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Silt Buries Town, Excavation Begins


   What does a community do when disaster looms on the horizon?  For the town in question, the threat did not come from global warming, dwindling petroleum reserves, or rapidly expanding populations.  In this case, it came from the source of the town’s prosperity.  The soil that grew the tobacco was both the reason for Port Tobacco’s success, and its eventual decline.  

   The rise and fall of Port Tobacco has fascinated local historians and university-based scholars for decades. The Port Tobacco Archaeological Project formed in 2007 to determine what archaeology might contribute to the effort.  Last fall, archaeologists came to the Colonial port town to learn about what residents did (or didn’t do) to keep eroding soil out of the Port Tobacco River.  This erosion closed the town’s maritime highway to the world’s commerce and the world’s wealth.  

   The long-time Charles County seat (1727-1895) now consists of open fields and lawns, a handful of modern houses, three houses from the 1700s, and a 1970 reproduction of the 1819 courthouse.  The study covered about nine acres of the former 60-acre town, virtually all of which is privately owned.

   The rural setting, three miles west of US 301 and La Plata, is deceptive in appearance.  Below the lawns and meadows are the remains of more than 100 dwellings, shops, and offices.  The town included headquarters for two of the County’s newspapers and the carriage shop of George Atzerodt, convicted and executed for conspiring in the assassination of President Lincoln.  Most buildings disappeared from the landscape before 1900, soon after the county seat moved to La Plata. 

   Under the direction of Dr. Jim Gibb of Annapolis and Dr. April Beisaw of Binghamton University, the field crew found a wealth of artifacts and information.  The crew discovered several 500- to 1000-year old Indian sites and the ruins of as many as twenty buildings occupied during the 1700s and 1800s. At the Maryland Historical Trust laboratory, Peter Quantock and his laboratory crew processed and catalogued 25,000 artifacts, several thousand of which predate the American Revolution.

  The interest that the town and its archaeological deposits hold for scholars is irresistible, as Dr. Beisaw points out. “We collect information on a community’s responses to impending economic disaster, political disruption, and social dislocation…how’s that for relevance.”

   Early results from archaeological survey identified high ground to the east of town as the source of much of the sediment that choked the river and blanketed the town. Other sediments likely came from upstream. 

   “Successive seasons of tobacco harvests drained these fields of fertility and, after a season or two of maize cropping, farmers cleared new ground. The extensive loss of vegetation left large areas of soil exposed to wind and rain erosion,” points out Research Director Beisaw. “The results were catastrophic. Many fields were rendered unusable for generations and sediment filled the waterways, including the head of the Port Tobacco River, the location of the town and its wharf.” 

   Some of those deposits within the town are a foot or more deep and

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