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Life after Slavery: Investigations of an African American Farmstead

Painting by Frank Weir of the Ransom and Sarah Williams farmstead, circa 1895
The Ransom and Sarah Williams farmstead, circa 1895, central Texas. This small hardscrabble farm was home to one African American family from 1871 to 1905, during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Painting by Frank Weir, based on archeological and historical evidence recovered during the farmstead project.

Although U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863, African American slaves in Texas would have to wait two and one-half more years before gaining their freedom. News of emancipation came to Texas on June 19, 1865, and it spread across the state over the next several months.

 We can only imagine how Ransom Williams and Sarah Houston felt when they learned that they were now free—that they were no longer someone else’s property. Ten years later, they would be married, living on a farm that Ransom had bought in Travis County just south of Austin, and starting their own family. The couple would see many changes in their lives during the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century as they transitioned from being enslaved to being free Americans. For newly freed blacks, legal emancipation was only the beginning of a long journey toward actual freedom and equality. It was a journey that would take many generations.

Evidence suggests that Ransom Williams had been a slave of the Bunton family who came to Texas from Kentucky and started a plantation at Mountain City, near Buda in Hays County.  It is possible that Ransom took the Bunton family name, but later changed his last name to “Williams.”  He bought his 45-acre farm in Travis County in 1871, and married Sarah Houston in 1875.  The couple had nine children over the next two decades.  Ransom died in 1901, but Sarah and some of the children continued to live on the farm until about 1905, when they moved to the well-established African American community in East Austin.  It is clear that someone, probably renters, continued to use the Williams farmland for agricultural purposes after that, but the historic and archeological evidence indicate that no one actually lived on the property after ca. 1905.

Significance: A Rare Perspective on Texas History

This small, hardscrabble farm near Bear Creek was home to the Williams family during the post-Civil War reconstruction and well into the Jim Crow era, when discrimination against blacks was encoded into state laws across the South. Ransom Williams purchased his 45 acres in a time when only a small percentage of blacks could afford any land at all. He and Sarah were both illiterate, but as parents they made sure their children attended school and practiced reading and writing at home. The vast array of artifacts recovered from their farmstead show that the Williams family prospered while many other blacks were struggling as low-wage laborers or falling into the oppressive system of tenant farming or sharecropping for white landlords. The Williams family lived within a rural white farming community, yet they managed to avoid the racial violence that was a very real threat for all blacks during the Jim Crow era.

Documented archeological sites known to represent freedmen farmsteads are extremely rare. Rarer still are sites that have been thoroughly investigated through archival research and oral history interviews, as well as through archeological excavations. While there are a few of these in the state, the Williams farmstead stands alone in its high degree of archeological integrity. The farmstead is relatively pristine, from an archeological perspective. Virtually all of the structural remains and artifacts on the site were created or used by the Williams family, and there were minimal disturbances to the site after the family left the property.

While one can find countless books, chapters, and articles written about white farmers and farm families all across Texas, comprehensive stories of post-emancipation freedmen farmers in the state are few and far between. The Williams Farmstead Archeological Project is the most intensive archeological and historical investigation ever attempted for an African American-owned farmstead in Texas. The project has illuminated a comprehensive and detailed story of one African American family during its transition from slavery to freedom.

It All Started with a Toll Road

A proposed toll road project in southern Travis County provided the opportunity to conduct an in-depth study of the post-emancipation transitions of African Americans by investigating the historic farmstead owned by Ransom and Sarah Williams. The investigations of this site were part of a multi-year, multidisciplinary, historic archeological project sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). The project was a collaborative effort between three Austin-based groups. Prewitt and Associates, Inc. conducted the on-site archeological investigations of the Williams farmstead, while Preservation Central, Inc. carried out the historic archival research. The third component of the project was the community outreach and oral history interviews with descendant community members, and this work was performed by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas.

Archeological field investigations were conducted at the Williams farmstead site from 2007 through 2009.  It was determined that the house site was relatively intact; the rock chimney and large foundation stones delineated the approximate location where a wooden house had stood, and the work revealed intact archeological deposits with numerous nineteenth-century artifacts. Around the house were indications of a possible outbuilding, a substantial trash dump, and some old rock walls.

When we looked at the entire farmstead property, rock alignments were found on the borders of the property, and large walls of stacked limestone rock fences were found along the edges of a heavily wooded area downslope and north of the house. By studying vegetation patterns in comparison with historic and modern aerial photographs, we were able to discern fields that were cleared long ago as well as areas that were left wooded to serve as livestock pastures.

The extensive work recovered over 26,000 artifacts and documented many household and farm features in a detailed landscape analysis of the property.  The community outreach and voluminous oral histories (more than 39 hours of audiotaped and fully transcribed interviews) bridge a gap between the Williams family on the farm in the late nineteenth century and their descendants living in East Austin today. These narratives correspond with the farmstead material culture in many ways, and they provide a unique African American perspective on the rural farm life in central Texas.

An additional avenue of research that is somewhat rare for this type of “cultural resource management” project was also conducted—a review of late nineteenth-century African American newspapers housed in Austin archives. The abundant advertisements for products and services helped us interpret the farmstead artifacts, and the diverse editorials and news articles provide yet another nineteenth-century African American perspective that cannot be found anywhere else.

Post-Emancipation Transitions and African Diaspora Studies

In time and space, the research focus for the Williams farmstead archeological project is seemingly narrow. But this small plot of land in central Texas, owned and occupied by a single black family from 1871 to 1905, is part of a much bigger story.  They did not know it at the time, but when the Williams family left the farm in 1905 they were participants in the “great migration.” This was a widespread trend when many black farmers sold off their small farms or left rural farming jobs to move to cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the Jim Crow era, racial discrimination was codified into laws all across the southern Untied States.  Racial prejudice and fear of violence were high on the list of reasons why many black farmers—including landowners, tenants, sharecroppers and laborers—abandoned their rural homes and moved to the larger cities in both the South and North.

The investigation of the Williams farmstead falls into the genre of African diaspora research, which is the greater effort to fully document and interpret the movements of African peoples across the world through all time periods. To understand why African diaspora studies are so important to Texas history, we must remember that Euro-Americans wrote most of the state’s history, and it is told from a decidedly Anglo-European perspective. Much of Texas’ history has been written by and about the white society that dominated the state’s political, economic, and academic realms throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this broader historic context, the Williams farmstead represents a snapshot in time and space within the larger story of the African Diaspora.

Through archeology, historical archives, and oral history, the Ransom and Sarah Williams farmstead project tells the story of one African American family’s transition from slavery to freedom. This family’s tenure on the land spans three decades after emancipation, a period that is poorly represented in historic and archeological records in Texas and throughout the Southern United States. While this project chronicles the life of a single freedmen farm family in central Texas, in a larger sense it represents thousands of other African American farm families all across Texas whose stories cannot be told. 

In This Exhibit

In the following sections, you can learn the story of the Williams farmstead as revealed through archeology, archival research, and oral histories. The Historical Context section provides background on slavery in Texas, the Reconstruction period, and the early Jim Crow era.  Family and Community traces the Williams family history within the rural communities of Bear Creek, Rose Colony, and Antioch Colony in southern Travis and northern Hays Counties.  This section includes a Williams Family Tree, compiled with information and photos discovered during the project.

The Archeology section details findings from landscape analysis and excavations using interactive maps. The thousands of Artifacts recovered from the site link the Williams family to the American consumer culture of the late nineteenth century, and these items are discussed in detail within a gallery of images.

Life on the Farmstead is reconstructed in three colorful scenes based on archeological and historical evidence recovered during the project. The Oral Histories section summarizes the descendant community outreach efforts and the oral history research as key components of the Williams farmstead project. Online audio clips from the interviews demonstrate strong links in the details of daily life between the nineteenth-century farmstead archeology and the twentieth-century recollections.

The special section on 19th-Century African American Newspapers traces post-emancipation life in Central Texas in the news media, including the pivotal role of the church and black businesses in education and racial issues.  Post-Emancipation Transitions draws together the full range of project findings and examines the experience of the Williams family within a broader context.

The K-12 Activities section for students features educational activities linking the archeological and historical findings to life on the Williams farmstead. An interactive timeline for the 1870s-1890s coupled with a population statistics activity provide stimulating learning challenges for slightly older students.  The Lessons for Teachers includes curricula for 4th- and 7th-grade students focused on African American life after slavery, the transition to citizenship, and the importance of freedmen's communities. Credits and Sources acknowledges the organizations and people who contributed to the Williams farmstead archeological project and this exhibit and provides references and links to  sources for additional information.

Throughout the exhibit, video clips of archeologists, historians, and members of the descendant community provide a variety of insights into what we know about the site and neighboring communities and how we arrived at those understandings.

Through archeology, archival records, and oral history, the Ransom and Sarah Williams farmstead project has revealed the story of one African American family’s transition from slavery to freedom. In a larger sense it represents thousands of other African American families whose stories cannot be told. 
Map if the farmstead site is located about 12 miles southwest of Austin
The farmstead site is located about 12 miles southwest of Austin. Although development has occurred all around it, the site's isolated rural location and sparse use after the family moved away served to preserve many of the farm features.
photo of rock walls bnuilt by Ransom Williams
One of the numerous segments of dry stacked walls built by Ransom Williams. Winding throughout the property, this system of walls defined property boundaries and enclosed fields and corrals. The property lay virtually undisturbed after the Williams family moved away in the early 1900s. Photo by Susan Dial. Enlarge for detail.
Photo of artifacts recovered from the farmstead,
Artifacts recovered from the farmstead, such as this place setting of English transfer-printed earthenware, testify to the success of the hardworking freedman family as they became particpants in the American economy at the turn of the century. Photo by Marsha Miller, The University of Texas at Austin.
Ariel photo of the 45-acre farmstead property (outlined in yellow)
The 45-acre farmstead property (outlined in yellow) sat squarely in the footprint of the proposed route of SH 45 Southwest (shown in blue). While development projects such as the roadway are destructive to cultural resources, they do enable historians and archeologists to conduct extensive investigations and study the people and place.
Photo of Principal Investigator Doug Boyd going over excavation notes for the house and chimney area with field crew
Principal Investigator Doug Boyd goes over excavation notes for the house and chimney area with field crew, including archeology students from the University of Texas at Austin. See video of Boyd describing his thoughts on the site.
Front page of The Austin Searchlight, one of several 19th-century African American newspapers researched for the project
Front page of The Austin Searchlight, one of several 19th-century African American newspapers researched for the project (see Newspapers section). Image courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Image of the Williams' Family Tree, shown in the Family and Community section
Will Williams, oldest son of Ransom and Sarah Williams, grew up on the farmstead and later married Clara Franklin, who lived to be more than100 years old. Historical research and community outreach helped investigators locate several descendants, who previously had known little about their Williams forebears. Although no photos of Ransom or Sarah Williams were located, numerous photos of descendants were donated for the making of a Family Tree, shown in the Family and Community section of this exhibit.
Photo of project leaders with one of Ransom and Sarah Williams' great-granddaughters
Project leaders with one of Ransom and Sarah Williams' great-granddaughters. From left, UT archeologist Maria Franklin, who conducted oral history interviews, archeologist Doug Boyd, Corrine Williams Harris, and historian Terri Myers. See video of Dr. Franklin discussing the benefits of investigating African American sites.
Photo of Artist Frank Weir, left, and LeDell Bunton, Sr.
Artist Frank Weir, left, and LeDell Bunton, Sr., examine a copy of the 1872 brand registry showing Ransom Williams' horse brand, the letters "RW". Bunton, who was born in Antioch Colony and is distantly related to Ransom and Sarah Williams, holds the rusted fragment of the branding iron— with the telltale letter "R"— found at the site. View artifact.
Image of Dr. Dirt, the Armadillo Archeologist, as he guides students through an interactive educational adventure to discover the farm and learn about the Williams family.
Dr. Dirt, the Armadillo Archeologist, guides students through an interactive educational adventure to discover the farm and learn about the Williams family.