In 2005–2006, an interdisciplinary archaeological investigation accompanied the City of Maysville’s use of a backhoe to lay PVC pipe in trenches that connected more than 70 properties currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The excavations were carried out to bury public utilities for the historic district of old Washington in Mason Co. Archaeologists monitored these machine excavations on behalf of the city, while studying the archival, architectural, and archaeological evidence for several generations of this important 18th–19th century town. From each of the 70-some properties investigated, the project recovered soil formation data, artifacts, and in many cases intact built features such as relict buildings, backfilled shafts, and buried pavements.
Previous archaeological investigations at Washington include the Stallings & Ross-Stallings excavations in the backyard of the Albert Sidney Johnston House and preliminary survey excavations at 15 properties, conducted by Nancy O’Malley. Both previous investigations established that the soils of Washington retain evidence of buried architectural ruins and the midden (trash) deposits of early settlers and latter-day occupants, a conclusion confirmed by the 2005–2006 excavations.
As expected, recovered artifacts include a huge sample of 18th- and 19th-century ceramics, glass, and iron; the ceramics and glass indicate that the frontier generation of settlers had fewer possessions than modern people and that most of their possessions were handmade. In contrast, the sheer volume of materials owned increases with industrialization and market access in the early 19th century. The surprise came in the high quality of the 18th-century “frontier” ceramics: creamware, tin-glazed earthenware, and Chinese export porcelain found next to long-stemmed clay tobacco pipe fragments.
What made the investigations unique was the rare opportunity to examine both the private properties and the public infrastructure of an entire town. Washington retains deeply buried, well crafted urban public landscapes that are remarkable in their extent. Most of the town was built in what we would now call a wetland (the settlers called it a pasture). Already in the 1790s, the town required its citizens to assist in building flagstone sidewalks above the quagmire. The town today still has flagstone sidewalks, but the originals survive under the current surface, on the same alignments. When Washington was at the height of its power in the first quarter of the 19th century, every street intersection was graced with pedestrian crosswalks composed of end-laid limestone, set across the slope, in a technique stonemasons call “surface drains.” The entire town was once laced with dry laid stone drainage culverts, built in several styles, including box drains with huge limestone flags as lids, big enough for an excavator to crawl through. Taken together with the dry-laid stone fences typical of the Bluegrass, these findings indicate that Washington at its height must have presented a manicured air of prosperity and civil order. But all those civic improvements were buried and forgotten, leaving only the buildings to tell the story.
Washington has been subject to repeated Historic American Buildings Survey documentation ever since the 1930s and includes more than 90 properties recorded in the Kentucky Heritage Council’s historic resource inventory. Washington is one of the only towns left in trans-Appalachian America where the architecture of the frontier survives side-by-side with high-style textbook urban townhouse architecture of the Federal period. The cabins themselves are steeple-notched or half dovetailed, often with a Tidewater chimney and solid-panel shutters, built on stone footers rising out of the wetland muck. For the Federal period, there are fanlights, Flemish bond brick masonry with corbelled cornices, multipane windows, and basement windows with wooden pegs instead of glass. Paneled rooms with clever cupboards and elaborate fireplaces also are intact. Conventional wisdom evokes an American frontier in which poor people wrested private property from the remote wilderness by the sweat of their brows. What the archival investigators found defies that conventional story of the frontier, while confirming the settlement models proposed by Richard C. Wade in his The Urban Frontier, as well as the burgeoning aristocracy on Kentucky’s frontier, as suggested by Craig T. Friend in Along the Maysville Road. In 1959 Wade suggested that the trans-Appalachian frontier was populated from new urban cores growing out into pacified hinterlands, reversing the mythic order of isolated homesteads growing into cities.
Washington was built as such an urban core and could proudly claim that it was never subject to American Indian attack. Frontier settlers foolish or desperate enough to settle on land removed from Washington often fell victim to the attacks that feature so heavily in the Draper Manuscripts and other frontier accounts. In 2005 Friend proposed that yeomen were socially eclipsed by an aristocracy early in Mason Co.’s history. Most of the first settlers were either young male entrepreneurs with capital to invest or indigent families with nothing to lose. Already by 1779, improvement claims, then called “preemptions,” were illegal. Most of the pioneers on this frontier were tenants. By 1796, Washington had passed suffrage ordinances making the ownership of land prerequisite to voting privileges, at a time when most town residents were renters.
Eyewitness Harry Toulmin noted that in Mason Co. in 1793, the value of an estate of 100 acres could be doubled with one year’s labor in improvements.
A tenant farmer in a single year could double the value of his landlord’s investment; hence, most tenants chose to continue moving West rather than
settle here permanently. If their arrival and departure from the county fell in the interval between censuses, we will never know their names.
However, we now have ample evidence for their landlord’s refined porcelain and a remarkable urban infrastructure supporting refined early Federal surroundings.
Friend, Craig Thompson. Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2005.
Miller, Orloff. “Archaeological Investigations at Washington, for the City of Maysville’s Utility Burial Project, Mason County, Kentucky,” Orloff Miller
. “Archaeology of Washington, Mason County, Kentucky,” a lecture presented to the Central Ohio Valley Archaeological Society, April 19, 2007.
O’Malley, Nancy. A New Village Called Washington. Maysville, Ky: Old Washington Inc./McClanahan, 1987.
Toulmin, Harry. The Western Country in 1793: Reports on Kentucky and Virginia. Ed. Marion Tinling and Godfrey Davies. Reprint, San Marino,
Calif.; Henry E. Huntington Library, 1948.
Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959.
Orloff G. Miller
Above excerpted from page 936 – 937 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY ISBN 978-0-8131-2565-7