On May 21st, Bill Sullivan’s American Studies class hosted Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, the State Archeologist, and Dr. Bruce Greene, an archeological consultant, to make an assessment of an old chimney and sunken foundation site that the class discovered at the edge of the Academy’s eastern property. Lester Smith, Suffield Town historian, also accompanied the class for his second visit to this interesting fireplace, which is comprised of large river bottom stones. Dr. Bellantoni and Dr. Greene were unable to date the structure during this visit and gave us suggestions for conducting more research. As this curious site warrants more study, they offered to return in the fall when the vegetation declines, and depending on weather conditions, help us begin a more formal archeological testing of the area.
Sitting on top of a gentle hill in what was in the 18th century called “Beech Swamp,” the site is positioned at the southeastern edge of the Reverend Ebenezer Gay’s 18th and 19th century “Ministry Lot.” The class wondered if this site was a dwelling of the slave(s) who worked for the minister. The 1790s Federal Census listed the Reverend Gay having five slaves. The class also studied documents that proved that two generations of slaves served the Gay family from 1742-1812. The general question for colonial scholars of the Connecticut River Valley is where did the slaves live? Though the legend and lore of Old Ti dramatizes his duties as sexton and tithing man, it is likely that Old Ti did not perform these duties until after his manumission in 1812 to his death in 1837. It is more probable that Old Ti was working in Ebenezer Gay’s eastern fields until his manumission. Moreover, the minister added considerable eastern tracts of land to his original “Ministry Lot” holdings before he passed away in 1796. And when the class considered Ebenezer Gay’s prodigious travels listed in his diary entries, his duties of tutoring young men into Yale, the stewardship of the first town library in his home as well as his general duties of minister, we reasoned that the daily operations of colonial Gay Manse required a labor force to cultivate and manage its eastern fields and pastures. In fact, many colonial ministers in Connecticut are documented slave owners.
Monday was Dr. Bellantoni and Dr. Greene’s second visit to campus. Bill invited them to make a site assessment of Gay Manse last July after hearing them deliver a lecture on Colonial Archeology at a Wethersfield Historical Society program in March of 2011. Because of the tree canopy over Gay Manse, the patio and the rear structure extending east from the kitchen, the archeologists were unable to locate a midian (colonial garbage area with artifacts that exhibit the habits of the inhabitants). Though the team’s ground penetrating radar did discover remains of the old hotel on the north side of Gay Manse, the team could not point to an area of artifacts that would help explain the details of the colonial inhabitants of Gay Manse. Their advice last July was to look for evidence of slavery in the eastern fields. So this year’s class embraced that challenge well and even starting looking before the winter term began. During the opening weeks of the spring term, when the weather was ideal and the land dry, the class made a few productive forays and found evidence of old pastures and fields where Old Ti likely worked. Then, with the help of Mr. Vianney, we located this chimney site and examined it more closely with the lens of a disenfranchised dweller in the early nineteenth century. We also studied articles from the Connecticut Historical Society publications that contextualized similar sites for slaves after manumission trends at the turn of the 18th century. So, when we reflected about where Old Ti might have lived after his manumission, we found ourselves constructing this theory about the site. Who else would live at the edge of the minister’s property?
The class spent over an hour on the site today with the archeologists discussing and probing the site for more clues. Dr. Bellantoni and Dr. Greene helped us wonder and see multiple viewpoints about this site. In fact, they looked around and found under nearby leaves even more stones associated with the site. Though there are a few hunting clubs in West Suffield, a hunting cabin seemed unlikely because of its proximity to town and its placement between the western end of the original 17th century “Feather Street” lots and the eastern end of the Main Street lots. Nevertheless, that position returned the conversation back to a possible connection to Gay Manse and the Ministry Lot. Although there were no 19th century artifacts discovered today, Dr. Bellantoni did think that the site warrants more study. Next steps include removing underbrush and clearing a larger area around the remnants of the foundation, as we learned today that typically the more compelling artifacts that will help us create a narrative are the one outside the dwelling rather than in it. Such a step will help us gather “domestic debris,” which will help us understand the inhabitant(s) better. Then with guidance from the archeologist in the fall, we can make a grid of the area and begin looking for surface artifacts before digging for more evidence. We should also in the meantime consult with an historical architect who might know more about colonial chimney design. In addition, as the local historical documents do not tell us anything about this dwelling, an oral history project involving alumni and townspeople who knew the area well in the 20th century could provide more evidence for this intriguing residence.
Though this year’s American Studies class may not be on site for the mapping and digging next fall, they do appreciate the process of archeology. The class rightly considers themselves pioneers in the east campus, as they responded with enthusiasm to our Project Based learning approach. It was their interest in the east woods to lead us to this discovery. They know that Mr. Sullivan will continue to investigate the questions in this area and update them through tweets and posts on the blog.
As it was a fifteen-minute walk in the woods to and from the site, the class had a good time walking and talking with the archeologist and sharing how we learned of the site and our other discoveries this year. We also shared how attended Bruce Stark’s great lecture on Colonial slavery in Connecticut at the State Library in the winter. Though they were not in attendance, they heard about how compelling it was. One of our many take-a-ways that day was that the bailiwick of archeology is to test theories. Research, map, organize, make associations, and dig for the truth. Today we learned that lesson for the process of archeology first hand.