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Levi Jordan Plantation



by Doreen C. Cooper, M.A. (Kenneth L. Brown, Ph.D., Project Archaeologist)

Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Historical Archeology, Kingston, Jamaica, January 1992


Doreen Cooper

As Doreen explains in her paper, this paper was written in the very early years of the Jordan Plantation Project. Therefore, some of the interpretations here have been revised since this paper was written, because of new data. However, it will give you a good sense of some of the questions being asked very early on, when Ken Brown and his students were first realizing the extent of the kinds of information that might be available from this archaeological deposit, and first looking at the abandonment question.
Doreen Cooper 1992
Not for citation without permission of the principal author,
doreen_cooper@nps.gov. References for in-text citations to be provided at a later date.


The research made the basis of this paper was done in the early years of the Levi Jordan Plantation archaeological project, and was the basis for my master’s thesis, which was completed in 1989. This paper is based on data which was current at that time, but is now slightly out of date since work on the project has continued. Because this site had such research potential, I wanted to consider some topical issue related to ethnicity, status, or political or social hierarchies within the slave/tenant farmer community. It soon became apparent that all of those topics were dependent on the identification of a definable vertical provenience that could be tied to the time period when the buildings were occupied by slaves and later tenant farmers. The central problem which I addressed, then, concerned the analytical identification of a zone of materials within the artifact deposits which could be called an "abandonment zone."

After the first excavation season in 1986, it was apparent that this was a very well preserved, seemingly intact site. Part of the reason for this is that the land is still in the hands of family heirs, and no new construction has taken place in the former slave area. As we dug that first year, we found the remains of the brick foundations and fireplaces for the slave dwellings, along with an extremely high quantity of artifacts. Indeed, up to 1989, over 33,000 artifacts were catalogued from a 2500 sq. foot area alone; none of this area included a cistern, and none was more than two feet deep. Naturally, as excavation and artifact cataloging have continued, those figures are increasing. To help control the provenience of such large quantities of artifacts, in 1987 a decision was made by Dr. Brown to subdivide each 5’ x 5’ excavation unit into 25 1’ x 1’ subunits. Not only were large numbers of artifacts excavated, there was a high quantity of artifacts excavated which are not normally found at sites, many of which were still in usable condition – pipes, buttons, buckles, thimbles scissors, large pieces of ceramic ware, almost whole iron pots, coins and even a complete pair of eyeglasses, as well as many beads and other pieces of jewelry. Usable padlocks, most still in a locked position, were also excavated. A toy gun was excavated; on its handle was the phrase "The Chinese must go" It was during the first field season that there began to be a consideration of abandonment as the process responsible for the formation of the archaeological record at this site.

"Abandonment," however, can mean very different things to the archaeological record. Several studies of gold mining camps in the Yukon by Marc Stevenson (1982) have compared the differences between a gradual, planned abandonment and a rapid, unplanned abandonment. Where the abandonment of a site is known or planned, there is a much smaller quantity of artifacts, and these artifacts consist mainly of secondary refuse such as tin cans tossed out of cabins, and broken or exhausted items. In contrast, a rapid, unplanned abandonment has as its archaeological correlates a large quantity of artifacts, many of which were in a usable condition when deposited. The site would also contain artifacts which are not normally found at a site because they would have been curated by the occupants. Lastly, these artifacts should be excavated in or near the places where they were last used. On the Levi Jordan site, all except the last condition was readily apparent before 1987.

There are several key factors that determine the type and quantity of de facto refuse at an abandoned site – the most important here would be (1) how quickly the abandonment took place; and (2) if there was an anticipated return.

It can be hypothesized – based on historical sources such as the ex-slave WPA autobiographies, Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) and Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1979) – that after Emancipation there was a great migration of the ex-slaves from the plantations on which they were enslaved to former plantation area, to seek relatives and friends from whom they had been forcefully separated. Indeed, according to an 1862 diary entry from Sarah McNeill, Jordan’s granddaughter, we know that Jordan purchased ten slaves from North Carolina in that year. Therefore, there could have been planned abandonment episodes at this plantation site which occurred after the end of the Civil War. However, although Sarah’s diary entries from 1866 to 1867, the year she died, indicate that the Jordan family had more trouble getting and keeping servants, nowhere is it indicated that there was a wholesale abandonment of the plantation by the former slave following the Civil War. Court records which contain plantation records from the 1870’s show that tenant farmers for Jordan heirs produced cotton of their own for sale.

It is important to consider that, according to various historical sources, a model of the material culture of slaves or tenant farmers would be the possession of few worldly goods. This was especially true after the Civil War and Reconstruction, when by all accounts the rural South underwent an economic crisis from which many locations are still emerging. When a freed slave would have left a plantation, without anticipating his or her return, what possessions were not portable were probably passed along to those staying behind, thus creating a dearth of material culture items in the cabins which people planned to permanently leave. If these abandoned areas were then used as trash disposal areas, why would there be reusable or curational artifacts? Why then were we finding all this stuff?

If it was because the former residents were forced out hurriedly, when did it happen? Most of the coins excavated date from the 1850’s to the 1870’s. Most of the ceramics are what I call "junk" whiteware, with no maker’s marks, a popular type in the late 1800’s, but not leading to any definitive mean ceramic date for the site. The toy gun with the inscription against the Chinese could either be tied to the Boxer Rebellion in China, or a response to the Chinese presence on American railroad gangs and in agricultural labor. The logical step was to examine the oral and archival information we were able to obtain relating to this site.

Oral history relayed to us by the Jordan family descendants indicated that there had been some kind of family dispute which persisted to the present, and which may have involved the former slaves in some manner. Hard data on the number of slaves on this plantation was contained in census records from 1850 and 1860, but none of their names were recorded. In the 1870 census, when the former slaves in Brazoria County were recorded under their own names, it is very difficult to tell what plantation each person had lived on, or were still living on. Records from the 1880 census are similarly inconclusive, and there are no census records from 1890. The diary kept by the Jordan granddaughter from 1858 to 1867 only mentions several slaves, and these solely by a first name. Although archival research in this area is continuing, it was not immediately possible to tell if and when Jordan’s former slaves left the Jordan Plantation. From the agricultural census records of 1870-1880, one can speculate that the decrease in sugar production and the concomitant rise in cattle may have led to a decline in the need for agricultural labor.

More light was shed on the issue of possible abandonment when we gained access to court papers filed in two lawsuits which arose from the execution of Jordan’s will. Although Jordan died in 1873, the lawsuits were not filed until 1891, and the case was not over until a lower court’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Texas in early 1892. From these court papers it was learned that some of the former slaves had testified on behalf of Jordan’s grandsons, Calvin and J.C. McNeill. When the McNeill grandsons lost those lawsuits, the plantation house and some of the surrounding land, including the slave/tenant farmer quarters, went to the Martin side of the family. We now think that it was in retribution for this court testimony that the tenant farmers were finally forced to leave, possibly as told to us by Jordan family descendants, in the middle of the night, literally at gunpoint. This historic event forms the hypothesis for archaeological testing for abandonment at the tenant farmer quarters on the Levi Jordan Plantation.

Based on this assumption of a rapid, unplanned abandonment, it was necessary to be able to identify it archaeologically. If you have never dug in the humid, semi-tropical coastal environment what we have at the Plantation, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Here, although the remains of brick from the walls of the quarters make up a distinctive soil layer, the soil below grades from a dark brown clay loam to a slightly darker brown clay loam with no distinctive soil zone changes visible. The brick layer is uneven, both horizontally and vertically, with artifacts spread throughout. Although soil changes later became visible in the soil profiles, they are not immediately visible when excavating. At this site, it is necessary to differentiate between three distinct zones: the post-abandonment layer which consists of the physical remains of the buildings and the subsequent soil deposition, the former living surface inside the buildings, and the below-floor deposition. Each of these zones is the result of both natural and cultural formation processes. As I came to realize, a building slowly deteriorating does not fall down in one neat level. The wooden floor inside the cabins in these long buildings would have rotted and fell down unevenly as the below-floor supporting joists rotted and fell. The top zone excavated is thus not only the result of normal soil deposition, but also of the slow deterioration of the buildings following the their abandonment and subsequent sequestration, followed by a much later looting of the brick walls of the building. The below-floor deposits should be the result of cultural behavior - loss or a deliberate caching of artifacts below the floor. To differentiate between these zones for later behavioral analyses, I devised a model based on laboratory analysis of artifact categories.

The abandonment model which I used is as follows:

(1)A co-occurrence in the vertical distribution of "curatable" artifacts, including large fragments of ceramic and/or glass. "Curatable" artifacts included buttons, pipes, cutlery and other utensils, pots, coins, jewelry, toys, and other personal or grooming artifacts. Since an intensive ceramic study had not been completed, which would have given a vessel count, ceramic and glass fragments were studied separately from other curatable artifacts because the recorded weights provided an idea of the size of the artifacts, which is an important differentiation of above-floor and below-floor deposits.

(2)In an abandonment zone, there will be a rise in the total artifact count which will be mirrored by a rise in the number of both curatable artifacts and ceramic and glass artifacts.

(3)Artifacts excavated in a room, or residence, which was rapidly and forcibly abandoned would show an uneven distribution of artifacts across the floor, because of the differential use of space by cabin occupants, versus a more even distribution of artifacts across the floor, because of the differential use of space by cabin occupants, versus a more even distribution of artifacts across the floor of a building used for trash disposal.

(4)Artifacts found in an abandonment zone can be distinguished from those in other zones by comparing the count of curatable artifacts and the ceramic/glass weights to a mean for the artifact category.

Out of each chosen 5’ x 5’ excavation unit, a set of five 1’ x 1’ excavation subunits was chosen from a random numbers chart (Shennan 1988: 341). Graphs of artifacts studies in each subunit were then produced and analyzed.

In summary, it was found that in cases where there was a normal vertical distribution of artifacts there was the expected co-occurrence of curatable artifacts with large glass and ceramic fragments. Here it was fairly easy to assign several levels to an abandonment zone.

The second expectation, the concurrent rise of the Total Artifact Count with the research artifact categories, was not fully met, and may have been a flawed assumption. At times the peak in the research artifact categories occurred beneath that of the Total Artifact Count. The probable explanation for this discrepancy is that architectural hardware from the post-abandonment time period of the building has inflated the artifact count, and it is the rise in the curatable artifacts which signals the beginning of the abandonment zone. At other times, an inflated Total Artifact Category occurs in the lower elevations, and is due to a plethora of small faunal artifacts.

A detailed examination of charts prepared for each study subunit revealed that there was a great deal of variance in artifact quantities between subunits. This fulfilled the third expectation of the differential use of floor space in an occupied building which would have been preserved in a rapid, unplanned abandonment. While it was difficult, if not impossible, to assign an abandonment zone to these subunits with low artifact quantities, it will also be much easier to assign these areas to walkways or other special use areas within the cabin. This was also true when compared to artifact means and standard deviations. However, it was more difficult to fulfill the fourth expectation, that of using artifact means to assign levels to an abandonment zone. With a larger sample size, this may ultimately prove to be a fairly reliable method.

By identifying an abandonment zone composed of artifacts which had to be left behind by people forced out of their homes and not allowed to return, it will be possible to then study groups of artifacts which were in use by the occupants immediately before passing into the archaeological context. They were not refuse, and were not subject to discard behavior before being excavated. The rest of the papers in this symposium will examine the behavioral aspects of this archaeological record.




1.Co-occurrence in the vertical distribution of curatable artifacts with large fragments of ceramic and/or glass.


2.In the abandonment zone there will be a rise in the total artifact count which will be mirrored by a rise in the number of both curatable artifacts and ceramic and glass artifacts.


3.Since there is differential use of floor space in an occupied building, there is a resultant uneven spatial distribution of artifacts across the horizontal space, versus a more even distribution of artifacts in a trash midden.


4.Artifacts found in an abandonment zone can be distinguished from those in other zones by comparing the count of curatable artifacts and the ceramic/glass weights to a mean for that artifact category.



1.In the case of unexpected, or forced, abandonment, there will be a large quantity of artifacts left behind by the former residents.

2.The archeological site will contain artifacts which would normally be curated by these former residents such as usable vessels, clothing, coins, eyeglasses, and other personal items.

3.These artifacts, assuming no later human or other interference with the archaeological deposit, will be excavated in or near the places where they were last used.

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