Summary of Archaeology by the State Highway Administration

All Following Information Courtesy of the Maryland State Highway Administration

Lead shot fired from muskets during the Battle of Bladensburg. Photo from MDOT SHA.

As part of Maryland's commemorative efforts for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the National Park Service funded Maryland State Highway Administration to carry out a survey of the battlefield. The MDOT SHA partnered with the University of Maryland, Prince George's Heritage, and the Aman Memorial Trust to investigate historic properties within Bladensburg. 

This community was chosen for the study since it supports an intense highway infrastructure and because US Route 1 at the DC boundary was the epicenter of the Battle of Bladensburg. New information gleaned from the archaeology and historic research will be incorporated into signage and interpretive literature associated with the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and Byway. The project is funded by the Federal Transportation Enhancement Program, Maryland State Highway Administration, Prince George's Heritage, Inc., and the Aman Memorial Trust.

The goals of the project were to identify and evaluate the integrity of archaeological deposits and provide recommendations for preservation, interpretation, and commemoration of the battlefield. In addition, they wanted to know if anything survived from the Battle of Bladensburg that could inform us about this famous engagement between the Americans and the British. Archaeologists were unsure how much of the battlefield survived since most of the area was developed into a modern cemetery and subdivision. As such, very few artifacts associated with the battle were found in the cemetery.

Archaeology of the Indian Queen Tavern

As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, archaeologists undertook research at the Indian Queen Tavern. It was a Transportation Enhancement Project and including the following partners Prince George's County, University of Maryland, Anacostia Watershed Society, & Anacostia Trails and Heritage Area. The tavern was razed in the 19th century, but the archaeological site survives. They focused their excavations on the gravel parking lot north of the extant colonial brick building, erroneously called the George Washington House. They recovered hundreds of artifacts including glass stemmed goblets, nicely decorated tea wares, and expensive cuts of meat suggesting the Indian Queen Tavern catered to upscale clientele. The assemblage of faunal remains showed the occupants and guests consumed lamb, cuts of beef (steaks, rib roast, top and bottom round), and pork (tenderloin, pork chops, and ham). 

Sherds of an 18th century tin glazed bowl were found at the tavern. Photo from SHA.

The colonial tavern, built and first operated by Swiss immigrant Jacob Wirt, was hidden beneath a gravel-packed parking lot next to the George Washington House. Archaeologists accessed the site by excavating two, parallel trenches within the parking lot with heavy machinery. The Gradall operator slowly pulled back the layers of soil and stopped when the archaeologists noticed concentrations of artifacts, soil staining, or building material such as brick. After the trenches were opened, scientists further excavated in 5 ft x 5 ft squares, meticulously digging, screening, and recording the evidence left behind by the tavern keepers, patrons, and families who once lived here. 

After several weeks of excavation, the archaeologists found thousands of artifacts from the colonial period and even more items that dated to the time of Franz “Francis” Gasch, Bladensburg’s 19th century cabinet maker and undertaker. They also discovered the remains of an 18th century stone kitchen foundation; an old cellar filled with thick clay and mid-19th century artifacts; numerous dark stains from decomposed posts that once helped support buildings and fences; Gasch’s water well; and 19th century brick pads and stone foundations. 

Although archaeologists did not find the tavern building remains, they did find the backyard outbuildings and debris that indicated the Indian Queen Tavern catered to an upscale clientele. This is not surprising, since George Washington often stopped here on his way to and from Philadelphia. One of the most exciting finds related to tavern use was a copper-alloy cask tap. Based on this discovery, we know that casks of wines and ales were kept in or near the detached kitchen in the backyard. 

Maryland State Highway Administration Archaeology at Indian Queen Tavern, Bladensburg (2010)

After opening the tap and dispensing the beverage from the cask, the server brought the spirits back into the main building for distribution. The tavern served these ales and wines in stemmed glasses and bright white, fine-grained stoneware from England. The customers enjoyed expensive cuts of beef, oysters, and lamb on beautifully decorated tin-glazed earthen wares, cream wares, and white salt-glazed stoneware. The recovery of flint corn cobs and wheat suggest the tavern served meals of hominy, grits, and stews with sides of bread. Archaeologists also believe that tea and coffee would have been served in porcelain, creamware, and fine stoneware called Nottingham. 

By the mid-19th century, the archaeology looked very different from the tavern assemblage. Historic documents suggest, and archaeology confirms that Francis Gasch moved onto the site and constructed a cabinet shop and home. Interestingly, archaeologists did not recover any evidence of coffin or cabinet hardware. They did find personal objects including a porcelain jar that once held hair pomade made from cow fat. The dishware reflects a typical working to middle class occupation. The Gasch’s poured milk and juice from white ceramic pitchers, drank from similarly styled cups, and ate a diet rich in pork served on floral transferprinted dishes from England.

Archaeology of Macgruder House

Archaeologists combed through the archives and the back and side yard of the Colonial-era Macgruder House to reveal details about some of Bladensburg’s oldest residents. Here, they found broken dishes, bottles, and many personal items discarded by families over the last 250 years. Digging deeper, the archaeologists discovered stone tools and pottery sherds, direct evidence that Native Americans lived and hunted along the shores of the Anacostia River between 6,900 BC and AD 950. 

Stone tools and pottery sherds from Native American use of the land of the land that became the site of the Magruder House. Photo by SHA.

Surrounded by a complex web of transportation corridors, the Magruder House still stands as a testament to the Colonial roots of Bladensburg. Archaeologists attempted to gain a better understanding about the historic property by excavating within the yard spaces. They dug over 20 small exploratory holes and seven 5 ft x 5 ft excavation units on the site. Continual occupation of the area and historic-period flooding resulted in the recovery of mostly churned artifacts and only a few intact features (e.g. post holes and refuse pits). It is likely the urban development obliterated the associated outbuildings and slave quarters. 

Despite the compromised integrity of the deposits, archaeologists learned what the occupants ate and which ceramics the residents used in their house. Archaeologists were also able to track the way material culture changed through time. They did not, however, find evidence of the Magruder House being used as a field hospital after the Battle of Bladensburg. The discovery of prehistoric artifacts revealed that Native Americans have lived in this area for almost 9,000 years. Archaeologists found two St. Albans metarhyolite projectile points and quartzite, quartz, and metarhyolite debitage indicating Native Americans lived and hunted at this location during the Archaic Period (6,900-6,500 BC). The recovery of pottery sherds support occupation by Native Americans in Bladensburg up through the late Woodland Period (AD 950-1600). 

Maryland State Highway Administration Archaeology at Magruder House, Bladensburg (2009)

The Eighteenth Century 

The historic documents are silent on who lived in the house during the mid-18th century since William Hilleary constructed the building as an investment property. Archaeologists recovered a relatively small number of artifacts suggesting the presence of a single occupant or series of short-term tenants. The reasons for this small artifact assemblage may be that these early residents possessed items that quickly decomposed in the soils, such as pewter and wood. The dish wares that the occupants used, and eventually broke, included expensive white salt-glazed stoneware and tin-glazed earthen wares from England. 

Although Henderson did not have the wealth of Christopher Lowndes, the artifact assemblage he and his family left behind suggests they possessed the means and the desire to purchase middle to upper class items. Creamware, some with featheredge, dominates their ceramic assemblage. Other artifacts related to the Henderson’s occupation includes olive-green bottle glass, tobacco pipe fragments, brass straight pins, brass buttons, and a glass bead. Analysis of the animal bone discarded by the family suggests they consumed a healthy diet of oysters, fish, turkey, cow, sheep, and pig. When George Washington dined at the house in 1787, he may have been served dinner on creamware dishes or blue painted porcelain. Free-blown olive-green bottles likely held beverages for the meal, but wine would have been served to the guests from glass decanters. Meals consumed at the Magruder house included oysters, beef, pork and sheep/lamb. Specifically, leg of lamb and catfish remains were found in their refuse pile.

The Nineteenth Century 

By the early 19th century, the port in Bladensburg closed and the merchant class was replaced by middle and working class families. During the mid-19th century, the Magruder family owned and occupied the house. Archaeologists found fewer ceramic sherds compared to the other residents who lived in the house, but the number of vessel and table glass increased in variety and number. This significant shift in material type suggests the Magruders replaced ceramics for storage and serving with glassware. Archaeologists also recovered buttons, hardware, porcelain figurine fragments, medicine bottles, tobacco pipe fragments, and a glass vase fragment from mid to late 19th century contexts. Based on faunal remains, they learned the Magruder family ate oyster, fish, rabbit, cow, sheep, pig, and elderberry. Distinguishable cuts of meat include pork picnic or arm roast cuts, beef rump cuts, a beef hindshank cut, and a beef roast cut.

Archaeology of the Market Master's House

In 2009 and 2010, archaeologists excavated around the Market Master’s House and discovered fragments of expensive 18th century ceramics along with inexpensive cuts of meat. The presence of upscale artifacts associated with such a humble building was curious. Historical research, along with the archaeology, revealed this stone house may have served as one of Lowndes’ stores during the mid- to late 1700s. The fancy plates and tea wares found by archaeologists were likely damaged during the oversea voyage or broken during handling and tossed into the yard for quick disposal. 

A variety of high and low end ceramics were found in the yard of the stone Market Master's House. Photo by SHA.

The most important mystery archaeologists needed to solve was the function of the Market Master’s House. They knew the Lowndes family owned the property up through the early 19th century, but they did not know who lived there. The building was named during the mid-20th century by an author who assumed this small stone cottage must have housed the man who managed the adjacent market square; however, there is no historical basis for this assumption. 

Maryland State Highway Administration Archaeology at the Market Master's House, Bladensburg (2009)

In an attempt to learn more, archaeologists excavated around the north (front), east (side yard), and south (back) yard areas to search for evidence of outbuildings and artifacts. While digging in the front yard of the house, they noticed patterns in the soil created from digging postholes and a drip line formed from water running off of a roof. The location to the house suggests an overhang may have extended out a few feet from the building sometime during the 18th century. In addition, excavators found wheel ruts preserved in the solid clay indicating a wagon road came right up to the front of the Market Master’s House. Concentrations of 18th century refuse were discovered over a foot deep in front of the house while most of the mid- to late 19th century refuse was found in the backyard.

After two seasons of fieldwork and hours of historical research, archaeologists learned that this stone building may have been used as a store. Archival research revealed that Benjamin Lowndes inherited the Market Master’s property and the mercantile business after the death of his father, Christopher Lowndes, in 1785. After Benjamin Lowndes death in 1808, his son, Christopher Lowndes, inherited the property. The executors of Benjamin Lowndes’ will advertised the following property for rent and the contents of the store for sale: 

“The Subscribers will rent the house in Bladensburgh, which was occupied as a Store by the late Mr. Benjamin Lowndes, also the large Brick Building which has been used as a Warehouse and Granary. The situation of the store premisses [sic] being convenient to the water side, to one of the best Tobacco Inspections in the state, and also to a fertile extensive country, render them a object of attention to a person who wished to engage in a business on a limited or extensive scale, they will sell for cash the stock of goods now in the Store, consisting of a valuable assortment of DRY GOODS, Groceries, Iron Mongery of different sorts, Earthen Ware, China, and many other articles that would be wanted in a country Retail Store” (Advertisement, The Washington Federalist, 23 February 1809) 

The archeological record supports the interpretation of the Market Master’s House as both a residence and store. The artifact assemblage from the 18th and 19th century suggests whoever lived in the house may have been a single person of low to moderate socio-economic status. The interpretation of wealth is based primarily on the discovery of cheap meat cuts from cows and pigs. Often, dietary remains are directly linked with a person or family’s wealth. Interestingly, the ceramics from this same occupation include a variety of types, including expensive decorated tea wares one would expect to find in merchant households. In fact, Richard Henderson, a merchant who lived next door, has a less impressive ceramic assemblage than the Market Master’s House. The disparity in cost between the ceramic assemblage and faunal remains is only curious if the site was strictly used as a domestic residence. In other words, this pattern fits with the site’s potential function as a store. The faunal remains (waste bone from food consumption) are likely associated with a tenant while the ceramic sherds may have been store goods damaged during the oversea voyage or broken in the store where they were then tossed out the front door or windows. 

Despite digging in an urban neighborhood, prehistoric artifacts dating up to 10,000 years ago, were found just feet from the highway. The discovery of a discrete and dense concentration of metarhyolite lithics, including debitage (stone flakes) and three Susquehanna Broadspear projectile points, suggest Native Americans brought unfinished bifaces to the area to form into projectile points sometime between 1000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C. Additional tools identified at the site suggest brief periods of occupation during the Early (8,000 B.C.-6,500 B.C.) and Late Archaic Periods (2,500 B.C.-1,000 B.C.). A sparse, but well-defined, ceramic scatter of Mockley and one Pope’s Creek sherd, dating to the Middle Woodland Period (500 B.C. – A.D. 900) was also found in this area.