below.

Artifacts gathered during excavations conducted off and on since 1987 will be on display at the nearby Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge beginning Sept. 24.

"Anything from the 17th century is important because it's a dwindling resource," says David Hazzard, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

"The whole site is significant because it offers a continuum from Native American settlement into the 17th century," says Hazzard, who is credited with discovering Arlington's foundation during a preliminary excavation in 1988.

The property is near the site of the first settlement of the Eastern Shore ordered by the Virginia Company of Jamestown in 1620, and it might have been the location of a large Native American town first mentioned by Capt. John Smith, Hazzard says.

The national prominence of the Custis family -- from Colonial times through the Civil War -- makes the effort all the more interesting, foundation members say.

It was Martha Dandridge Custis, widow of John Custis IV's son Daniel, who married a young military man named George Washington. Her great-granddaughter, Mary A. R. Custis, also married an Army officer, Robert E. Lee.

Included among the artifacts -- now stored in boxes in the foundation's cramped office in Belle Haven -- are the reconstructed fragments of a wine bottle bearing the impressed initials of John Custis, stoneware jugs and a foot-long chunk of masonry. The shard -- which has a recessed heart -- apparently was used as a decorative faM-gade in the mansion, probably a piece of the jamb above an attic window.

Although no drawings of the house exist, painstaking excavations of the site allowed archaeologists to mark off the 54- by 43 1/2 -foot outline of the structure with brick paving stones and to create a three-dimensional model of the manor house.

"This is a discovery that goes beyond the expectations of anyone who's studied Colonial architecture," says Cary Carson, vice president for research at Colonial Williamsburg, "It puts Bacon's Castle [the only brick 17th-century home remaining in Virginia] in the shade. It's twice the size."

In 1676, Arlington became the temporary capital of Virginia when William Berkeley, the royal governor, fled Jamestown during an uprising led by Nathaniel Bacon, builder of the aforementioned "castle." The rebellion was a protest against high taxes and inadequate representation -- foreshadowing the complaints of Colonists that led to the American Revolution a century later.

Artifacts found in the collapsed cellar at Arlington offered many clues to the construction of the house. The double cellar, unusual for the Eastern Shore, had a vaulted ceiling and a sump to remove water.

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