Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How we're using GIS

The work that I’ve been doing for the NEH grant has so far included many components.  Recently, most of my time has involved collecting historical information concerning the neighborhood surrounding the Indian Camp property and then putting this information into ArcGIS, a computer program that allows us to better see spatial relationships.  This historical research is an important component of archaeology. As we have not found any maps or documents that show the exact location of the original property or its original slave dwellings in relationship to the modern landscape, this research is important.  Searching for slave cabins is difficult enough with a map, and without one can be even more difficult.  Any piece of information that can help us narrow down our search, in this case, the location of property boundaries, can be immensely useful. More broadly, I have been digging through the records of the past (pun intended) to recreate a dynamic neighborhood and to explore the relationships between members of this neighborhood.

Indian Camp was once part of the Virginia frontier.  Francis Eppes had one of the earliest land patents in the area.  Eppes patented the Indian Camp property including 2400 acres in 1730, but never lived there. In his 1733 will, Eppes divided this plantation into two halves, giving his daughter Ann 1200 acres, or “the lower moiety”, while his other daughter Martha received the remaining 1200 acres, the “upper moiety.” The land that I have been researching includes both halves of the property in addition to the neighborhood surrounding this property.

Our first goal is to find slave cabins associated with this site from the time that Eppes patented the property in 1730 until Jefferson, who married Eppe's granddaughter, sold the property in 1777.  Our second goal is to understand the social context of this property through its owners and the slaves who lived there. Studying Eppes’ property and the land around it helps show how land was consolidated by individuals and by families and how landowners controlled access to roads and navigable waterways.

Putting patents and their subsequent divisions into ArcMap has allowed us to gain a better understanding of the neighborhood dynamics that we can’t really understand from the documents themselves – who had the largest parcel, who had the best access to transportation, who had the shiniest Cadillac and the greenest grass (or their 18th-century equivalents).  Young men living on one piece of property might marry young women living a few properties over, so land was exchanged and consolidated between neighbors. Landownership was also divisive: people went to court over land and property disputes.  All of these transactions were documented in court records, which are the records that I’ve been researching.  Members of this neighborhood was highly involved in each other’s lives.  Plotting land patents and deeds in ArcMap has allowed us to see just how this was so.

After I made a series of maps from the historical resources, I could start looking for patterns. Combined with additional research, relationships between neighbors are clearer.  I could conduct a basic analysis of who were the more influential and powerful members of the neighborhood based on acreage, access to navigable waterways, streams providing good tobacco land, and access to roads.  The length of time that a specific piece of property stayed in a given family can also be evaluated. I also did some research to find out landowners' social rank prior to moving into the neighborhood. Most lived in other counties in tidewater Virginia and their holdings around Indian Camp were outlying quarters.

ArcGIS has helped visualize these spatial relationships.  The next part of this process for me will require additional research into these families’ histories. Many of these men who settled the lands around Indian Camp did not come because of a lack of opportunity in their home counties or due to failure in business or agriculture.  Instead, it appears these patentees were quite successful.  Other questions that continuing research will help clarify are the length of time land stayed in a family and the ways in which families dominated portions of the neighborhood by acquiring land in proximity to other family members.  Long-term connections between family members through land ownership have already been made clear.  These connections were a consequence of the expansion of family ties with marriages, births, and friendships. A final part of the process will be attempting to put enslaved individuals and families back on the landscape to try to understand neighborhood from their perspective. Barbara Heath is working with me on this research and is currently collecting information from wills, inventories and tithable lists.

People's shared experiences, networks, relationships, and connections actually make a lot of sense when they are viewed in conjunction with maps produced with ArcGIS and augmented with documentary sources.  Useful tools such as ArcGIS can help archaeologists better understand the power dynamics of the past.

Crystal Ptacek

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