Digging into time with 'Archaeology at Colonial Brunswick'"
By Ben Steelman
Published: Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
He would move on to a distinguished career at the University of South Carolina, virtually inventing the field of historical archaeology – unearthing sites for which we have written records, rather than, say, prehistoric remains – in the United States.
In many ways, however, South never left Brunswick Town behind. Now, after many years, his old employer, the state Office of Archives and History, has published South's account of his busy, fruitful decade on the west bank of the Cape Fear River.
He carefully credits the late E. Lawrence Lee Jr., the Wilmington native and longtime history professor at The Citadel in Charleston. In the early 1950s, Lee agitated with state officials to have the Brunswick Town site preserved at a time when it was threatened by encroachment from the adjoining Sunny Point military terminal then under construction.
During a series of summers, Lee saw to it that decades of undergrowth were mowed from parts of the site, identifying ruins where they peeked from the soil. He also did the library spadework, combing colonial records for clues to Brunswick Town's appearance.
Armed with Lee's homework, and his approximate reconstruction of the town's original plan, South grabbed the ball and ran. Surveying the site, he quickly lined up lots with Lee's maps, identifying historic local buildings (including Brunswick County's original courthouse) and starting to dig.
With just a few named streets and slightly more than 100 known structures, Brunswick Town was never very big. In 1769, when it was fast losing ground to Wilmington up the river, its population was only about 250. In its heyday, it was not much bigger.
“The town is very poor – a few scattered houses on the edge of the woods, without streets or regularity,” wrote Janet Schaw, a Scottish visitor, in 1775, just as the Revolution was breaking out.
Less than a year later, a British raiding party would burn Brunswick, effectively killing the settlement barely a half-century after its founding in 1725. South would find traces of inhabitants trailing into the 1800s – some U.S. coins, some U.S. Army buttons – but by 1830, Brunswick had all but vanished.
While it lasted, though, Brunswick was important out of all proportion to its size. For a while, it was the center of the British empire's trade in naval stores – tar and pitch from the pine forests, essential ingredients for a navy and merchant marine built of wood.
As South demonstrated, it was also the nexus of a global economy. Almost every house excavated at Brunswick contained porcelain from China. At the “Public House,” South and his assistants found a Malay pocket knife with Arabic lettering, possibly brought to the port by a sailor from the British East India Company.
South's account gives a neat summary of Brunswick's brief history, including the Spanish privateer raid of 1748 (which supposedly yielded the famous “Ecco Homo” painting, now at St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington), the hurricane of 1769 which blew down the courthouse and nearly wiped out the town and the erection of the Confederate Fort Anderson on the site during the Civil War.
He also gives a non-archaeological taste of the town's raucous lifestyle. Cornelius Harnett Jr., the father of the Patriot leader, who bought Brunswick Town's first lots, headed to the Lower Cape Fear ahead of the law – accused of helping his friend, ex-Gov. George Burrington, assault the new governor, Richard Everard.
Then there was the “extraordinary” 1765 duel between Royal Navy officers Alex Simpson and Thomas Whitehurst of the HMS Viper, which ended with Simpson beating his foe to death with his pistol butt. (He later surrendered to local authorities, was tried and sentenced to have the letter “M,” for manslaughter, branded on his left thumb.)
South's patient, non-technical account makes archaeological fieldwork seem enthralling, even without any Indiana Jones exploits. Moreover, his contention that much of Brunswick Town has yet to be properly explored ought to spur some new research.