Whitehill Enslaved Laborers Project

“Still further on could be seen on an elevation “The Quarters'' where the farm hands and their families lived in white washed cottages, garden attached to each, and with their pip-pens, hen-roosts, etc. made up a number of comfortable homes”.

 
A close-up of a map in 1837 showing where the Friend's family home was, and the quarters of the enslaved people. A close-up of a map in 1837 showing where the Friend's family home was, and the quarters of the enslaved people.

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A Map and Profile of the City Point Rail Road by John Couty 1837

 

In the Spring of 2020, a team of archeologists from the National Park Service (NPS) Northeast Archeological Resources Program (NARP) and Resource Management staff at Petersburg National Battlefield (PETE) began work on a detailed evaluation of the Whitehill Field Quarters archeological site at PETE. The Whitehill Enslaved Laborers Project, funded by the NPS Civil Rights Initiative (CRI), uses archeology, history, and community engagement methods to discover and interpret evidence of the lives of families enslaved at the Whitehill Plantation in decades before the Civil War.

In the initial field session, NPS surveyed the roughly two-acre landform believed to house the remains of one or more quarters inhabited by enslaved families. The NPS archeologists explored an area between a wetland and a tributary of the Appomattox River. They used a combination of geophysical research techniques -- ground penetrating radar, soil resistance survey, and metal detection – and traditional archeological survey methods – shovel test pits, or STPs.

We searched the area for material evidence of the lives and dwellings of enslaved workers. Early results of that survey showed clear signs that the area had been inhabited intermittently for perhaps four thousand years. Remnants of life in the 18th and 19th centuries – fragments of bricks, household pottery, nails, bottle glass, mingled with a dense deposit of stone artifacts produced by Native American people perhaps as early as the Late Archaic period (2,500 – 1,200 BC). Other artifacts, including pre-contact pottery, suggested occupations later in the pre-contact era and during the Civil War and World War I.

The initial survey also clarified that the site had been thoroughly plowed after its occupation, meaning that soils and artifacts from the pre-contact and historic occupations were thoroughly mixed. While this made it relatively easy to excavate, it also raised several questions.

  • Where were the houses that the enslaved field workers inhabited

  • How were they arranged on the landscape?

  • What did they look like, and how were they organized and built?

  • Archeologists believe the quarters were temporary wooden buildings on small brick or stone piers; what would remain to find archeologically?

  • How could we disentangle the artifacts from the field quarters with those of a nearby stable, forge, and Civil War camp?

 
A black background with eleven artifacts displayed. Pieces of pottery, a glass bottle, a button, and an unknown object.
Artifacts found during shovel-test surveys in March 2021.


Further, the team wanted to know how we could commemorate the lives of the enslaved people at Whitehill. The story of the Civil War siege of Petersburg is the most well-known story that the park tells. Still, the battlefield landscape holds other narratives, including essential stories about the prevalence of the slave system in the years before the Civil War and tales of the lives of those enslaved and forced to perform agricultural labor on its plantations.

What could additional investigation tell us about the lives of people living at the base of the hill on the Friend Plantation?

 
Three archeologists dig into separate square units, in the middle of the woods.

Northeast Archeological Resources Program Archeologists do unit excavations looking for evidence of the enslaved field laborers quarters. August 2021

 
 

Records of the African Americans at Whitehill Plantation are lacking in detail. Their lives withhold essential stories about the slave system, of those enslaved and forced to perform labor throughout the United States before the Civil War. If you think you have a connection to those African Americans enslaved by the Friend family and the Whitehill Plantation, join the Descendant Community and share your stories.

Whitehill Plantation Personal Property Records 1850 (pdf 54KB)

Charles Friend Personal Property Records 1857 (pdf 42KB)

 
Sitting at a table is a female, black archeologist and a white male intern presenting artifacts.

Descendant Community Involvement

The Park is hopeful to learn more by engaging with descendant communities, and others, who might have family knowledge of this history.

An unknown object shaped like a coin or button, on a red background.

Artifacts of Petersburg

Check out what artifacts archeologists have found at Petersburg National Battlefield.

Last updated: October 30, 2021

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Petersburg National Battlefield Administration Office
1539 Hickory Hill Road

Petersburg , VA 23803

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804 732-3531 x200
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