The Rebel’s Rest Research Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 15

Sarah C. Sherwood 
Dept of Earth and Environmental Systems, University of the South

The University of the South, also known as Sewanee, a small private liberal arts institution on the Southern Cumberland Plateau, is engaged in a multidisciplinary research project focused on a house site in the center of campus known as “Rebel’s Rest.” The large log house burned during renovations in the summer of 2014 and was damaged beyond repair.  This unfortunate event presented the opportunity to bring together faculty, staff, students and volunteers to learn more about this long standing touchstone of the University’s history. Using a combination of archival research, “forensic” architectural history, historical archaeology, dendrochronology, dendroecology, archaeobotany and archaeological chemistry, the project is currently illuminating aspects of the house’s construction and the everyday life of its occupants, building a picture beyond the limits and inherent biases of written records. The project is co-directed by the University Associate Historiography Gerald Smith and University Archaeologist Sarah Sherwood.


“Rebel’s Rest” University Guesthouse as the structure appeared after a light snow in 2008 (photo credit: Woodrow Blettel).

In 1857, the founders of the University, clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses throughout the south, chose Sewanee as the place to build the University of the South. The site of Rebel’s Rest has been located at the center of the University, literally and figuratively, since the school’s inception. Among the University founders was Bishop Leonidas Polk, a wealthy planter in Tennessee and ultimately first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. Archival documents reveal that in 1860 Polk built a three-wing “rustic but comfortable cottage” on the site for his family and to entertain and conduct official University business. The Polk house was constructed of both hewn logs, sawed timbers, and milled lumber, and contained a large study housing an extensive library. Arson took the Polk house soon after it was completed in April 1861. Mrs. Polk, her children, and their domestic slaves were in the house and all survived, but the house and its contents were severely damaged causing them to abandon the site as the American Civil War began.

After the Civil War, as the University’s founding fathers (excluding General Polk who was killed in the war) returned to the mountain in an effort to start again. Among those founders was George Rainsford Fairbanks who constructed a house on the Polk site in 1865. Major Fairbanks, who had fought for the confederacy, was raised in New York but had made his early adult home in Florida where he was an attorney, prominent state historian, citrus magnate, newspaper editor, author, and politician. Recalling his weariness from extended travels during the war, Fairbanks named his house in Sewanee “Rebel’s Rest.”  The house ultimately became the hub of his large family. Initially a simple story-and-a-half house with two small rear wings, the structure was modified many times in the decades following until it became a massive and complex house of nearly two dozen rooms. The house was set on approximately 7 acres in the center of campus and was known to have extensive gardens (including the first tropical plants brought to the Mountain) and numerous outbuildings. In its final years the Fairbanks house served as the University guest house.


(top image) Deconstruction of the house remains in progress (photo credit: Gerald Smith). (bottom image) Example of scaled elevation drawings prepared by Jane Millar including coded logs that are currently in storage.

Following the 2014 fire, University faculty and staff worked with Kerry Hix and his team from Antique Log Cabins to carefully deconstruct the remains preparing detailed maps and noting architectural features and materials as we went. The house was constructed with carefully cut timbers and precise mortar joints between the timbers. Although initially attractive, the box or square joints employed proved a poor choice for a massive timber house. Over the years these joints began to slip, and architectural examination shows many later repairs—utilizing wooden pegs, metal brackets and braces, bolts and even large spikes—made to keep the walls and especially corners trim and plumb.


1866 oak log cross-section from Rebel’s Rest. The dates of the growth rings are indicated based on the dendrochronology analysis. The outer rings have been removed to square the log. The rings would probably indicate a cut date around 1866. Quarter for scale. (photo credit: Patrick Vestal).

An important part of our project has been the dendrochronology and dendroecology, carried out by Patrick Vestal, Scott Torreano and Logan Stockton. Their objectives include 1) dating the additions to the original Fairbanks structure; 2) determine by way of “cut years” if any logs were recycled from previous structures, particularly the Polk home; and, 3) gain insight into the forests where the logs were harvested by quantifying release episodes and recruitment strategies using the tree-ring measurement data.

All logs in storage were cross-checked against the deconstruction data and those demonstrating high ring quantity, bark/cut year, and/or pith were cross-sectioned. Annual rings are measured to the nearest 0.001 mm with a Velmex stage and Measure J2X software and assigned to the correct calendar year using the program COFECHA.  Sixty-six oak samples have been dated thus far, spanning the years 1653-1875.  Ten American chestnut samples have been dated and their years range from 1711 to 1864. Continuing work is focusing on identifying construction periods. In addition to refining our understanding of the building, this study is making an important contribution extending the Cumberland Plateau tree-ring chronologies.


Excavation of the rear porch area in progress. Note the brick cistern (only ca. 6 ft deep). (photo credit: Sarah Sherwood)

Following deconstruction the archaeology began with faculty, staff, students and volunteers focusing on the back porch area (that had been covered in later additions) and the rear yard. Challenges to our work include the constant repair and updating of the house for at least 70 years including sections of new concrete foundations, excavation for replacing original floor joists riddled with termite damage, and numerous trenches representing the last 100+ years of gas, water and electrical utilities. In addition the site rests on shallow sandstone residual soils, essentially a palimpsest for the last several thousand years. As a result, little is buried and features are shallow. None-the-less the archaeologists are currently sequestered in the laboratory hard at work analyzing the >15,000 artifacts, using the opportunity to explore questions of the regions late 19th to early 20th century cultural landscape.

The artifact assemblage analyzed thus far suggests a range of household activities, various ages at work and play, and a history of high status material culture.  Relative to other upland sites on the Cumberland Plateau and elsewhere in the South this site has thus far produced a high percentage of porcelain, ornate colored glass, and pharmaceutical bottles. Toys are relatively abundant and appear to be high quality.

Tune in next year for the final results of the artifact analysis!