Looking for Comparisons: Shirley Plantation Duplex Quarters in Virginia

One of the difficulties in working with archaeological material is that our data set is inherently incomplete. While looking at what people from the past have left behind does give us a glimpse into their lives that we may not otherwise get, it also means that we are not getting the full picture. In addition to not being able to examine the items that weren’t left behind, we also only get to examine broken parts of the leftover ceramics and bottle glass. Rarely do we have full artifacts to analyze. Similarly, we may not excavate an entire site, due to time or financial constraints, or other parts of the site may have been destroyed. We do the best with what we have in order to draw the most accurate conclusions. The historical record can be helpful in this regard, since it may fill in some blanks, or provide additional evidence to support a conclusion. Another way we can help support our conclusions is by using other archaeological sites that are comparable to the one we’re studying. In this case, there is a site in Charles County, Virginia that holds a number of characteristics in common with St. Mary’s Manor.

Shirley Plantation is the oldest plantation in Virginia, founded in 1613 along the James River, near Williamsburg, Virginia. It has been occupied by 11 generations of the same family, the Carters and was home to the infamous Robert “King” Carter. The Great House, completed in 1738, still stands, and is an iconic representation of the idyllic 18th century mansion. The Carters were slaveholders, and the African American slaves who lived and worked on the plantation tended to almost all of the plantation tasks, ranging from work in the manor home as servants and cooks, to blacksmithing and carpentry, to working the fields. In 1850, Hill Carter owned 115 slaves (click to see the documents), and by 1858 had just over 1000 acres of land. The plantation’s cash crop was wheat. While almost three times as many slaves were owned by Carter than Brome in 1850, this difference probably had much to do with a regional difference, as with a legacy of wealth: the Carters had been a large, well-established, elite plantation family for many generations in a state that was firmly entrenched in slavery. Dr. Brome, on the other hand, was in the process of building his wealth and status in a state that had been moving away from slavery. Nonetheless, it is likely that, since Dr. Brome lived in St. Mary’s County, that maintained its support of slavery well past Emancipation, plantations such as Carter’s would have served as a model for success.

Read about Maryland’s Changing Dependence on Enslaved Labor during the 19th Century

The similarities emerge when Hill Carter built nine duplex slave cabins in 1843 (Leavitt 1981). Excavations were conducted at the site of one of these quarters, identified by a still standing double-hearth chimney. A map showing the plantation in 1858 identifies this site as one of seven cabins, located in a row about a mile from the manor home. In 1979 and 1980, excavations were conducted on one of these quarters, and compiled in a Master’s Thesis by College of William and Mary graduate Student Genevieve Leavitt.  A controlled survey collection was also conducted, and verified the location of the other quarters, while an architectural comparison was drawn with another duplex quarter located elsewhere on the 19th century Shirley property. It is likely that this building was one of the two remaining quarters built in 1843, but not on the 1858 map.

The excavations and architectural analysis of the duplex quarters at Shirley and the duplex at St. Mary’s Manor are remarkably similar. All three have a double hearth chimney in the center of the building, and were divided into two separate rooms by a dividing wall. They are all a story and a half high, and have two doors on the front side, providing separate access to each cabin. At Shirley, archaeologists identified these doorways by looking at the distribution of ceramics around the perimeter of the building, arguing that broken plates would have been discarded or swept out of the quarters through doorways. They lined up perfectly with the doorways on the still standing quarter (Leavitt 1981).

The remaining chimney and excavation units at Shirley Plantation’s 19th century duplex slave and tenant quarter (from Reinart 1984).

The distribution of ceramics and the still standing quarter also suggested a third door on the backside of the duplex, sitting in the middle of the two cabins. The architectural analysis shows that this door had been added at a later date, likely after Emancipation, when the duplex served as quarters for a tenant family (Leavitt 1981). While this architectural feature is not part of the duplex at St. Mary’s, the expansion of a duplex slave quarter into a two-room, single family home is identified by the creation of an internal passageway between the two rooms. In both instances, therefore, the duplexes were reused and expanded by the tenant inhabitants.

Read about the transition from a duplex to a single family home at St. Mary’s Manor.

[one_half]The existence of a slave quarter row, as identified in the 1858 map and the archaeological survey, also provides an important comparison for our site. Our own survey suggests that a row of quarters may have existed, and evidence that it was a form of plantation organization in the Chesapeake during the same time provides further evidence that Dr. Brome may have employed it at his own plantation. Additionally, it also provides an additional methodology for examining and identifying these remains. Because Shirley has both historical documentation and archaeological verification of that documentation, it can be relied on as an analytical approach to identifying similar slave quarter rows at sites without historical documentation. Because similar artifact collection methods were used at St. Mary’s, we can reanalyze our data to verify the validity of our own conclusions.

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The map of Shirley Plantation from 1858 showing the row of duplex quarters on the left (from Leavitt 1981) [/one_half_last]

Having a comparative site is useful when it comes to drawing conclusions about why the material record looks the way it does. In this case, the value of having two other quarters with a passthrough, and archaeological and architectural evidence pointing to the transitional period being after the Civil War, provides additional support for the conclusions that we have drawn about our duplex. While we can draw a a conclusion independently of the Shirley buildings, identifying similar patterns strengthens our argument. As our analysis continues, we will continue to look at the Shirley plantation assemblages, and their extensive historical documentation, as an aid for better understanding the lives of the slave and tenant families at St. Mary’s.

I am planning to visit Shirley Plantation and also with some architectural historians who had worked on the project. This is being generously supported by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who is providing a one-month fellowship to look at some of these materials.


1981     Leavitt, Genevieve

Slave and Tenant Farmers at Shirley Plantation: Social Relationships and Material Culture. Ed. Norman F. Barka. Masters Thesis. The College of William and Mary.

1984    Reinhart, Theodore R.

The Archaeology of Shirley Plantation. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia.

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