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Transitions of a Freedman Farm Family

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The story of how the Williams farmstead evolved reflects the transitions of the Williams family from the end of the Civil War and slavery, through the Reconstruction period,  into the Jim Crow era of the late nineteenth century, and up to the time they left the farm early in the twentieth century. This was a period of tremendous changes for African Americans as they became citizens, landowners, businessmen, paid laborers, craftsmen, and consumers. When viewed in light of the historical context provided by archival documents, the archeological materials recovered from the farmstead provide tangible evidence of these transitions and the success of this freedman family in central Texas. Amid the thousands of artifacts and farmstead remains, we also find poignant expressions of the family’s traditions and values, and even echoes of their distant African ancestry.

Ransom Williams purchased his 45-acre farm in 1871, and he likely lived alone for a few years until marrying Sarah Houston, sometime around 1875. In these early years, Ransom began clearing some of his land for cultivation, building rock fences for his livestock, and working on his log cabin. He probably completed the construction of the house before he and Sarah were married, and their first son, Will, was born in 1876. While Sarah raised the child and did the cooking, mending, gardening and other chores, Ransom worked the pastures and agricultural fields, tending to his livestock and crops. The family grew over the next two decades, and Ransom and Sarah worked hard at raising nine children on the family farm. 

The Williams farm was situated in a thin-soiled, rocky upland—the type of land not particularly conducive to farming. But hard work and careful attention to the land and the crops could ensure a successful yield each year as long as rainfall was adequate. As former slaves, Ransom and Sarah were not strangers to hard work. Most likely, Ransom had been a slave on the Bunton plantation in northern Hays County, and he probably knew first hand the labor involved in planting and picking cotton, how to care for livestock, including horses, and how to do many other farming tasks under less than ideal farming conditions. Historic records and the artifacts found on the farmstead prove that hard work did indeed pay off for the Williams family. Their success can be traced in tax records and in the consumer goods they purchased during the three decades they spent on the farm. On a larger scale, these reflect the family’s transitions from self-sufficient farmers to participants in the rapidly changing American economy.

The Williams Family as American Consumers

In the early 1870s, having just purchased the farm and gotten married, Ransom and Sarah Williams would not have had much extra cash. During this time, the farm operation was probably geared toward home production and self-sufficiency. The family produced and made most of what they needed on the farm, but they had little extra to sell and probably purchased outside goods from other farmers or commercial businesses only when absolutely necessary. As time passed and they became more successful, the Williamses continued to purchase the necessities of farm life, but they also spent more of their extra income on nonessential items and even some things that would be considered luxuries. As the Williams family grew, however, there were more mouths to feed and children to clothe. There is no doubt that the Williamses had to have had a steady source of income to simultaneously raise their children, increase their farm productivity, and acquire the material wealth that is evident in the archeological record.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America was experiencing an economic boom resulting from the mass-production of goods, the rapid spread of rail transportation, and widespread consumer-oriented product advertising. All types of goods could be manufactured more quickly and efficiently, shipped more easily, and sold more cheaply than ever before. Prices dropped and availability increased. The railroad had come to Austin in 1871, just as Williams was buying his farm, and it turned the capital city into a regional market hub. They might have been able to shop in some general stores in small communities that were closer to their farm (such as Manchaca Springs), but the Williamses most likely made occasional journeys to Austin by horse or wagon. The Williams farmstead was about a dozen miles from Austin as a crow flies, and more than 15 miles by wagon roads. A round trip by horse would have taken most of a day, while a round trip by wagon would probably have taken the better part of two days and required an overnight stay.

In 1880, the International & Great Northern Railroad was completed from Austin to San Marcos, and the small communities along the route began to blossom and thrive. The town of Manchaca Springs was relocated about 2.5 miles east of the Williams farm. This meant that Ransom Williams could make a quick trip into town, by horse or wagon, to get supplies. The proximity of the railroad at Manchaca, as it came to be known, increased the Williams’ access to goods and services, as well as the family’s ability to get their farm products to markets.

Mail Order Catalogs and Mass Production

Efficient manufacturing technologies and a more extensive transportation network meant lower prices, and a vast array of durable goods became affordable for the masses, including farmers and laborers in the rural hinterlands.  By the late 1880s, large retail companies such as Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears Roebuck & Co. were selling a wide variety of products to consumers all across the country through their mail-order catalogs. These typically were available in general stores in small, rural towns.

After the Civil War, people across America began shifting away from home production toward consumption of commercial products, but it seems the Williamses were still very much a part of both ways of life. In many ways, the Williams farm was always a self-sufficient operation, and the family probably produced a great deal of the food they consumed and the products they used in any given year. But as the family farm became increasingly successful, some aspects of the farming operation may have become more commercialized. Planting more cash crops brought in more income, and this money would have been used to pay taxes, buy essential farming tools and staple foods, and perhaps to purchase seeds for the next year’s crops. If there was any money left, it could be saved or spent on nonessential or luxury items.

It is interesting, albeit somewhat tricky, to try to calculate how much income he might have netted each year and how much buying power he might have had. Ransom Williams managed to be excluded from all the population and agricultural censuses while he lived on the farm, and this may have been intentional if he wanted to stay out of the limelight. This exclusion means that we do not know exactly what crops he grew or how much money he made from the sale of particular cash crops.

Based on the estimated prices paid for cotton and corn during the 1880s and 1890s in Travis and Hays counties, Ransom could have made somewhere between $155 and $200 annually. Likely half to three quarters of this amount would have been spent on consumable goods (food, medicine, tobacco, ammunition, etc.) and durable goods (fabric, buttons, tools, and equipment). The remaining money may have been as little as $40 or as much as $100, and this money, along with any other income Ransom and Sarah might have derived from doing odd jobs such as hauling, sewing, or gunsmithing, was discretionary money. This extra money—small by our standards today—represented a significant amount of buying power in the late nineteenth century. For Ransom and Sarah Williams, it represented the ability to purchase a few luxuries for themselves and their children, and a chance for them to participate in the great American dream.

Judging from the recovered artifacts, it appears that the family’s purchasing power and consumption of commercial products increased significantly in the 1890s. Ransom and Sarah Williams clearly used some of their discretionary money—profit made from their successful farming operation—to purchase nonessential items on occasion. Many of the artifacts found on the farmstead can be matched with identical or similar items advertised in mail-order catalogs from around the turn of the century.  These include several musical instruments, a men's pocket watch, a Frontier Bull Dog revolver, a kerosene lamo with crysal glass base, ornamental items such as a ladies' brooch, jet buttons, and hair comb, and a variety of childrens' toys and school items.  Despite their physical isolation, there is little doubt that the family soon became well entrenched in the burgeoning American consumer culture of the day.

Making Choices and Expressing Identity

For the Williams family, this new means of making choices and expressing identities may have been laden with symbolic as well as political meanings. In the view of archeologist and author Paul Mullins, people have always used material culture as a means of reinforcing their social status, group affiliation, and individual identities. To freedmen who had once been commodities themselves, the concepts of wealth, class, and social privilege were not at all foreign. In The Archaeology of Consumer Culture, Mullins posits:  “African Americans understood the significant privileges vested in consumer citizenship, privileges many white consumers simply took for granted. The collapse of Reconstruction vanquished many of African America’s partisan political ambitions and began a lengthy assault on their public rights, and this may have boosted the politicization of consumption among African Americans.”  Many blacks were optimistic that free-market capitalism would eventually level the playing field for African Americans, but others “tended to soberly acknowledge the deep rootedness of anti-black racism and believed that it was only in a largely insular black economy that African Americans might blaze their own path to self-determination.”

As successful farmers and landowners, Ransom and Sarah Williams were able to build a good life for themselves and acquire some luxuries for the family, and they did business with African American enterprises when possible. When they spent extra money on a matching set of china with an elegant floral design, imported from England and complete with a tea service (cups and saucers), it was an expression of their financial success and equality as American consumers. Owning such objects was for them, as it is for so many people today, a source of pride and a statement of identity. At the same time, however, Ransom and Sarah Williams probably had no illusions about their place on the social ladder in the Jim Crow South. When they ventured into public in the white world, they would have dressed conservatively, and their displays of wealth would have been kept to a minimum.

Archeology and Social Identity: Who Were the Williamses?

Ransom and Sarah Williams and their children cannot be lumped into a group represented by a single identity. Rather, like all peoples, their identities varied according to particular social situations. At different times, they would have been Americans, African American freedmen, Texans, central Texas farmers, horse breeders, business entrepreneurs, consumers, laborers, or Christians. At many times, the family’s identity would have been defined by a combination of their race and economic class, with their role as African American landowners being the significant criteria that defined their lives within the white Bear Creek community and the nearby freedmen communities at Antioch Colony and Rose Colony-Manchaca. Their identities were also shaped by the larger political structures that were controlled by white-run society, including the governments of Travis County, the State of Texas, and the United States.

Amid tumultuous changes, there also is evidence the family held on to some of the old ways, perhaps derived from Ransom’s early years in the plantation South where cherished African folk traditions and spiritual beliefs were passed on from generation to generation and burnished in their memories. In this section, we examine some of the Williams family identities as revealed by the archeological investigations and recovered artifacts.

Keepers of Tradition: The Southern Swept Yard

Although it was less intensively investigated that the house footprint or trash midden, the immediate yard area around the Williams house proved to be an important component of the farmstead. After comparing the artifact recovery rates across the house complex, we discovered that the yard area had an extremely low artifact density and yielded an abundance of small and fragmentary items. To explain this phenomenon, we proposed that the Williams family maintained a swept-earth yard, keeping it devoid of vegetation and regularly sweeping it to remove debris.

The swept yard, a tradition that can be traced back to Africa and the Carribean, serves not only a practical function but carries symbolic and social meaning. Archeologists Barbara Heath and Amber Bennet note that the Bakongo of Central Africa believe that sweeping as a ritual gesture helps rid a place of undesirable spirits (see sidebar: The Southern Swept Yard).

In his summary of African American archeology in the South, Virginia archeologist Fesler summarized the swept yard phenomenon as follows:

Sweeping a dirt yard bare around the house is a familiar practice today to most rural American Southerners, both black and white, although swept yards are especially prevalent in rural African-American home sites in the South. In fact, Southern whites likely adopted the practice of yard sweeping from African-Americans as Southern culture was creolized. The functional reasons for keeping a yard swept are numerous, including ridding the yard of insects, snakes, and other vermin, keeping the grass down to prevent brush fires, and providing a clean, orderly place for socializing out of doors, especially during the hot and humid summer months.

The swept yard tradition was still practiced in central Texas into the 1930s and 1940s, as demonstrated in an oral history interview. Ruth Fears, who grew up in the Antioch Colony freedmen community 4.5 miles from the Williams farmstead recalled that “We got out and swept the yard, swept the yard clean.” She also recalled using broom weed: “We’d get them and tie them around at the bottom and sweep the yard up. That’s what we swept the yard with.”

Given the long history and significance of the swept yard tradition among Southern African Americans, it is not surprising that the Williams family practiced yard sweeping at their home. The archeological evidence suggests that they did this regularly over a long period of time. Exactly why they did this is less certain. As former slaves, it is likely that Ransom and Sarah would have been aware of the spiritual connotations of yard sweeping. Unfortunately, we know nothing of their specific African roots and can only speculate on the extent to which Ransom and Sarah believed they were sweeping away evil spirits. Perhaps this cultural tradition was important to them because it provided a connection with their ancestors. Or they may have simply wanted a swept yard to provide a safe place for young children to play and protect their home from brush fires. In any case, the original knowledge of the early practitioners has been lost, and people who keep swept yards today are often totally unaware of the spiritual connotations that yard sweeping once had.


Believers in Ritual: The Dart Point in the Chimney Firebox

Other evidence of deeply held traditions was found inside the cabin. The most intriguing artifact, in terms of its symbolic meaning, is not even a historic item but a prehistoric one. Archeologists uncovered a nearly complete chipped-stone dart point in the chimney; it had clearly been placed in the sand and rock layer at the bottom of the firebox for a particular purpose. Its context leaves no doubt that the dart point represents some type of ritual offering that was made when the chimney and house were being constructed. We believe that this dart point was a protective charm placed in the fireplace by Ransom Williams.

The dart point may have had a relatively simple meaning, such as to bring good luck to the household similar to what a horseshoe hung above a doorway means. Or its symbolism may have been deeper, perhaps representing an offering to honor the ancestors who lived on the land before or a charm to keep evil spirits from entering the house through the fireplace.

There are many examples of material culture used by African Americans as charms in religious, spiritual, or ritual contexts. Documented through oral history, archeological finds, or both, these types of offerings include: concentrations of sewing items and shiny objects associated with conjure bags; placement of particular objects into symbolic patterns (e.g., cosmogram); markings on artifacts (engraved cosmogram); coins worn in a shoe; coins (often dimes) with drilled holes worn as necklaces and ankle bracelets; exotic natural stones (crystals and polished rocks), and Native American artifacts (especially projectile points).

In their 1997 article, Conjuring in the Big House Kitchen: An Interpretation of African American Belief Systems, Based on the Uses of Archaeology and Folklore Sources, Mark Leone and Gadys-Marie Fry note that chimneys and hearths were important locations within African American dwellings where ritual caches or bundles were frequently placed, citing cases in Virginia and Annapolis, Maryland. Collectively, a great deal of historical and archeological evidence indicates that windows, doors, and chimneys were thought to represent openings where evil spirits could enter or leave a house, and these were the spots were conjuring charms were placed.

Although we will probably never know why Ransom Williams placed this dart point in the center of the firebox when he built his house, we can add this example to a growing list of archeological finds where Native American artifacts were placed in probable ritual contexts within African American households. This pattern appears to represent a belief system that was common among African Americans, and the special symbolism of Native American items and hearths are subjects that warrants more study.

Bearers of American Patriotic Symbols

Three types of artifacts from the farmstead incorporate visual symbolism of the United States of America, and these objects may have been valued possessions in the Williams family because of this patriotic association. Two U.S. Army general service buttons were found, and their faces are stamped with the classic image of a spread-winged eagle with a stars-and-stripes shield on its chest. The style of the eagle indicates they were manufactured between 1855 and 1884, and they may have been from a uniform that was used during the Civil War or surplus sold after the war. There is no way to know whether Ransom Williams acquired a U.S. Army jacket with the buttons on it, or only acquired the military buttons. It is reasonable to assume, however, that he would have been aware that these button were the same style worn by the Union soldiers who helped emancipate the enslaved African Americans. He would also have been aware that regiments of African American soldiers, some northern freedmen and some escaped Southern slaves, had fought for the Union and wore these buttons. Perhaps Williams believed that these military button were symbolic of freedom, and they may have been an important possession for a former slave who was probably 19 years old at emancipation.

The second artifact bearing a patriotic symbol is the cheek plate of a snaffle bit with a distinctive U.S. star-and-shield design. There is little doubt that Ransom Williams was an accomplished horseman since he had his own horse brand and worked with horses for more than 30 years. Like most horsemen, he probably took pride in his horse gear, and the star-and-shield snaffle bit was the most ornate piece of horse tack that was found. He could have obtained a secondhand bridle or bit and been completely oblivious to the symbolism, but this seems unlikely. Rather, it is more likely that Ransom purchased this bit and intentionally selected it because he was proud to display this patriotic symbol when riding his horse in public.

The third artifact with U.S. symbolism is most intriguing. It is a commemorative spoon, manufactured to honor Captain Sigsbee and the battleship USS Maine that sank in Havana Harbor in February 1898. This was a critical event in the buildup to the Spanish-American War, and all adult American men would have been aware of this important national news. Ransom Williams certainly would have heard the news about the sinking of the USS Maine and probably kept up with all the war news that year. This finding suggests that Ransom purchased the commemorative spoon less than three years before he died. The item may indicate that he kept up with current political affairs and wanted to display his patriotism and show his support for the U.S. war effort. In addition, he was probably well aware that many African American soldiers fought and died in the Spanish-American War, and this may have been a source of pride as well.

Participants in a Regional African-American Economic Network   

The Williams family was typical of many American consumers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and their material remains denote their success in their farming endeavors. But the post-emancipation, Jim Crow era in which they lived put limitations on their freedom and social interactions. Blacks in the post-war South cooperated with whites economically, but their relationships were seldom on the social level, at least not in public. Blacks attended segregated churches, went to segregated schools, and followed a strict set of rules for how they should behave and interact with whites on a day-to-day basis. Like the rest of the South, central Texas was a highly segregated and discriminatory society, and the Williams family had to deal with this reality.

Within this context of mandated social segregation, African Americans not only congregated into their own communities, but they also sought to create their own businesses and economies. Whenever possible, black consumers tried to do business with black-owned enterprises; they would buy products manufactured by blacks or black-owned firms, and use the services provided by blacks. In addition, blacks also sought to do business with national and local companies that were friendly to the African American community, especially those firms that catered to black consumers through advertising.

Two lines of evidence from the farmstead indicate the Williams family was indeed connected to a regional African American economic network and even consumers of African-American made products. In both cases, the evidence involves interpreting artifacts from the farmstead in light of historical evidence.

Archeologists found numerous stoneware sherds at the Williams farm that, after reconstruction, looked quite similar to some of the stoneware pots made at the Wilson potteries near Seguin, Texas. These historic potteries—among the earliest African American-owned businesses in Texas—were operated by brothers Hiram and James Wilson, both former slaves of the Rev. John McKamey Wilson, who founded the first pottery-making enterprise there in 1857. Although we know very little about the distribution and marketing of their wares, the Wilson potteries operated for many decades, and their pots were widely distributed. It is reasonable to suggest that after 1865 the Wilson potteries would have distributed their wares to white-owned and black-owned retail stores throughout the central Texas region.

To determine if the four reconstructed stoneware vessels from the farmstead were from the Wilson Pottery, a sourcing study (Neutron Activation Analysis) was conducted on the sherds to compare their chemical constituents to samples from the pottery and other sites. This involved a statistical analysis of 32 elements to define the chemical clusters. Based on findings from the analysis of 50 sherds, we can tentatively say that the four pots from the farmstead were made at one of the Wilson potteries. If correct, this interpretation is significant for African Diaspora studies because it denotes a specific type of consumer behavior among late-nineteenth-century freedmen, and it and demonstrates that rural freedmen farmers in central Texas were participants in a larger regional economic network that involved black-owned businesses.

Another line of evidence suggests the Williams family patropnized businesses that marketed to the African-American community. Seven bottles found at the Williams farmstead bear the name of the Morley Brothers Drugstore or one of its products. The Morley Brothers started this business in downtown Austin in 1874, and they advertised regularly in the African American newspapers in the 1890s. The business operated well into the twentieth century, and then became the Grove Drugstore.

In conjunction with the Williams farmstead artifact analysis, archeologist Nedra Lee reviewed a number of African American newspapers in Austin archives, looking for historical evidence of how the news media influenced the freedmen communities and the identities of black Texans. She examined 135 issues dating between 1868 and 1907 in five different African American newspapers, and recorded each paid advertisement that appeared in each issue. This data turned out to be quite useful for interpreting the artifacts recovered at the Williams farmstead. We discovered there was a strong correlation between many of the glass bottles that were found at the farm and several specific products that were advertised in the newspapers.

Although members of the Williams family likely did not read advertisements for products in the Austin newspapers, they would have still been connected to the local African American economic network. They were linked to the larger freedmen community through church, their kids attending school, social events (such as Juneteenth celebrations), and through the local stores they would have patronized. All of these factors would have steered them toward doing business within their own community and informed them of the large economic sphere of black-owned and black-friendly businesses.

The End of an Era:
The Williams Family and the Great Migration

The question of why the Williamses left their farm and eventually sold the land is an important one, and the answer is rooted in specific and general historical circumstances. Many key events may have factored into the decisions made by African Americans to leave the farms they owned or worked. These events may have included the death of the head of a household; severe or extended droughts; unfavorable local economy; unfavorable changes in laws, especially the passage of Jim Crow laws that limited the freedoms of blacks in Southern states; unfair or hostile treatment by landlords; and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and an increased threat of violence.

As these situations intensified and converged in the decades following Reconstruction, many African Americans began moving from rural to urban areas and, on a larger scale, from the South to the North. Historian Louis Kyriakoudes  calls this a southern variant of the Great Migration and notes that the urbanization of black southerners began as a slow trickle in the 1890s and rose to a torrent during and after World War I. The Great Migration is recognized as one of the most significant mass migrations in human history. In their book, Homecoming: The Story of African American Farmers, Charlotte Gilbert and Quinn Eli summarize the historical context of the Great Migration:

From the time of Reconstruction to the mid-twentieth century, blacks in the South were perhaps more keenly aware than blacks in any other part of the country of the failure of America’s promise to provide liberty and justice for all. In the years after the Civil War a systematic attempt to strip African-Americans of the entitlements bestowed upon them in 1865 by the Emancipation Proclamation left many blacks in positions of poverty and servitude that resembled exactly the circumstances they had endured as slaves. For this reason a good many of them fled the South. They left in droves. Despite the fact that the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment mandated that all persons born in the Unites States were to enjoy full citizenship and equal rights under the law, many Southern states refused to acknowledge these laws, thereby forcing a number of African-Americans to look elsewhere for a better quality of life.

This massive migration, which included moving from rural to urban and from the South to the North, was triggered by a number of key historical events of the late-nineteenth century. Gilbert and Eli aptly describe this torrent of events:

The reckless disregard by whites of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, the various political disfranchisement activities of the early 1890s, and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 cumulatively and profoundly affected the lives of black farmers. Each new setback seemed to do more damage than the one before, and eventually all the setbacks began to feel like a hard, swift, single blow to the heart of every Southern black farmer.

For a variety of reasons, thousands of black people left their farms and headed to the cities. Historians have long debated the many reasons this occurred, but escaping racial discrimination and the threat of mob violence are always high on any list. The 1922 book, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, contains an entire chapter devoted to the “Migration of Negroes from the South.” It lists the following conditions in the South as contributing factors to the Great Migration: high rent and low wages, the boll weevil, lack of capital and poor credit system, unsatisfactory living conditions, lack of school facilities, lack of protection from mob violence, injustice in the courts, inferior transportation facilities (i.e., the baggage cars on trains were called “Jim Crow cars”), deprivation of the right to vote, “rough-handed” and unfair competition of “poor whites”, persecution by petty officers of the law, and persecution of the Press. In a nutshell, African Americans who lived in towns and cities had better prospects, better jobs, and more business opportunities than their African American counterparts living in rural areas.

When the Williamses left their family farm around 1905, they were simply reacting to their own particular circumstances and local conditions. They were participants in the Great Migration along with thousands of other African Americans in Texas who made similar choices in similar circumstances. It is doubtful that anyone in the Williams family understood the historical significance of the massive migration that was happening all around them. That kind of perspective would not be possible until long after these events had passed.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, things looked a lot different on the Williams farm. Ransom was older too, and his body may have been exhausted after a lifetime of hard work, first as an enslaved laborer and then as a freedman farm owner. Ransom was probably 55 years old when he died in 1901. Severe droughts in central Texas that year may have been an added stress that contributed to his death. He left behind his widow Sarah, aged 50, and their oldest children Will, 25; Charley, 23; Mary 19; Henry, 18; and Mattie, 16, to work the farm and help raise their younger siblings (John, 12, and Emma, 9). But a year earlier, oldest son, Will, had married Clara Franklin, and the couple moved away to Creedmoor to begin their new lives together; they had their first child by 1903. The fate of the next oldest sons is unknown: Charley disappears from the records after 1904, and we think he may have died by 1906. Henry died in 1911 at age 28, and the official cause of death was: “Heart failure, produced by stab would in left leg over 1 year ago.” Regardless, all evidence indicates that by 1905 Sarah and the younger children had left the old farmstead and moved to the black community in east Austin. Like many thousands of rural blacks throughout the South, the Williamses had given up the agricultural lifestyle and become urban dwellers.

Although they had left the farm, the Williams family continued to own their land for many years. In 1901, the family farm consisted of the original 45-acre farmstead plus 12 acres of adjacent farmland that the older boys, Will and Charley, had purchased in 1900. But Charley sold his 6 acres in 1902, and Will and his wife Clara sold their 6 acres in 1905. When Sarah died in 1921, her children inherited the farm, which was back to the original 45 acres. They kept the property together for a few more years, but sold off a 2/5 portion of the estate in 1934 and the remaining 3/5 portion in 1941. If Will and Clara were living and farming with her family in Creedmoor by 1903 and Charley had died by 1906, then there were no adult males left to run the farm. This suggests that the Williamses rented their farm to someone else from 1905 through 1941. In any case, the archeological evidence shows that no one lived on the original farmstead after ca. 1905.

One wonders what the Williams children thought when they finally sold off the last of the old farmstead in 1941. Maybe it had become a liability, and they were happy to get rid of it. Perhaps they were reluctant but had to sell it for financial reasons. In any case, it might have been a sad day for Will and his siblings because they knew they were parting with an important piece of their family history. It was the first true home for their parents—the place where they earned their living, raised their family, and created memories. But in a larger sense, the small farmstead in Travis County had been a symbol of freedom for Ransom and Sarah Williams, a part of their identities as American citizens.

In This Section:

  • The Williams Family as American Consumers
  • Uncovering Social Identity: Who Were the Williamses?
  • Keepers of Tradition: The Southern Swept Yard
  • Believers in Ritual: The Dart Point in the Chimney Firebox
  • Bearers of American Patriotic Symbols
  • Participants in a Regional African-American Economic Network
  • End of an Era: The Great Migration
Ransom Williams clearly knew his way around horses, a skill he may have acquired from laboring under a Kentucky master. This painting by Frank Weir is a reconstruction of the Williams Farmstead corral area, based on the numerous horse-related artifacts found at the farm as well as historic evidence, such as tax records, documenting his ownership of horses.
“Weighing Cotton—In one of the Large Cotton Fields in Texas, U. S.A.” African Americans weigh sacks of cotton next to a wagon, ca. 1905. They were probably hired laborers who picked the cotton and were paid by the pound. Landowners like Ransom Williams would have weighed their own cotton before taking it to a local market to sell. Image from the Library of Congress .
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in the 1890s, and mail-order catalogs were an easy way for rural farmers to buy some of the things they wanted. A quick look at the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog demonstrates the purchasing power of $20.00. A simple, light-frame, one-seat, horse-drawn “Studebaker Road Cart” cost $17.00 (p. 580) and a youth bicycle with a 28-inch front wheel cost $18.00 (p. 565). More
Estimating Ransom Williams' Purchasing Power
Annual Report of the Agricultural Bureau for 1890-91

To get an idea of what crops Ransom Williams might have grown and what they were worth, we looked at the Fourth Annual Report of the Agricultural Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History, 1890-91. Published in 1892 by the Texas Agricultural Bureau, this report provides a snapshot of the overall farm production for each Texas county for the 1890-1891 production year. It shows that that farmers in Hays and Travis Counties grew a variety of crops, but the most important ones were cotton and corn.

From tax records, we know that nearly every farm in the area, large and small, grew some cotton and corn. Cotton was a cash crop, and it may have been Ransom's most important source of outside income each year.

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Dinners at the Williams farmstead were probably served on English-made transfer-printed ceramics like the plate shown in this photograph. On the back of this plate is a maker’s mark identifying the floral design as the “Kenwood Pattern” made by the Alfred Meakin Company, and the particular mark was used only between 1875 to 1897, and the word “England” indicates manufacture after 1890. The finding of a plate, a saucer, cups, and other sherds with the same Kenwood floral design indicates that Sarah Williams had purchased a set of matching dishes sometime after 1890, likely from a mail-order catalog. Enlarge to learn more.
One of the books by archeologist Paul Mullins, one of the nation’s leading authorities on consumer behavior reflected  in historical and archeological records.
The Southern Swept Yard
"Children Sweeping Yard in South Carolina" Taken in June 1939, this photo from the Library of Congress shows four African American children sweeping the yard in front of their South Carolina tenant house.

Many historical researchers agree the swept yard tradition has deep roots in the southern United States and that it originated in Africa. Swept yards have been observed archeologically in many African American domestic sites across the South, such as at the Waverly Plantation in Mississippi and at the Hermitage Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. They have also been documented in Texas farm sites.

According to ethnographer Richard Westmacott, who has studied African American yards in the South, the swept yard was adopted by white families who observed the behavior among their slaves. “Almost everybody had swept yards, including the plantations, which were swept by slaves or servants.”  


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Dart Points as Totems
This dart point placed in the chimney firebox likely had symbolic meaning to the Williams family.

Native American projectile points historically have had special meaning among African Americans as ritual or spiritual items. Traced both archeologically and through ethnographic accounts, chipped stone points are still sought for good luck charms.

Archeologists have observed a pattern of these lithic artifacts occurring in African American housesites, and a link between hearths and ritual activities related to firemaking. At the Oakley Planation in Louisiana, historic archeologist Laurie Wilkie notes that the evidence indicated that “the objects had cultural meaning beyond souvenirs.”


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These U.S. Army general service buttons are of the type worn during the Civil War by Union soldiers, black or white. Perhaps Ransom or another family member kept them as a symbol of those who fought for their freedom.
This horse's snaffle bit has a patriotic cheek plate with U.S. star and shield.
A commemorative spoon honors the USS Maine, a battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in February 1898 and was cited as justification for the U.S. entering the Spanish-American war. Was the presence of these items at the Williams farmstead merely a coincidence? Or did their patriotic symbolism make them some of Ransom Williams's prized possessions?
Four of the stoneware pots and sherd groups found at the Williams farmstead. A stoneware sourcing study suggests these vessels came from the Wilson potteries in Guadalupe County, one of the earliest African American-owned businesses in the state.
Graph of Neutron Activation Analysis results for the stoneware sourcing study. This graph shows the distributions of the 50 NAA samples by comparing the elements chromium and cesium in bivariate scatter plots. Enlarge to learn more.
One of the bottles from Morley Brothers Drug Store in Austin found at the Williams farm (top), and an advertisement placed by the company in a late 19th-century African American newspaper published in Austin.
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A graphic depiction of the migration of rural Southern blacks off the farms and into the cities across the nation, showing population data for African Americans in the United States from 1890 to 1930. The continuous increase in urban dwellers stands in sharp contrast to the slowed growth and decline in the rural population. Image by Michael Siegel, courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

"The Reason" For Leaving
This cartoon illustration by Albert A. Smith was published in the March 1920 issue of The Crisis, the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It depicts a black man running away to the North to escape the violence in the South. The same issue of The Crisis stated that in the 31 years from 1889 to 1919, 3,808 persons were lynched in the United States, and 68 percent of them were Negroes (2,549 men and 51 women). Texas had more than its share of lynchings and mob violence against blacks.
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A Negro Family from the Rural South. This photograph shows a black Southern family as they just arrived in Chicago, Illinois, about 1922. This was one of thousands of families that came to Chicago in the early twentieth century. Each family had its own story as to why they left the South, but many of the stories were the same. This photo is from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and it was originally published in The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, published in 1922.
The Great Migration in Texas. This graph shows population data for rural blacks in Texas from 1890 to 1990. The relative proportion of rural blacks, expressed as a percentage out of the total black population, declined steadily for over a century. The massive movement of rural blacks to the cities in Texas was indeed part of the Great Migration, and this decades-long trend would forever change the character of Texas and the United States.