By Kelly Palich, Howard County Recreation and Parks, Upper Patuxent Archaeology Group
Located north of the Fall Line, the Upper Patuxent River valley is located within the Piedmont Plateau, an area characterized by rolling hills and many rivers and their tributaries. During early colonial settlement, this area was considered “barren”, or without timber, thought to be caused by the common Native American practice of burning large areas to encourage use by wild game (Mayre 1955). As a result, this region was believed unfertile and often described as “remote and not likely to be settled in sometime.” (Mayre 1921: 128).
As arable land became less available throughout the tidal region, and more settlers immigrated to Maryland, tobacco plantations began to appear north of the Fall line as early as 1720. Over the past year, archaeologists and volunteers with the Upper Patuxent Archaeology Group (UPAG), and staff from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) have investigated the Raven Site (18HO252). Normally inundated by the waters of the Patuxent River backed up behind Brighton Dam, the Raven Site represents one of the earliest colonial tobacco plantations documented archaeologically in Howard County. The goal of our investigation was to relocate a previously identified subfloor pit feature, and attempt to locate a purported early 18th century plantation house and outbuildings while waters in WSSC’s Triadelphia Reservoir were in retreat due to scheduled dam maintenance.
The Raven Site was initially identified in 2002 by archaeologists Wayne Clark and Paul Inashima, while surveying the area for Native American resources (2003). During their survey, they observed fragments of Rhenish Blue and Gray and Brown Salt-glazed Stoneware, and a fragment of a 17th-century Bellarmine Jug (these artifacts were not collected and could not be relocated in subsequent investigations). It was later speculated that this area might have been the location of a late 17th- to early 18th-century ranger station, which served to protect plantations on Maryland’s frontier. The site was recorded, but no further work was conducted.
During a period of historically low water levels in 2006, archaeologists and volunteers from The Lost Towns Projects, Inc. conducted a three-day salvage investigation, including a controlled surface collection and non-ferrous metal detecting survey, to document this site and protect it from the immediate threat of looting. Archaeologists identified a core 200 X 200 foot area consisting of a high concentration of artifacts, as well as a possible subfloor pit feature. The investigation also entailed archival research on the location of the site. What they found proved that the area was in fact not a 17th-century ranger station, but an early-mid 18th-century tobacco plantation, one of the earliest settled in the Piedmont region of Anne Arundel County (Howard County was not established until 1850 – present day Howard County was the western hinterland frontier of Anne Arundel).
In 1732, Thomas Hutchcraft, planter, received a 175-acre patent, “Hutchcraft’s Fortune”. Thomas Hutchcraft, born in Surrey, England in 1696, immigrated to the colonies with his wife Hannah and established his plantation after his initial land purchase. In 1748, he purchased a second 302-acre patent, “Victory” adjoining his “Fortune” land. He eventually sold off land from his plantation, selling 50 acres of “Victory” to Robert Wright in 1756, 415 acres and three enslaved laborers to Phillip Hammond, and 54 acres of “Fortune” to William Ray Junior in 1764. Prior to his death in 1770, he sold the remaining 361 acres of his land holdings to Benjamin Purnell, including the land that contained his house site.
We have recently acquired Hutchcraft’s probate inventory which lists his belongings at time of death. His estate, valued at 315 pounds, placed him in the middling socioeconomic bracket. Upon his death, he had six enslaved laborers and four white servants in his employ (minus the three enslaved persons he sold to Phillip Hammond in 1756). He owned much livestock, including a steer, cows, hogs, sheep, and horses. Perhaps Hutchcraft was one of the earlier farmers to diversify his crops, for he is listed as having wheats, oat, and corn aside from Tobacco crop. He is also listed as having a hand mill and two spinning wheels, which suggested other means of income within the household. Records such as these are extremely valuable for archaeologists when analyzing material culture from the field!
During the 2006 investigations, The Lost Towns crew recovered 1,120 artifacts, most of which dated between 1700-1780, and represented a middling tobacco plantation. Artifacts recovered included a variety of ceramics, pewter, brick and window glass suggesting at least some level of wealth (see the slideshow below). Given the general size of the plantation acreage, and the fact that Hutchcraft owned several enslaved laborers, this again supports his status as a middling planter of the early to mid-18th century.
The 2006 investigation was able to determine a relative date for the site and locate (but not fully excavate) one cultural feature (Feature 1). An analysis of artifact distribution allowed archaeologists to interpret the possible location of the original structure. Due to severe soil deflation, further work was not deemed critical, but further research on the feature was recommended to fully understand the history of site occupation.
The 2019-2020 season saw another period of dam repair and draught and another round of historically low water levels. The Upper Patuxent Archaeology Group was contacted by WSSC staff, who were interested in further research on the Raven Site. Our initial goal was to continue to document surface distribution, conduct a non-discriminating metal detecting survey (to locate nail patterning or “nail clouds” for structure identification), and relocate the feature identified by the Lost Towns Crew in 2006. We aimed to conduct further excavations that would interpret Feature 1 and help determine whether or not the Hutchcraft home site was truly located.
During the initial 2019 round of surface collection, we were able to document and retrieve at least 2,000 additional artifacts (number pending lab processing), as well as relocate Feature 1. Metal Detecting also identified nail clouds in an area outside of the original 200 X 200 foot survey grid, identifying the potential location of buildings associated with the Hutchcraft Plantation.
Based on our surface findings, a larger grid was established (400 X 400 foot square), encompassing the original 200 X 200 ft area as well as additional locations of interest exposed in 2019. After several attempts at relocating the original grid datum, we were able to pinpoint the area where the feature was most likely located and four 10 X 10 foot units were placed. Luckily, since the soils were heavily deflated due to water action beneath Triadelphia Reservoir, it did not take long to strip the very thin layer of silt and expose Feature 1.
Given the size of the feature (an irregularly-shaped pit measuring at least 8 X 10 feet) and the presence of daub and a lot of burnt and butchered bones, a quick field interpretation identified this feature not as a sub floor pit in a house, but a clay borrow pit later filled in over time with trash and butchering waste. A clay borrow pit, archaeologically speaking, is a hole or pit that was intentionally dug to extract natural clays for the making of brick or daub for construction. Other artifacts, including sleeve cufflinks, tobacco pipes, ceramics, and horse hardware were recovered. The variety of artifacts further supports a later trash deposit.
While a great quantity of hand wrought nails were recovered from Feature 1, little architectural evidence was documented. During the initial controlled surface survey and metal detecting, however, another area, outside of the original 200 X 200 foot grid, yielded a great quantity of window glass and a few clusters of nails, suggesting the presence of a decent-sized structure. The concentration of nails identified during metal detecting piqued our interest and we reached out to Matt McKnight, Chief Archaeologist at MHT, to seek his assistance with remote sensing. Our hope (with dam repairs complete and the waters in the reservoir rising) was that remote sensing could help us further identify buried features in a timely manner.
With the help of Matt, Zac Singer and Troy Nowak of MHT, we were able to survey a 50 meter (north-south) by 40 meter (east-west) area at the eastern edge of our survey area. Data recovered using a Fluxgate Gradiometer and a Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) were combined and mapped along with some of the UPAG nail cloud and artifact data. While most areas within our original 400 X 400 foot block did not present anything substantial, the southeastern portion of the remote sensing area, remarkably close to the current waterline, presented interesting data!
The gradiometer results suggested that a number of anomalies were situated in the eastern and southeastern portions of the remote sensing survey area. But it was the GPR that really revealed what was present in those areas. Technology is amazing! The MHT crew was able to detect a roughly 45 x 80 foot anomaly, a probable foundation with a possible porch abutment on the northwest side of the house (facing the original river channel). The short axis of this structural anomaly appears to fit perfectly in-between the two concentrations of architectural artifacts as sketched by field crew (the two blue polygons in the image below). This could possibly correspond to the front and back entrances of the house! Naturally, as any archaeological project goes – you always find the most exciting piece of information on the last day possible and thanks to rising waters and the global pandemic that has kept us all home bound, we haven’t had the chance to get back out to do more investigating!
We are in the process of cataloging and analyzing all the data thus far collected and hope to revisit the site as soon as we can! As of now, this is the earliest and northern-most documented middling tobacco plantation on the Patuxent River, and we hope to learn a lot through further investigations. Much of the “official” colonial history of Howard County begins with the Ellicott brothers. Hopefully, this site will shed new light into the period of colonial settlement that preceded them. At a time in Howard County history where many farmers were switching from Tobacco as cash crop to a more diversified economy, it will be interesting to see how these changes play out archaeologically!
If you are interested in volunteering with this project or have any information to share regarding early 18th century plantation archaeology in the Piedmont, please contact Kelly Palich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clark, Wayne E., and Paul Inashima
2003 Archaeological Investigations within the Duckett and Triadelphia Reservoirs – Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. On file at the Maryland Historical Trust, Crownsville, Maryland.
Luckenbach, Al and Lauren Schiszik
2006 The Raven Site (18HO252): An Early 18th Century Plantation in Howard County. Maryland Archeology 42(2): 15-23.
Mayre, William B.
1921 The Baltimore County “Garrison” and the Old Garrison Roads. Maryland Historical Magazine 16(2).
1955 The Great Maryland Barrens: I. Maryland Historical Magazine 50(1-3).
Schiszik, Lauren and Al Luckenbach
2006 A Controlled Surface Collection and Metal Detector Survey of the Raven Site (18HO252) at Tridelphia Reservoir, Howard County, Maryland. Prepared for Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission. Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation. On file at the Maryland Historical Trust, Crownsville, Maryland.