J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Washington’s Wine Bottles?

The Northeast Museum Services Center of the National Park Service has an Archeology Lab, and that lab has a blog. Back in February it posted, “Did These Bottles Belong to George Washington?” as the hook for an article about finds at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge.

The posting says:

Between 1759 and 1791 the house was home to several families. Both families were interested in botany and horticulture and purchased many plants for the yard. Evidence of fruit bearing trees, rye grass, cactus, and butterfly wings all speak to both the indigenous and exotic plants on the property.

The Longfellow house served as headquarters for George Washington and his officers from July 1775 to April 1776. During Washington’s 9 month occupation of the house, his steward, Ebenezer [actually, I believe, Timothy] Austin kept meticulous account books of expenses for food, drink and household goods. The account books list orders for mutton, fowl, butter, eggs, fish, smoking pipes, a sugar pot, and an earthen platter. . . .

The well-preserved biological material adds some additional clues. Seeds, eggshell fragments, and oyster shells, and animal bones were well-preserved in the feature. Fish, goat, chicken, rabbit, and rock dove are all represented. Seeds from a muskmelon or cucumber, apple or pear were also recovered from the basement and are listed as being purchased during Washington’s time in the home. Three cherry stones were also recovered and Ebenezer Austin entered payment for cherries in at least two different days in August 1775. One half of an olive pit was also recovered. Austin does not list any purchases for olives, but records from 1772 and again in 1783 document that George Washington ordered olives for his household in Mount Vernon. . . .

So how can we be certain that this trash deposit dates from the mere 9 months that George Washington occupied the house? We simply aren’t sure yet. The detailed accounts by Ebenezer Austin are extremely helpful and remind us that Historical Archaeology is a combination of historic research, architectural analysis, and archeological excavation.
That last paragraph acknowledges that it’s nearly impossible to tie artifacts to a particular nine months out of the house’s first thirty-two years. I suspect that Washington’s name comes up only because:
  • We have his household accounts because he submitted them to the Continental Congress for reimbursement, and we don’t have such detail for the people who lived in the mansion the rest of the time.
  • Gen. Washington’s a much bigger celebrity than John Vassall, Nathaniel Tracy, and Andrew Craigie, the other men known to have headed that household in the late 1700s.
But I suspect the archeologists know that very well. This is really a study of the garbage of an upper-class household in late-eighteenth-century New England. All the families, personal or military, who lived in that house probably shared a similar lifestyle when it came to the dinner table.


John L. Smith said...

Mr. Bell, your reality statement of: "This is really a study of the garbage of an upper-class household in late-eighteenth-century New England." should be the truthful title of the study, but hey. What PR sizzle does THAT have?! As always, I love your un-PR spin that you offer to all of us. To me, authenticity is always more entertaining.

J. L. Bell said...

My bet is that the report has or will have a pretty staid title reflecting the best science and history, but this blog post was written to bring up the most interesting possibilities for the public.