City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Apr 17, 2013 9:42 PM
Archaeology and History at Fort Ward Park
The Office of Historic Alexandria is committed to studying and preserving the historic resources of Fort Ward Park. The first archaeological excavation in Alexandria was conducted in June–July 1961 at Fort Ward. Thirty years later, in 1991, Alexandria Archaeology conducted a second dig. Beginning in 2009, a third investigation, including a ground-penetrating radar survey, took place. City Council granted an additional appropriation in 2011 to produce a history report and complete a second stage of archaeological study. 2011 marks 50 years of archaeology in the City and the 50th anniversary of archaeological work at Fort Ward. Oral history interviews with long-time residents of “The Fort” bring the history to life and the efforts of the Ft. Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society keep it alive.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 1961, the City of Alexandria sponsored its first archaeological investigation. This first excavation was conducted on the northwest bastion of Fort Ward with the aim of recovering and recording enough information to reconstruct the Civil War fortification. A community passion for history led to the preservation of the historically significant fort by City Council, the creation of an historical park, and the establishment of the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site. Thirty years later, in 1991, Alexandria Archaeology conducted a second dig. Additional Civil War features were discovered along with domestic artifacts post-dating the Civil War. Research turned up deeds and other records confirming that these artifacts once belonged to African Americans who lived at "The Fort" for nearly 100 years.
Contemporary interest in the historical significance of Fort Ward Park as a whole and its African American history, as well as a desire to preserve its cultural resources, led to a third archaeological investigation, beginning in 2009. First the City carried out a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey to identify unmarked graves and then fieldwork, completed in January 2011—fifty years after the first study—confirmed the presence of many burials. Additional research and family memories chronicle how the Fort neighborhood was lost in the process of the City’s efforts to purchase the land and create the historical park. The 2011 archaeological study documented 22 graves, 19 of which were unmarked, in the Jackson Cemetery on the west side of the fort, the Old Grave Yard adjoining the Oakland Baptist Cemetery, and in the eastern portion of the Park (Adams’ graves). Also discovered were foundations and artifacts associated with one of the earliest households at The Fort—Burr and Harriet Shorts—and an African American school. A cultural resource inventory is also a part of Stage 1.
The City Council approved funding for 2011–2012 Stage 2 to generate a history report, conduct test excavations across the Park to identify sensitive resource areas, and update the cultural resource inventory in preparation for planning activities. Learn more about the latest excavations below.
First Person Memories
Oral history interviews with long-time residents give vivid portraits of black life and the cultural landscape at The Fort and larger Seminary community. These interviews started in the early 1990s and are continuing. Read transcriptions of these first person memories.