Discovering Mathews County’s lost history

Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jun 25, 2010 - 12:13 PM


Five 17th century archaeological sites have been discovered in Mathews County by the Middle Peninsula Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia. The organization will display its findings from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday during the Gwynn’s Island Festival.

The sites aren’t being identified by the ASV-MP to protect them from relic hunters, said members Forrest Morgan and Tom Karow in an interview Monday, but they did say that two sites are located along the East River and one is on the Piankatank River.

Workers, under the direction of archaeologist and chapter president Thane Harpole, turned up over 1,200 fragments of such 17th century items as a Bartmann jug, English delftware, and German westerwald stoneware. There were also pieces of gravel tempered earthenware, a wine bottle, Case bottle necks, and English and Virginia pipestems, all dating to the mid-to-late 1600s. One site yielded a number of belt buckles that might be as old as the late 1500s, said Morgan, since Virginia colonists often received shipments of old, outdated supplies from the English government.

Photo: Tom Karow, left, and Forrest Morgan, members of the Archaeological Society of Virginia–Middle Peninsula, will have a variety of 17th century Mathews artifacts on display Saturday at the Gwynn’s Island Festival. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Tom Karow, left, and Forrest Morgan, members of the Archaeological Society of Virginia–Middle Peninsula, will have a variety of 17th century Mathews artifacts on display Saturday at the Gwynn’s Island Festival. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

No one really knows much about what happened in Mathews County during the 17th century because county records being kept in Richmond were destroyed by fire during the Civil War.

When historians have no official land records or wills to refer to, they typically have to rely on family records such as letters and diaries to reconstruct events, but not many of those have turned up in Mathews County. Therefore, said Morgan, "we only know about these sites through archaeology."

Mathews County might seem a bit out of the way in today’s land-based society, said Morgan, but during the 17th century it was part of a water-based transportation system, and it was located in Gloucester, Virginia’s largest and most populated county. Kingston Parish, which was located in the area that became modern-day Mathews, was supposedly the wealthiest parish in Virginia.

"Mathews would’ve been the place to be in the 1600s," said Morgan, "which tells us there are sites all over the place."

He and Karow suspect that Mathews County is rich in potential archaeological finds, both post-European colonization and pre-historical. The site that ASV-MP has spent the most time on was once a tobacco farm. Called the Bailey Site simply as a way to identify it, the dig has been determined to be of national significance and will be under consideration for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, said Morgan.

Pre-historic sites also abound in Mathews, said Karow. While many people have found arrowheads that indicate Native American villages or campsites, there are other pre-historic items that are not so readily identifiable. Tools, tool-making equipment, and fire-cracked rocks have been found at 35 sites along Mathews shorelines, indicating the presence of Native Americans.

Morgan and Karow said they’d like more information on artifacts in Mathews County, and hope they’ll hear from people who’ve found such items. They promised they wouldn’t divulge the source if the owners so desire. Any information would be filed in a database accessible only to archaeologists and technicians.

Morgan and Karow are participating in a two-year program to become certified archaeological technicians under the auspices of Harpole and archaeologist Dave Brown, founders of the Fairfield Foundation in Gloucester. They hope that others will become interested in the archaeological history of Mathews and join their efforts. "As we add more people, we’ll do more projects," said Karow.

Both men were excited about their ongoing efforts.

"We’re rediscovering the lost history of Mathews County," said Morgan. "It’s all still out there; it’s just a matter of finding it."

Anyone who has discovered possible archaeological artifacts or who is interested in the work of ASV-MP may call the Fairfield Foundation at 804-694-4775.