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Archeology and the Enslaved Laborers at Travis Plantation

Landscape of trees and grass
Marsh overlook at Jamestown Island. NPS photo.
A year after the Declaration of Independence was written, an enslaved man named Jesse escaped from the Travis plantation on Jamestown Island. His enslaver, Edward Champion Travis, published the following advertisement in the Virginia Gazette on October 31, 1777:

Run away from my plantation at Jamestown, sometime this last August, a likely mulatto man named Jessee, 17 or 18 years old, tall and slender. I expect he is either enlisted into the army or enlisted on board some vessel as a sailor and freeman. Whoever secures the said slave in any jail so that I get him again or delivers him to me at Queen’s Creek in York County, shall have 20 dollars reward.

Travis also offered a $100 reward for a 10-year-old child named David, who he believed had fled to Portsmouth with the idea of going to sea. In 1779, a 35-year-old man named Robert Bowland reportedly took up the British army’s offer of freedom and escaped the Travis plantation, boarding the L’Abondance headed toward Port Matoon in Nova Scotia.

The ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence were, ironically, written with enslavers in mind. Men like Travis who supported and participated in the American Revolution rationalized slavery in a nation that promoted ideas of liberty and freedom, despite the lived experience of many people to the contrary. Archeology at the Travis plantation brings to light what life was like for enslaved people during these contradictory times.

People left an archeological record on Jamestown Island dating back thousands of years. By the sixteenth century, Powhatan emerged as a leader of several chiefdoms of Virginia Coastal Plain peoples, ruling from villages such as Werowocomoco on the York River. The arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century set off the Anglo-Powhatan Wars, a series of raids spurred by the influx of colonists hoping to capitalize on tobacco, a cash crop that became the primary product of the Chesapeake economy. Yeoman farmers, or Euro-American families who worked on their own small plots of land, dominated the landscape until the early eighteenth century, when Virginia’s ruling class, or gentry, started to absorb smaller farms into their expansive plantations.
Jamestown House
Historic Jamestowne is the site of the first permanent English colony in North America. The National Historic Site consists of 22.5 acres on the western end of Jamestown Island, which includes the original site of the 1607 fort and statehouse site of the late 17th century. NPS Photo.
Euro-Americans’ reliance on slavery ushered in the Plantation Period, a time of high tobacco prices and economic prosperity that stimulated the change from small land holdings to larger plantation operations. By 1720, enslaved Africans or African Americans made up approximately 20% of Virginia’s total population. Wealthy Virginian enslavers monopolized Jamestown Island and divided it, with the Ambler family plantation on the western half, closer to the small Jamestown settlement, and the Travis family plantation on the eastern half.

Major Edward Travis inherited his family’s plantation - 1,652 acres of land - after his father’s death in 1745. From 1750-1758, he became involved in the slave trade. His sloop, the James Town, transported enslaved Africans from Barbados to Virginia. By the 1760s, nearly 90 enslaved Africans or African Americans lived on Jamestown Island between the Ambler and Travis plantations.

Travis enslaved 44 people on his plantation in 1768. They witnessed British threats to Jamestown Island in 1775 and the use of the Travis plantation for a base of operations during the American Revolution. We know the names of some of the Africans and African Americans through the Travis’ agricultural and financial records, but archeology has uncovered evidence of where they lived, the kinds of objects they kept in their homes, and how they used them.
Side by side blue and white pottery
The Travis family used ceramic vessels like this delftware (left) and stoneware (right). NPS photo.
Within a low-lying, interior wetland, bounded by wax myrtle shrubs and pine trees between the Thorofare and Passmore Creek, lies the likely location of the Travis plantation house and housing for the enslaved.

During the initial site identification, archeologists recovered over 700 artifacts dating to the mid-eighteenth century. About 40 of them were ceramic tableware, cooking vessels, or storage containers in styles including Rhenish blue and gray, English stoneware, delftware, white salt glazed stoneware, creamware, and pearlware. The array of styles reflects the Travis’ wealth and position as one of the colony’s prominent landowning families.
Red glazed ceramic mug
Enslaved people may have created forms similiar to coarse redware vessels like this Morgan Jones cup. NPS photo.
On the other hand, a domestic farmstead site located a half-mile away from the Travis home revealed a simpler structure and fewer styles of artifacts, suggesting that people enslaved by the Travis family lived there. Archeologists recovered about 40 artifacts, mostly pieces of brick and ceramic. The ceramic artifacts predominantly consisted of coarse earthenware datable only to the broader colonial period, but a few pearlware artifacts represent a pastel polychrome with a manufacturing date of 1795-1815. The ceramics were used for food storage, preparation, and consumption. The artifact scatter makes clear that the structure was a farmstead residence related to the Travis house, and possibly influenced by its material culture.

While archeologists previously assumed that enslaved people used ceramic vessels of European origin, they now understand that industrially manufactured ceramics were less available to them at this time. The coarse earthenware pots could be similar to colonoware, a type of ceramic made by enslaved people using local clays to mimic European vessel styles that has been found in archeological contexts at other parks. Potters who produced colonoware were asserting their position within an oppressive social order, creating similar household objects to challenge the racial hierarchy and attempt to close the gap between superior and inferior social statuses.

Archeology is a method of studying material assemblages, and these artifact scatters convey patterns of asserting personhood and using space to undermine the enslaver-controlled landscape. By maintaining agency and individuality in consumption, the enslaved created their own culture and constructed their own identity based on the ceramic artifacts that were left behind. Resilience is evident in their expressing their own sense of community belonging by adapting to a shared history that they were forced to live within.
Archeologists meet with community members
Archeologists meet with community members while excavating the Angela Site. NPS photo.
The transformation of Jamestown Island during colonial expansion was a response to a changing social climate, one in which a new social hierarchy emerged that was defined by a wealthy planter class supported by an enslaved workforce. The domestic farmstead provides insight into the lives of people like Robert Bowland, Jesse, or David. We might not know where exactly they lived on the plantation, or if they used colonoware or other types of ceramic vessels. But these archeological findings are a reminder that the enslaved residents played a role in the history of the Travis plantation and left their mark on Jamestown Island. These sites reflect not only the adoption of institutionalized slavery to support large plantation production, but also the enslaved African Americans’ adaptation of the ceramic wares associated with their enslavers.

Sources:

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Historic Jamestowne Part of Colonial National Historical Park

Last updated: January 27, 2022