Archeology and the National Constitution Center
Archeological excavations at the National Constitution Center Site were conducted between 2000 and 2001. Over half of the total area of the block was investigated. This area included the entire basement and foundation area of the new building.
During this work 131 brick-lined shaft features were discovered. These shaft features represented privy pits and wells. Large areas of historic ground surfaces were also found. These ground surfaces represent backyard areas associated with early house lots as well as streets and alleyways. These archaeological remains represent the best preserved and most extensive set of archeological resources dating to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries yet excavated in Philadelphia. Indeed, the large areas of well-preserved ground surfaces identified at the site are among the most significant finds of this type of resource in any east coast city. They represent one of the most significant American historical archaeology sites and constitute one of the largest, most well preserved examples of colonial American archaeology.
The excavations recovered information ranging from the pre-contact Native American occupation of the area through the late nineteenth century domestic and commercial uses of the block. The bulk of the material recovered dates from ca. 1750-1830, the period of the founding and the formative years of the nation.
Original development of what is now the third block of Independence Mall began in the mid-eighteenth century. At that time the area was on the periphery of the expanding city. As population grew, settlement expanded westward from its original foothold along the bank of the Delaware River. As the first property owners subdivided and sold plots to new owners, the block began to take on the pattern typical of the eighteenth century urban landscape: A densely populated quarter with small frame and brick buildings erected to accommodate homes and workshops of merchants, artisans and laborers.
In 1795 doctors, schoolmasters, and wealthy merchants lived side by side with whitewashers, bricklayers, shoemakers, and laborers within the narrow confines of what is now the NCC site. In addition to this economic diversity, the block also exhibited cultural and racial diversity. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the block was, for instance, home to Quakers, free and enslaved African Americans, and French and German immigrants.
This pattern of mixed residences and small workshops dominated the block until about the mid-nineteenth century when larger commercial and industrial enterprises began to locate on the block. By the early twentieth century commercial and industrial uses had largely, though not completely, replaced the earlier residential occupants.
The vast majority of the archeological material recovered during excavation of the site can be dated to the late colonial and early national periods of the sites occupation, and, thus, offers a window into the formative years of Philadelphia's and the nation's past.
One of the primary challenges faced by the Revolutionary generation and those who followed in the early federal years was how to unite a diverse and polyglot population into a single nation. This, too, was a problem confronting Philadelphia, first as the primary seaport city of British America and, later, as the nation's first city and temporary capital. As noted above, the NCC site was home and workplace for a cross section of this ethnic, religious, racially and economically diverse population.
Of particular note is the presence on the block of numerous African American households. In the decades leading up to the Revolution and during the third of a century following the war, Philadelphia was the birthplace of the largest and most important free black community in the United States. Here blacks built a series of autonomous institutions which supported the increasing number of newly freed slaves and, sometimes in cooperation with reform minded Quakers and other likeminded white residents, worked to abolish slavery and the slave trade.
These initial successes challenged the prevailing views of many concerning the legitimacy of slavery and demonstrated the ability of free blacks to rapidly and effectively build community institutions and to lead autonomous lives. These early efforts came under attack during the 1830s when a wave of virulent racism and anti-black sentiment swept the city and the nation. During this period African Americans were subject to assaults from urban mobs and disenfranchisement at the hands of the state legislature. These attacks left a large and vibrant African American community besieged, as it tried to hold its ground in the struggle to achieve racial justice. The story of this struggle to achieve justice and autonomy, and the reaction to these efforts, illuminates the larger tensions played out in the nation as a whole. Tensions brought on by the contradictory coexistence of slavery and subjugation in a nation dedicated, in principal, to freedom and justice.
As noted above, the presence of free black households on Block 3 were identified during background research conducted prior to the start of excavations. In April, 2000, a research design was completed which recognized the importance of studying this aspect of the site's history. This document identified the study of the lives of African Americans who lived on the block as one of the research questions that would be pursued during the excavation of the site. At least six households composed of free blacks existed on Block 3 in 1795 and African Americans lived on the block both before this date and through the early Federal period. These residents included Israel Bergo, a sawer, who lived on an interior alley at the back of a lot that was owned by Benjamin Cathrall. Cathrall was a Quaker schoolmaster who lived for many years on the lot shared with Bergo.
Excavation of the lot shared by Bergo and Cathrall produced significant archaeological results. At the rear portion of the lot a series of post molds and trenches were encountered. These appear to be the remains of a simple earthfast structure which probably served as home to Israel Bergo. Also recovered were glass beads, pierced coins, possible Colono ware ceramic fragments and other artifacts. Three dated (1750-1770) wine bottle seals bearing Cathrall family names were among the artifacts collected from within a privy deposit on the lot.
Little is known about Israel Bergo's history, but we do know that in 1794 he was one of 264 founding members of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. In 1783 Benjamin Cathrall was one of 500 Quakers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who signed a petition to the Continental Congress calling for the permanent ending of the slave trade. At least one other Quaker resident of the block is known to have signed this document. By the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia Friends, many once prominent slaveholders, had all but eliminated slaveholding among its members. As Quaker reformers moved the society toward an uncompromising abolitionist stance, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting also came to accept some responsibility for ensuring the temporal well-being of recently freed bondsmen. Adoption of this latter attitude may help explain how Bergo and several other African Americans came to be living on lots owned by Cathrall and other Quaker residents of Block 3.
Archeological resources such as those from the Bergo/Cathrall lot are an example of the extraordinary opportunity the NCC site offers to examine the lives of free blacks living in late colonial and early federal Philadelphia. In total, the lots of six African American households were excavated during the fieldwork conducted at the NCC site. Study of the material recovered from these sites is likely to contribute to our understanding of the emergence and development of a free black community in what was once the nation's capital and its largest city.
Archeology offers the opportunity to supplement the meager historical documentation on this important aspect of our nation's past. A persistent legacy of paternalism, indifference and outright racism has worked to obscure or hide much of the African American contribution to American history. Archeological evidence may, in some cases, be the only source of information to fill the gaps in an incomplete historical record.
The insights on the early history of the free black community gained through the study of the archeological data recovered from Block 3 can help address three themes identified in the Independence NHP's National Register Nomination. These themes are: The Founding and Growth of the United States, 1774-1800, Philadelphia, the Capitol City, 1774-1800, and the Underground Railroad at Independence NHP.
Did You Know?
An old broken bell, imperfect, yet one of the most powerful symbols of liberty in the world, the Liberty Bell bears a timeless message, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof” (Leviticus, 25:10)