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Delaware Department of Transportation

Archaeology/Historic Preservation

Thomas Dawson

The Thomas Dawson Family Site 1740 to 1780

Drawing of the Dawson Site

Ceramic artifact

The Dawson Family Site was a farm occupied from about 1740 to 1780. These dates are based on the artifacts found at the site, especially ceramics (pottery and porcelain). The site was a mile south of Dover, Delaware, near the intersection of two major roads. The spot has remained an important transportation node, and it has been known for 150 years as "Cooper's Corners." Part of the site was destroyed in the 1950s during the construction of U.S. 13, and the rest was threatened by the construction of a new highway known as the Puncheon Run Connector in 1998. The Delaware Department of Transportation therefore sponsored archaeological excavations at the site.

Research in property deeds and other old documents showed that the Dawson Family Site was part of a 50-acre parcel purchased by Thomas Dawson in 1740. According to the deed, the tract was already "in the possession of Thomas Dawson." In 1745 Dawson had the property surveyed. The plat made at that time shows a house, a malt house, a barn, and an unidentified structure on a 72-acre property. Malting is part of the brewing process, so Dawson may have been a brewer as well as a farmer. The Dawsons were members of the prominent Dawson family, and their relatives had been among Dover's founders. Thomas Dawson himself, however, does not seem to have been a wealthy or prominent person. After his death in 1754 an inventory was made of his family's possessions, and they were appraised at 54 English pounds, placing the family near the bottom of the middle class. The inventory lists two horses, seven head of cattle, three beds, 16 chairs, a pair of brass candlesticks, six pewter plates, and a tea pot with five cups. No items associated with malting or brewing are listed. The Dawsons owned a number of farm tools, including a plow, harrow teeth, a grindstone, a pitchfork, axes, wedges, and two hoes. Their crops included a "small feild of Ienden [Indian] Corn Standing on the Stock," valued at 2 pounds 5 shillings, and "about Twelve acres of wheat growing very fare," valued at 6 pounds. These fields are very small, considering that the property included at least 70 acres.

utensils buttons gunlock slipware

Thomas Dawson, his wife Mary, their son Richard, and Jenny, an African-American slave, occupied the property until Thomas's death. In 1756, Richard sold the property to Thomas Nixon, a wealthy landowner. Nixon's family held the land until 1794. Thomas Nixon is known to have lived elsewhere, so between 1756 and 1780 the Thomas Dawson Site must have been occupied by tenants.

The Cellar

cellar stairs
cellar hole

The most important archaeological discovery at the Dawson Family Site was a cellar hole that was almost certainly the cellar of the Dawsons' house. The cellar was right on the edge of the site, next to U.S. 13. One corner of the cellar had been destroyed during the construction of the highway. Three corners remained, however, so the archaeologists were able to measure the dimensions of the cellar as 11 feet 9 inches by 13 feet 7 inches. No stone or brick walls were found in the cellar, nor any post holes. The archaeologists eventually realized that the house had been supported by wooden beams laid directly on the floor of the cellar. These beams decayed to leave brown stains in the soil, and these stains could be traced around the cellar walls. The walls had been made of wooden beams with gray clay nogging pressed between them, leaving an archaeological deposit of mixed gray clay and brown loam. The house was framed around these beams. The house may have been a little larger than the cellar, but not much, because the house sketched by the surveyors in 1745 also looks quite small. More than 4,500 artifacts and 4,100 animal bones were found in the cellar. These included a large number of ceramic sherds, especially coarse earthenware and white salt-glazed stoneware. The cellar contained none of the artifacts, common elsewhere on the site, that date to the 1760s and 1770s, so the cellar was probably filled in around the time the Dawsons sold the property. A structure built on wooden sills laid in the bottom of a basement would not be very durable, and the Dawsons' house could easily have collapsed within the 15 to 20 years they lived on the site.

Personal Archaeology

Archaeology is generally not a good way to get to know people as individuals. In the case of Thomas Dawson, however, the archaeologists felt that they had gotten to know him and his family quite well. His probate inventory helps, as does the small sketch of his farm, but archaeology also reveals a great many things about him. The large artifact collection from the cellar hole, which almost certainly dates to Thomas Dawson's lifetime, is particularly informative. The evidence suggests that Thomas Dawson was a man from a well-to-do family who never met his relatives' standards for worldly success. His family's economic path was steadily downward, and when he died he was surrounded by worn-out things acquired years before. The Dawsons' house was a rough wooden place with rotting wooden foundations, and if Thomas and Mary had ever planned to replace it with a more permanent one they never got around to it. Many of the things in the house at the time of Thomas's death may have come from his or his wife's family at the time of their marriage: his finest belongings were all more than 20 years old. Dawson owned a gun that had once been a fine English fowling piece but later had to be repaired with a clumsily made hammer. According to the inventory, all of the Dawsons' furniture was "old," and their old chairs, beds, tables, chest, and cupboard must have been badly worn to have been given such low values. Even their barrels and iron pots were old.

more volunteers

Although the Dawsons were not much of an economic success, they continued to keep up the social side of their upbringing. Thomas Dawson was educated, and he took his part in family affairs. He and his wife received elegant callers, entertaining them with their special tea wares. Their tea wares were as fine as any tea vessels in the county, and they no doubt enjoyed showing them off. They had punch bowls and rum on hand for less formal entertaining, and other elegant dishes like their painted delftware bowls. They had a matched set of knives and forks. Thomas Dawson enjoyed smoking pipes with his own initials on them, even though those initials were just a common pipemaker's mark, and he enjoyed dressing well, with brightly colored paste stones on his cuff links.

sorting artifacts

We cannot really say why Thomas Dawson was not more of an economic success, but we do have some grounds for speculation. The 1745 survey shows that he experimented with malting, but since we have no other evidence it does not seem that he did very well at it, and he had certainly given it up by the time of his death in 1754. Although he owned more than 70 acres of land, his inventory, made in January, says that only 12 acres was planted in wheat, and the value of his other crops is small. He does not seem to have been a very energetic farmer. We can imagine him as a slightly lazy dreamer, full of schemes that never went anywhere-perhaps because he spent time drinking tea with his neighbours or rum with his friends when a man more interested in money would have been out in the fields. He preferred, we think, to go to parties in his fine clothes, or just to stay home with his wife, friendly and sociable to all, and let others struggle to get ahead. Through our work at their farm, we have brought Thomas Dawson and his family back to life in our imaginations, and with him a small piece of our history.

Probate Inventory Of Thomas Dawson

January 15th Day 1754 An Inventory of the Goods & Schtles of Tho. Dawsons Late of Kent County in Murtherkill Hundred Deceased Taken & Aprased By us The Subscribers Who was Lawfully Quallefied So To Do.

  £ s p
To 1 old Cote & old Thece (?) old Shurtes & 2 pair Brickes of Lether & 1 pair of Shoes & 1 pair of old Stockings & 1 old fine hat 1 -0 -0
To 9 harrow Teeth made of Iron 0 -6 -0
To2 old ____ & Three old hampers old hand Sasyeadge (?) 0 -7 -6
To 1 old Drawing Knife & 3 old Bridles & 2 old Howes (?) 0 -6 -0
To 2 old Books 0 -1 - 0
To a parsell of old Iron Lumber 0 -1 -6
To 1 pair of old Iron Trapes & x old post hoocks 0 -2 -6
To 1 Flat Handled Sword (?) & 1 old hone & Strap 1 -0 -0
To 2 old Iron Kittles & 1 Small Spinning Whele 0 -14 -0
To 1 old Beed Beedsted & furniture 2 -10 -0
To 1 pol Pichfork & a parsell of old Boocks 0 -1 -6
To 2 old Kidles & 1 old Sifter & 1old Chist & 3 old Chares 0 -4 -0
To 1 warned (?) Chist & 1 old Cubbard 0 -3 -0
To 2 old Barrells & 1 Tubb & more wooden lumber 0 -4 -6
To 1 old putter Dish & x plates & 1 old Candilstick 0 -6 -0
To a parsell of old Irkenware & Lumber on the Shelfs 0 -2 -6
To a parsell of flax in the Shelfs 0 -4 -0
To 1 old negro woman Cald Jenney 3 -0 -0
To 2 Cows & 2 yerlens & 1 Bull 2 years old 1 heffer 1 year old 4 -17 -0
To 1 old hackell (?) & a ___ To 2 old Chairs 0 -8 -0
To 1 old Grindstone 0 -2 -0
To a small parsell of Kya (?) in The Shelf 0 -8 -0
To1 gray mare & bay mare Deto 7 -10 -0
To 1 small Feild of Ienden Corn Standing on the Stock 2 -5 -0
To 2 small stacks of Fodor 0 -7 -6
To a small parsell of Lime Slacked 0 -12 -0
To 1 old Hogsed & about forty feet of Plank 0 -4 -6
To about Twelve acres of wheat groing very fare wheat 6 -0 -0
To 14 Chairs att 2s per chair 1 -8 -0
To 2 old Chistes & 2 old Tables 0 -10 -0
To 1 Broad ax & three iron weges & Sum old Iron 0 -10 -0
To 1 Box Iron & heeters To half dozen knives & forkes 0 -6 -0
To 1 old Iron pot (?) & 1 frying pann 0 -4 - 6
To 2 old brass Candlesticks & snufers 0 -6 -0
To 2 old puter Dishes & 6 old plates & 1 old Irken Dish 0 -10 -0
To 2 old Teepots & 1 old Tee Kittell & 7 Sasers & 5 cups 0 -8 -0
To three punch Bowles & 2 nib (?) & 1 Gill Pot & whit mug 0 -6 0
To 2 flaskes & 1 old Canester & 2 (_)ight Loocking Glases 0 -1 -6
To 1 Glass Bottell & 1 old Tennett Saw (?) & 1 old Bell 0 -12 -0
To 2 Small Loocking Glases & 1 old ax 0 -5 -6
To old Iron & Thred & 1 old pair of sadle Baggs & old wallet 0 -10 -0
To 1 old Beed 2 old Sheets & 1 old Blanket & 1 old Counter Pinn(?) 1 -5 -0
To 1 old Beed & 2 sheets & 1 old Blanket & 1 oldCounter Pinn(?) 2 -0 -0
To 1 Rum Hogsed with about 20 gallons of Rum in it 2 -10 -0
To 2 old Barrells & 1 old poudron (?) Tubb & 1 old Barrell with some Mackrell in it 0 -9 -0
To 1 Butter Tubb with Sum Butter in it 0 -6 -6
To a parsell of Beeff in Pickell 0 -15 -0
To 1 old Plow & Irons & 1 old Erken Pot 0 -5 -6
To 1 old Cow att 2 -5 -0
To 1 mans Sadel & Sum Tand Lether 1 -2 -0
  £ 50 -4 -6

Transcriber's Note:

This inventory employs spelling and orthography unusual even by eighteenth-century standards and is illegible in several places. Questionable items are indicated in the text.

Project Sponsor: Delaware Department of Transportation
Cooperating Agency: Federal Highway Administration
Consultant: The Louis Berger Group, Inc. The Louis Berger Group

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