Unearthing Clover Bottom’s Majority: Using Archaeology to Trace One Community’s Path to Freedom

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 28

Kathryn Sikes
Middle Tennessee State Univeristy

As interdisciplinary scholars, historical archaeologists get to wear many hats, often delving into archives or perusing historic maps and photographs, but it is in our fieldwork that we get to offer the public an alternative view of the past by excavating its artifacts, the remains of buildings, and telltale patterns on the landscape that speak for people who left little written record. In the field, we search for evidence that will allow us to retell the stories we think we already know about our history, using information that is not accessible through texts alone. This gives us an opportunity to balance our view of history by revealing the perspectives and experiences of people who were often poorly documented or unsympathetically documented

Clover Bottom Mansion.

Clover Bottom Mansion.

Over the course of the summer semester of 2015, I was joined in the field by graduate students from Middle Tennessee State University’s Program in Public History and undergraduate majors from the departments of History and Sociology & Anthropology to conduct a survey and preliminary excavation of Clover Bottom Plantation (Davidson County, TN). Funded by a Tennessee Historical Commission Federal Preservation Grant, the MTSU field school in historical archaeology sought to uncover new evidence for Middle Tennessee’s African American history during the first field season of a long-term investigation of the plantation’s 19th-century enslaved and emancipated majority.

Other historic outbuildings remain standing behind the mansion, including this small building of unknown function. It may have originally housed enslaved families or descendants who remained at Clover Bottom as free tenants after the Civil War.

Other historic outbuildings remain standing behind the mansion, including this small building of unknown function. It may have originally housed enslaved families or descendants who remained at Clover Bottom as free tenants after the Civil War.

Clover Bottom Plantation may be best known for the standing Italianate antebellum mansion behind its gates that is associated with the stories of the Hoggatt and Price families who owned the property from the 1790s through the early 20th century. Constructed in the early 1850s, this historic house currently serves as the offices of the Tennessee Historical Commission and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, behind the historic plantation house lie the archaeological remains of several other 19th-century structures that have other histories to tell. These were the buildings that housed enslaved and emancipated African American families who once made up a vibrant community of approximately 60 people. We know their number from the property’s 1860 census that lists each enslaved resident by age and sex, but the census does not name or describe individuals or families, or give much insight into their daily lives.

In contrast to members of the Hoggatt and Price families who left behind a wealth of historical documentation, the men, women, and children who made up Clover Bottom’s African American majority are known only through rare accounts in historical sources. In a memoir of his enslaved childhood on the plantation, John McCline provides us with fleeting glimpses of his family and neighbors in Slavery in the Clover Bottoms (edited by Jan Furman). His writings and other descriptions of the property reveal that in addition to Clover Bottom’s few remaining historic outbuildings, there were once many more antebellum structures on the property. These buildings would have left archaeological features in the ground as well as artifacts associated with their use that can tell us more about the ways Clover Bottom’s enslaved residents ate, socialized, worked, worshipped, and led their family lives. The remains of these buildings and their yard spaces, if located and excavated, have the potential to offer more information about African American families whose names and experiences were not as frequently or thoroughly recorded on paper as those of the Hoggatt and Price families.

The 2015 field season began with a shovel test survey to understand the site’s stratigraphy and identify patterns in clusters of artifacts on the landscape.

The 2015 field season began with a shovel test survey to understand the site’s stratigraphy and identify patterns in clusters of artifacts on the landscape.

Our crew began by thoroughly mapping the site and excavating small shovel test pits, placed at known locations and spaced at equal distances in the areas of the property that were most likely to contain the property’s slave quarters according to historic maps and documents. This initial shovel test survey was followed by larger square test units placed at locations within the property where available evidence suggested historic building foundations might be located. Artifacts were screened, collected, and labeled with their location on maps and field records in relation to standing historic structures. By these techniques, the crew succeeded in uncovering the outline of the northern half of one building that was almost certainly constructed sometime during the 1800s, but not abandoned until the mid-20th century. As the artifacts are identified, catalogued, and queried for spatial and temporal patterns in the lab this fall, we expect to be able to define more precise dates for this building’s construction, use-life, and destruction.

Following the shovel test survey, test units revealed the foundation of this building.

Following the shovel test survey, test units revealed the foundation of this building.

The building foundation explored by MTSU’s archaeological field school may be one of several former “quarters” that housed enslaved families on the property, perhaps even the remains of one of the buildings described by John McCline as erected during the 1850s under a new overseer’s management. Alternatively the remains of this excavated building may have had a specialized function other than housing (as in the case of a dairy, smokehouse, or icehouse) that reflects the labor performed by enslaved residents. As some quarters probably continued to shelter tenant families employed by the Price family following emancipation, their contents may also tell us more about the lives of freedpeople during Reconstruction, enriching our understanding of how Middle Tennessee’s formerly enslaved communities transitioned to free wage labor.

Artifacts from the building’s construction debris and destruction fill may allow archaeologists to date its construction, use-life, and abandonment, and to understand more about its function.

Artifacts from the building’s construction debris and destruction fill may allow archaeologists to date its construction, use-life, and abandonment, and to understand more about its function.

The summer’s survey and excavations were only the beginning of MTSU’s research into Clover Bottom’s history. As fieldwork is not the only job of historical archaeologists who wear many hats, project members are now engaged in expanded historical and genealogical research to understand when and how the building we uncovered was used, and who lived there. We are also now tasked with piecing together the meaning of our archaeological findings. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are currently helping to process the excavation’s artifact collection back in the lab on the MTSU campus, identifying and cataloging objects such as pieces of the plates and teacups that once decorated the tables of Clover Bottom’s resident families. We will soon be plotting the results of our shovel test survey on a site map, looking for patterns in clusters of artifacts that may indicate other long forgotten buildings or yard spaces. When the study is complete, we will produce a final report that integrates archival and archaeological evidence and submit it to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology with the excavation’s artifact collection for permanent curation.

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