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Description of Site
Architecture and Preservation
African Retentions and Symbolism


A Brief History of the Plantation
Who Lived There?
Sharecropping and Tenancy
Oral History
Past as Present in Brazoria County


Levi Jordan

The Abandonment Question

Why did the tenants leave the Jordan plantation? And why did they leave so many things behind?

See also the section of the interview with Ken Brown which deals with this issue.

This is one of the objects that was left behind. See Shell Carver's Cabin for more details about this object.

Questions or Comments?
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After the Civil War, as described in "Continuity: How do we know this?", many of the previously enslaved people continued to live and work on the Jordan plantation until sometime in the late 1800’s. Because of the huge numbers of artifacts left behind, and because they were left in patterned ways, it appears that, for some reason, when people moved away they took few of their possessions with them. (See "Archaeology").

Why? The kinds of things they left behind were useful, functional, and sometimes even valuable and beautiful. Early on Kenneth Brown and his students started developing hypotheses about what might have happened. One early hypothesis was first described in an article written by Kenneth L. Brown and Doreen Cooper in 1990 (4):

"From an archaeological point of view, possibly the single most important event in the history of the quarters is that their occupants were forced to leave. A large percentage of artifacts thus far recovered represents the preserved remains of possessions abandoned by the occupants as they were forced to leave. The historical documents do not indicate exactly when this abandonment occurred. Several lines of evidence – including family oral history and two civil court cases, however, suggest that it happened sometime in late 1890 or early in 1891. This forced removal has resulted in the preservation of an important set of artifacts representing items that were hastily abandoned by their owners. Further, the materials have been recovered in positions relatively close to the place of their use."

The court case mentioned above was described in more detail in Dr. Brown’s "Material Culture and Community Structure: The Slave and Tenant Community at Levi Jordan's Plantation, 1848-1892" (2):

"…in 1892 four of Jordan’s great grandsons (the Martins) took sole possession of the northern portion of the plantation, divided it among themselves, and evicted the tenant/sharecropper families from their quarters. This eviction appears to have been the result of a court case which involved the McNeills and the Martins. During this case, two of the tenant/sharecroppers (both of whom had been slaves on the plantation) testified against the Martins. Once the case was settled in favor of the Martins, they appear to have exacted a tremendous price for this testimony. The eviction took the form of removing all members of the tenant/sharecropper community without their being permitted to take any of their possessions with them."

[to see an early paper on this topic, based on first two years of data, see Doreen Cooper’s page].

So, was it really the court case, and the testimony of two of the tenants against the plantation’s owners, that caused the people who lived in the quarters to leave? Did the tenants choose to do so, or were they forced? What we do know was that they left, and that they didn’t take things with them that, if they were moving in a deliberate, unhurried way, we might assume they would have packed and taken with them to their new homes. While the court case no doubt had a great deal to do with relationships between the plantation’s owners and the tenants, it is likely that other factors also came into play.

Oral history conducted by Cheryl Wright several years ago suggested that perhaps the motivation to leave was, at least in part, a reaction to the general social and political atmosphere. When interviewing descendants of some of the plantation’s original black residents, she asked some of them why their ancestors moved away from the plantation. The only answer she was able to obtain was, simply, that it was "time to go" (this is mentioned indirectly in Mary Barnes' paper on this site, which does into much of the racial oppression that existed in Brazoria in the late 19th century).

In general terms, there was a climate of racial unrest and oppression in Brazoria (indeed, all over the South) in the late nineteenth century. This volatile social and political climate would likely have influenced any decisions made by the African-American tenants and the site’s European American owners. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations were increasing in power, and "Jim Crow" laws, enforcing the separation of the races in public places, were being enacted all across the south. Several descendants of Levi Jordan, both "Martins" and "McNeills", were founders of the local "White Taxpayer’s Association", and there is no reason to suppose that they had any different attitudes towards their former slaves than those of their fellow townspeople. (See "Past as Present in Brazoria, Texas").

It is worth pointing out, however, that relationships between people were as complicated then as they are now. Despite the racism that permeated the social environment, and the oppression driven by that racism and by perceived threats to the existing power structure, some members of the white community did have long and positive relationships with members of the African-American community. See our page on the Johnson family for an interesting story about Jerry Johnson and Calvin McNeill.

Added to all this, the main crop being used to support the plantation had changed – sugar production had given way to cotton and cattle production, and labor needs were different than they had been during the days that sugar was the primary crop. So, it is possible that the plantation’s owners felt that they simply didn’t need the services of the tenants any longer.

Ongoing research continues to shed light on this question. Recent historical documents examined by Mary Barnes and Ken Brown has indicated that some people were probably leaving the Jordan place before 1890, and that they may have left partly because of financial pressure placed on them by the site’s owners, who owned mortgages on their possessions from loans made to buy seed and other farming supplies. It also appears that many tenants had already been purchasing land in the area, and by the time 1890 came they may have been able to leave the place of their previous enslavement and move to homes on their own land. Robert Harris is also continuing to look at this question archaeologically.

What do you think? If you have some information or ideas to share that will help us to understand why the residents of the tenant quarters left, and why they left so much behind, please post a question to our feedback form, or email Carol McDavid at mcdavid@publicarchaeology.org.

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Carol McDavid 1998