Dig unearths city’s role in international commerce

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Dig unearths city’s role in international commerce

November 3, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Drawing of slaves working in a preindustrial sugar refinery where large vats were used to boil down the raw sugar brought from the West Indies to ports like Alexandria.
The statewide theme for Virginia Archaeology Month this October has been "Archaeology: More Than Meets the Eye." In the last three columns I have written about steps in the process of conducting archaeological study at the Moore-McLean Sugar house, as an example of this theme.

The more than 10,000 artifacts and hundreds of buried architectural and manufacturing features found during the excavation could not have been seen before the dig unless you were Superman. The site looked far from historic covered with an asphalt parking lot!

The analysis of the artifacts again opened our eyes to see a broader perspective. From the broken fragments we could begin to understand how raw sugar from the West Indies was refined on the 100 Block of North Alfred Street. The Sugar House's technology was illustrative of its preindustrial time, 1804-1828.

The final step in the archaeological inquiry process is referred to as interpretation. This is when the archaeologists pull together all the information from the ground with documentary data into a larger understanding of the past. Rather than just citing dates or facts, we seek to explore relationships and ideas that will illuminate historic behavior and thought.

With the assistance of a ground-breaking book by Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, we began a more far reaching research into Alexandria and sugar. Volunteers assembled data from port manifests about raw sugar trade, refining in other port cities, slavery, sugar plantations in the West Indies, and foodways.

We found that Alexandria's two sugar houses produced the third highest amount of refined sugar in 1810 America. The top two producers? The entire states of New York and Maryland! The optimistic business spirit in the town continued until 1817, after a brief hiatus during the War of 1812.

Little did they know that there would be dramatic declines in agricultural products. By 1820, Alexandria's deed books record many mortgages, bankruptcies and estate sales as problems mounted with decreasing trade nationwide. Jacob Hoffman, owner of the second refinery, commented in the 1820 federal manufacturing census: "For some time the demand has regularly declined owing to the general decline of trade." Although the economy revived in the late 1840s with the Alexandria Canal, it never had the same leadership role as its nearby competitors, Baltimore and Richmond.

Alexandria's refineries tied us into an international world of sugar trade as a leader. What can one artifact, one site, one person tell us about the past? Within each is the larger story that can tie a parking lot of today with the world of yesterday.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.