Archaeological Surveys

The history of Dr. Langworthy’s claim started to emerge when modern cultural resource studies began in the northern Dubuque locality. Archaeologist Anton Till was conducting a survey of the locality in 1977 when he visited the occupants of an old house located on a farmstead in a hollow west of the Couler Valley (Figure 2). The two-story brick house with a prominent front gable, stone foundation, and stone lintels above the windows and front door appeared to date to the late 1840s. The residents of the house apparently were unable to provide much information on the early history of the house, and with other archaeological and historic era properties also needing his attention, Till was unable to pursue the history of the farmstead. The house was abandoned a few years later, and fell into disrepair.

In the summer of 1996 the old house and several outbuildings were torn down. I was conducting an archaeological survey of the lower reach of Union Park Hollow that season while the demolition was in progress. I knew that the house was fairly old because it corresponded to the location of a house on several historical plat maps in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collections. The oldest map that showed any structures in the area was dated 1874. Also, Till’s report had estimated the age of house, at that time, at about 130 years.

View to the west of the old house taken in 1977.
View to the west of the old house, taken in 1977

After the heavy equipment moved on and the dust had settled I took a closer look at the old house site. The house had been built on a terrace remnant at the juncture of two hollows carved into the bedrock west of the Couler Valley. Composed of alluvial deposits laid down late in the last glacial epoch, the terrace remnant stood about 10 feet above the floor of the hollow and covered not more than a quarter acre. The terrace remnant was located just downstream from a perennial spring emerging from the base of the bedrock bluff. A spot of bare ground, surrounded by a weedy bluegrass lawn and a U-shaped driveway, marked the spot where the house had stood. Scattered about were glass and ceramic fragments, and even a few chert flakes, indicating that Native Americans had found this an attractive location as well. My assistant, Beth Steele, and I collected some of the surface artifacts and excavated two shovel tests in the lawn area to provide a sample of material from undisturbed soils. The shovel tests yielded additional glass, ceramic, brick, and nail fragments, and a few more flakes.

We took the old house site collection back to the laboratory, along with collections from other sites encountered during the survey. The site, designated 13DB496, included a variety of features related to both the farmstead and other historic period uses of the hollow. Since I knew this to be the location of a fairly old house, I suspected that there were some relatively old historic artifacts at the site. But with limited expertise in historical archaeology, I didn’t recognize any particularly outstanding specimens at the time of the field work.

Analysis of the 13DB496 survey collection was conducted with the assistance of my colleague, historical archaeologist Marlin Ingalls. In the surface collection, Marlin quickly recognized a pearlware rim sherd, a polychrome spatter decorated rim sherd, “old blue” decorated body sherds, black transfer printed body sherds, porcelain body sherds with a blue, Chinese-style decoration, a redware elbow pipe fragment, and cobalt blue bottle fragments, including a bottle base with a pontil mark, and other other specimens dating from the 1830s to the 1860s (Figure 3). The shovel test collections contained additional redware body sherds with the tan colored glaze typical of vessels produced in Galena, Illinois, a green shell-edge decorated rim sherd, and lead glass jar or tumbler fragments. The redware elbow pipe sherd was remarkable for its relief molded inscription, which read “Rough and Ready.” Rough and Ready, of course, is the nickname Zachary Taylor earned during his military career, and the specimen is possibly a commemorative dating to his presidential campaign in the late 1840s. Although the collection contained a few specimens produced in more recent time periods, Marlin exclaimed that this was one of the best collections of pre-Civil War era artifacts he had seen since he began working in Iowa. I was astonished, because sites containing pre-Civil War artifacts in appreciable numbers are rare, even in the Dubuque area. What’s more, although removal of the old house had disturbed some of the deposits, the lawn appeared to contain enough intact soils to justify further test excavations.

Ceramics from site 13DB496

Record searches prior to our surveys typically involve an examination of available plat maps, site records forms, previous archaeological survey reports, and perhaps a perusal of published county histories. When Marlin asked about the site’s documentary data, I could only show him my 1874 plat and the other more recent plats. The oldest available plat was the 1837 General Land Office survey plat of the township, which showed no house at the site location. Although the field notes accompanying the original township survey listed Dr. Langworthy’s presence in the area, his house location wasn’t specified. By 1874 the farmstead at 13DB496 was one of several in the 160-acre parcel originally claimed by Dr. Langworthy, any one of which could have been his. The artifact assemblage certainly indicated that the site had been occupied well before the Civil War, but by whom I could not say. The testing program would also provide an opportunity to track down more complete documentary information about the property.