August 22, 2009

Sifting for evidence of life at Timbucto


NORTH ELBA — At the end of a winding forest road through mountain farmland, the mystery of Timbucto is hidden in Adirondack dirt.

The overgrown trail transects a row of 40-acre parcels surveyed into squares and given to freed black men in 1846 by Gerrit Smith.

Hoping to instill agrarian land reform, Smith granted lots to 3,000 families recruited by "scouts" sent out to find temperate men through church pulpits and the early black press.

Many grantees came from urban centers around Albany.

national landmark
The effort is historically seen as a movement toward improving civil rights; men of color could vote in New York once they owned $250 worth of property.

But, by many accounts, Timbucto failed.

Smith had inherited 120,000 acres from his father's exploits and hoped to establish a community of freed men in the wilderness of Essex and Franklin counties.

The name Timbucto — sometimes spelled Timbuctoo or Timbuctu — was conferred on a section of North Elba grants in letters written by abolitionist John Brown, who came here in 1849 to help survey boundaries and provide farming assistance.

His farm still stands intact as a national landmark a few miles east.

Though all Smith's lots were parceled out, only 200 people made the journey north.

Many grantees left after spending a few years in the largely unsettled wilderness.

"So serene"
Driving toward Lot 84 on a recent morning, Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, who lives in Saranac Lake and teaches at SUNY Potsdam, relished the sense of calm emanating from the land.

"It feels so serene coming here," she said, steering around ruts in the road.

Kruczek-Aaron worked with 18 students this summer, digging and sifting layers of soil with screens and brushes, searching for clues to 19th-century life.

The archaeological premise was to sort details and search for clues about what worked or didn't at Timbucto.

"There has been too much emphasis on the rhetoric of failure," Kruczek-Aaron said.

"I see the archaeology as an avenue to explain how grantees sought to overcome obstacles. Questions we're looking to answer are: How did they organize the farms? Were they engaged in any household production strategies? What were their consumption strategies? What kind of dishes did they eat off of?"

The questions dig deeper toward the history of race relations as America struggled with slavery.

Epps Lot
Before reaching Lot 84 in Timbucto, the road crosses the Henry Dickson lot, forming part of what Kruczek-Aaron calls the Bear Cub Road cluster.

"Most of these grantees were from Troy," she said, cranking the steering wheel with two hands.

Researching county records, the Potsdam class found entire blocks of 40-acre lots appear to have been given away according to grantees' county of origin.

Kruczek-Aaron thinks Smith's attempt was to group families from the same region.

Lot 84 was marked the "Epps Lot," granted to Lyman Epps, the longest-inhabited parcel of Gerrit Smith's Timbucto.

Epps was a respected and historic figure in North Elba his entire life and lived on lot 84 for 25 years.

He later had the road built.

Kruczek-Aaron produced state records accounting his wealth.

By 1854, Epps and his family had amassed "15 bushels of rye, seven cattle, two oxen, 35 bushels of corn, 12 bushels of peas, 300 bushels of turnips, 300 pounds of butter and 30 pounds of wool," valued altogether at $100.

He lost the property for debt owed once in 1870 and then bought it back.

Archaeological study focused on a clearing beside a camp near an old foundation.

Promising dig
Kruczek-Aaron had had the area surveyed with ground-penetrating radar first, looking for clues of metal or other buried artifacts.

Students crisscrossed the clearing, a corner of 40 acres in Lot 84, in grids with metal detectors. They marked every hit with Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.

The actual dig began at two sites: inside the old stone foundation and in a midden (household dump) in the woods.

Both, at first, looked promising, Kruczek-Aaron said.

Students uncovered a hand-wrought metal section of harness and cut nails scattered from the clearing to the dump; but no further evidence surfaced of a mid-19th-century life.

"We really don't think this was used as the domestic residence," Kruczek-Aaron said.

Andrew Barkley, a student working at the site, sifted soil from the dump.

"We've found some ceramics, glass, a door keyhole and some Syracuse china dating to the 1920s and 30s," he said, undeterred.

Students Chris Morine, Shannon Halsey and Rachel Hunt mapped another deep trench dug through the midden in centimeters. Glass bottles and tin relics poked from the pit wall.

Social Details
The students considered Smith's efforts at Timbucto.

"He decided to help the poorest of the poor," Morine said. "He even said it wasn't going to be easy."

"He probably figured if they could make it here, they could make it anywhere," Halsey said. "Then again, the Epps family was here for 25 years. That could be considered a success."

The Potsdam students were unfazed by the dearth of archaeological evidence found so far.

"It's 40 acres, realistically speaking," Morine said. "We're looking for what might have been a slight impact on a changing landscape."

About two weeks into the dig, Kruczek-Aaron received an old photograph from a member of the Lawrence family, members of whom lived on Epps lot after Lyman Epps, Jr. sold it in 1900.

The photo shows a homestead clearing with three log structures.

A Department of Environmental Conservation map, circa 1900, shared by a neighbor, outlines this same clearing, showing three structures marked about a quarter-mile from where students worked this summer.

That land, part of Lot 84, is now part of the Forest Preserve and might be the original Epps homestead.

Though this summer's work has ended, Kruczek-Aaron hopes to expand the project.

The goal is to produce a new narrative, she said, to search and find details of how social inequality is lived and resisted in rural America.

E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: