Archaeology at Shuter's Hill Plantation
Shuter’s Hill: A Wealth of History
Mills/Lee/Dulaney plantation, built in 1782
Located on the grounds of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, the Shuter's Hill site occupies a bluff overlooking Old Town, the city’s historic downtown on the Potomac River. The use of the name Shuter’s Hill for this prominent landmark dates back to the late eighteenth century, perhaps a reference to a “Shooter’s Hill” in London or to a local resident by the name of Shuter who lived in the area in the 1740s.
Registered as an archaeological site (44AX175) with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the property has been investigated by Alexandria Archaeology since 1995. Volunteers, field school students, and summer campers have worked with City archaeologists, slowly scraping away the more recent soil layers and peeling back the pages of history.
They found that this prominent landmark has been visited and inhabited by people for over 5,000 years. As the 20th-century deposits were scraped away, the archaeologists uncovered evidence of a mid-19th-century estate, artifacts associated with Civil War occupation, vestiges of a late 18th/early 19th-century plantation, and traces of Native American activities.
View a brochure to learn about some of the archaeological discoveries at this important site, and to see some images from the excavations.
- Native American Occupation
- The Mills/Lee/Dulany Plantation, 1780s-1840s (reprinted below)
- The Plantation Laundry (reprinted below)
- Profile of a Washerwoman: from Slavery to Freedom
- The Final Dulany Years, 1850-1905
- Civil War, 1861-1865
- The Twentieth Century
The Mills/Lee/Dulany Plantation 1780s-1840s
European settlers initially used the hilltop for agricultural purposes, and archaeologists have found soil stains of plowing that occurred in the 18th century or even earlier. John Mills, a merchant, constructed the first known historical residence, an elegant frame mansion, on the property in 1781. A 19th-century sketch depicts the structure as a magnificent two-story residence with a large portico and two one-story wings. Overlooking the expanding 1749 town of Alexandria, the Mills plantation operated with the labor of enslaved African Americans. A 1784 advertisement for rental of the property after Mills' death highlights the "beautiful situation and the absolute perfection of plan" of the mansion house.
Ludwell Lee, a lawyer, politician, and planter, purchased the estate in the 1790s. Lee's daughter, Matilda, described this impressive home:
The house was large and roomy. You entered a large passage; to the right was a spacious dining room elegantly furnished. A large press with glass door held the silver, glass and china. Across the passage on the left was an elegantly furnished drawing room with mirrors down to the floor, before which I danced many a day. We were waited on by three stately servants in livery which was blue turned up with white, with buckskin short breeches with shoes and stockings.
In 1797, Lee took out fire insurance policies on the house and two small outbuildings (a laundry and a gardener's house) for $10,300. These policies provide archaeologists with information about the dimensions and construction materials of the 18th-century buildings on Shuter's Hill, but contain no information about their exact locations.
Lee sold the property to Benjamin Dulany in 1799. A wealthy planter, Dulany used the property as a summer home for his family; his main residence was in town on Duke Street. According to an article in the Alexandria Gazette, the mansion caught fire and burned down on February 7, 1842. Within two years, another, much smaller house was built on the property. Rebecca Dulany, great-granddaughter of Benjamin, wrote in 1844 that she was "living in a very small house which my grandmother has erected since the fire." No known additional reference is made to this structure until 1873, when there is a small notice in the Alexandria Gazette that this house, "unoccupied...[with] a little hay in one of the rooms," also burned down.
The Plantation Laundry
While the City archaeologists have yet to discover remnants of the large 18th-century mansion or small house built for Rebecca's grandmother, they have found the stone foundation of an outbuilding on the Mills/Lee/Dulany property. When the foundation was first uncovered, its function was unknown, but a variety of clues led the archaeologists to conclude that it once supported the plantation laundry. A stone foundation pointed to a late 18th- or early 19th-century construction date. According to architectural historians, stone was rarely used for this purpose in Alexandria after 1830.
In addition, dates of the artifacts found within the structure confirmed that it had been occupied in the late 18th can early 19th centuries. The finds included numerous buttons, thimbles, needles, pins, and a lead bale seal for a bolt of cloth, all types of artifacts that can be expected in a plantation laundry.
The laundry was one of the structures that Ludwell Lee insured in 1797; it was described in the insurance documents as "built of wood, one story high, 16 by 16 feet." When the excavations revealed that the stone foundation measured 16 feet on a side, it became clear that the building dimensions were compatible with those of the structure insured by Lee. The size of the structure, the date of the foundation and associated artifacts, and especially the types of artifacts, all led to the interpretation of the building as a plantation laundry. Putting together the information obtained from the historical documents with information gained from the excavation thus allowed for a more complete understanding of the discovery.
The laundry originally had a chimney supported by a stone foundation, but this was later replaced by one constructed entirely of brick. An area of flat bricks, just outside the laundry structure, served as an outdoor work area. Unfortunately, the western edge of the laundry foundation had been destroyed by the construction of a house in the mid-19th century.
The running of a plantation prior to the Civil War relied on the hard labor of numerous enslaved African Americans. In the laundry, slaves sewed, mended, and cleaned the clothes for the residents of the plantation. A 19th-century account describes the work of doing laundry as a dreaded "Herculean task." The washerwomen carried a total of at least 50 gallons of water, weighing about 400 pounds, to wash, rinse and boil just one load of clothing.
Remnants of daily life discovered during the excavation indicate that slaves were living, as well as working, the the laundry. The investigation yielded thousands of ceramic sherds from many different, unmatched types of pottery, including refined dinnerwares (creamware and pearlware imported from England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) as well as locally manufactured earthenware and stoneware for more utilitarian purposes, such as food storage. The recovery of wine bottle fragments suggests that the inhabitants of the laundry consumed alcohol, perhaps given to them as an allotment of spirits from the plantation owner. Plant and animal remains recovered at the site, such as pig, chicken, and fish bones; oyster shells; and seeds, provide information about the diet and nutrition of the slaves living in the laundry. Other artifacts, such as a toothbrush and lice comb, attest to concerns about personal hygiene, while fragments of tobacco pipes made of white kaolin clay conjure up images of relaxation after a grueling day of work.
Information about the daily lives of enslaved African Americans is rarely available in written records. Archaeology helps fill in these gaps in knowledge of the past. The laundry is highly significant as one of the few places in Alexandria where an assemblage of artifacts directly related to a slave household has been discovered.