Archaeological work provides glimpse of colonial-era Mathews

Charlie Koenig - Posted on Sep 07, 2011 - 04:23 PM

Photo: Some of the items found include hand-wrought nails, a piece of wine bottle and pipe stems.

Some of the items found include hand-wrought nails, a piece of wine bottle and pipe stems.

Although Mathews County has its share of historic buildings—from New Point Lighthouse and its courthouse to the Tompkins Cottage, just to name a few—there’s a wealth of history hiding just inches below the topsoil.

And thanks to the hard work of some amateur archaeologists, an important piece of that history is being revealed to the public; a discovery that could one day result in Fort Nonsense being listed on the National Register of Historic Places twice … once for the Civil War earthworks that give the site its name, and a second time for the colonial-era domestic site underneath.

"We think this is a major find," Forrest Morgan said of the roughly 800 artifacts that have been unearthed, all dating from 1700 to just before the American Revolution. "It will be a project that will tell us a great deal about the history of Mathews County," he said of the ongoing dig.

Morgan, vice president of the Middle Peninsula chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, also heads the education/archaeology committee for the Mathews County Historical Society.

The discovery came about quite by accident. A tree had fallen on the property and, trapped within the roots, were a number of artifacts, Morgan said. Then, he said, a shovel test was conducted nearby. "This was just a lark," he said. However, "we found quite a few things in that hole." Following those initial discoveries, a more systematic search was begun along grid lines. Work is expected to continue there for some time, the men indicated, although the earthworks will not be disturbed.

While there have been no military artifacts found at the site of the earthen fort, volunteers have discovered a number of early 18th century pottery and glass shards, pipe stems, oyster shells, wrought-iron nails, bones and other items that indicate that a home, or possibly a tavern or ordinary, stood on this site more than a century before the Civil War, said Tom Karow, a volunteer archaeologist and member of Morgan’s MCHS committee.

While the site does not contain the quantity of artifacts that would indicate the location of North End Plantation, it is located on land once owned by John Williamson Page (1720-1780) and may have some connection to that important colonial figure. Page, the son of Mann Page of Rosewell, was married to Jane Byrd, daughter of William Byrd of Westover.

According to lore, the North End Plantation house was destroyed by fire during the revolution, although there are varying and contradictory accounts about this, Morgan said. In fact, one account claims it was burned during Gen. Benedict Arnold’s Virginia raid, although Arnold was never in the area, he added.

"It appears to be a domestic site," Karow said. However, "the high-end ceramics don’t indicate a farmer," he added. One theory, Karow said, is that this site, being at the highest traffic point in the area and only about two miles from John Clayton’s clerk’s office, could have been an ordinary, an inn, serving travelers coming here to conduct legal business.