Excavations Continue at Harriet Tubman Home
by Samuel D. Gruber
Last Friday I took time to stop in Auburn, NY to check out the newest archaeological excavations at the Harriet Tubman Home, a large tract of land on the south side of town that had been owned by Tubman (from 1859), and where she spent almost a half century of her life, from the end of the Civil War until her death in 1913. The Tubman Home has been a National Historic Landmark since 2000 (part of the site has been designated as early as 1975). You can read the entire nomination here.
My friend Prof. Doug Armstrong of the Anthropology Department at Syracuse University has been running field sessions with his students at the Tubman site for several years. Doug is a past president of the Preservation Association of Central New York (PACNY). This was the first time I'd managed to get there when the dig was running.
This year the excavation is focused in two spots. The first dig is in the vicinity of the brick house where, according to Beth Crawford, a project manager for the house restoration (and Beth just happens to be Vice-President of PACNY), Tubman lived from 1882 or '83 until 1892, and then again from 1896 until 1911. An earlier wooden house of Tubman's on the site burned down, making way for the new brick building (restoration of which is just beginning).
At the brick house the students were uncovering an old walkway which led from the street to the formal entrance, though the common entrance was through a side door on the north. It was beneath a porch located here that the archaeologists discovered a rich deposit of artifacts including dinner dishes and other items destoryed in the fire, that had all been dumped in this deposit when the new house was erected on the older foundations. The addition of a porch (now removed) sealed access to the deposit until the archaeologists started digging. Who ate on those plates? Frederick Douglas? Secretary of State Seward? Or Harriet's many friends and admirers - including children - who used to flock to her house for her company and her stories.
A second site is on the east side of the wood frame house further north - that's the one that has the plaque and that served as the Tubman Home for the Aged, but where Harriet lived only for a few years from about 1892 to 1896, when she moved back to the brick house. The house was extensively remade in 1953, and has served since as the most visible part of the Tubman legacy. The students have uncovered a crude brick foundation which probably supported a wooden addition, possibly a lean-to kitchen area that adjoined the main house. This may have burned down (as many kitchens did), since there is a large adjacent ash deposit, or it may have leveled sometime in the past.
Due to declining health Harriet Tubman moved in 1911 to the John Brown Home for the Aged which she had long maintained on the property. That building was almost entirely demolished, but Armstrong and his students were able to locate it and excavate its footprint a few years ago.
Tubman is buried in
Work is also ongoing for the restoration of the Tubman family barn just behind the brick house. This wood structure is partially preserved - though it served for many years as a bus station. It is presently jacked off the ground, and a new foundation have been set. Much of the wood siding has to be replaced, but it seems that about 30 to 40 percent of the original wood can be saved.