On the heels of Texas statehood in 1845 and at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, “Texas Fever” impassioned throngs of Euro-Americans from the southern United States to move west to better their fortunes. Most of these migrants passed through Arkansas or Louisiana into the sparsely settled pineywoods of northeast Texas where they found the well-watered and fertile terrain suitable for farming. Northeast Texas quickly became the most populous region and farming the most important economic activity in the state.
In the heart of northeast Texas, mid-nineteenth-century Rusk County was not only among the most populous counties, but it also was among the most agriculturally productive. Despite economic successes, migrants to this rural area reported hard living conditions. Dwellings were commonly rustic, drafty, and rodent-infested, farm work was grueling, and life was often short. This was true for wealthy Euro-American planters and small-scale farmers alike, but it was especially true for the African Americans exploited to develop and maintain the burgeoning agricultural economy.
This exhibit tells the parallel stories of two neighboring medium-sized plantations in northeast Rusk County—those of Seaborn Jones Hendrick Sr. and Levi Hill Ware. Though these plantations bear names of family patriarchs, the sites hold within them the histories of not only the Hendrick and Ware families, but also the enslaved African Americans, paid laborers, and other community members who lived and worked on these plantations between 1851 and 1882, decades spanning the antebellum period, the Civil War, and post-war Reconstruction. The Hendrick and Ware plantations offer rare snapshots of rural plantation life in northeast Texas, conveyed through archeological and archival evidence, and the geography and social context of the region in the mid to late 1800s.
Uncovering Northeast Texas Plantation Life
The Hendrick and Ware plantations study arose during planning for a lignite mine by the North American Coal Corporation–Sabine Mine, to comply with federal laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The mine hired archeologists from Prewitt and Associates, Inc., to survey the proposed mine location and, in doing so, discovered the archeological remains of these plantations. Recognizing the sites' historical importance, Prewitt and Associates staff undertook further investigations, excavating portions of both sites and reviewing archival documents. Research focused on addressing questions about the plantations' evolution and the social environment and economy of northeast Rusk County in the 1800s.
Studies of large and complex historic sites do not happen quickly, and this one spanned more than 10 years. The Hendrick and Ware plantations were investigated archeologically between 2008 and 2018, beginning with survey and shovel testing, followed by test excavations and remote sensing, and eventually full-blown data recovery excavations. By the time their fieldwork was finished, archeologists had recovered more than 39,000 artifacts and excavated 11 locations of former buildings. Writing the report describing the excavations and the information they produced took another 2 years.
Fragments of the histories of the Ware and Hendrick families are documented in land grants and surveys, tax records, newspapers, censuses, and marriage and death records. For the 50 or more enslaved African Americans who worked at the Hendrick and Ware plantations, the majority of the plantation occupants, little documentation exists beyond the approximate ages and sexes of individuals listed in census records. The name of only one African American who worked at the Hendrick and Ware plantations is known from archival records: Littleton Watters. In February 1860, Watters was about 30 years old when Hendrick purchased him at a public auction in Henderson, Texas, for $1,160.
Inequality in the archival record is not unique to the Hendrick and Ware plantations, nor is it accidental—the lack of reliable sources about African American residents in the antebellum period reflects systemic racism before, during, and after the Civil War. Though the historical records pertaining to African American residents of the Ware and Hendrick plantations are minimal, the archeology of their dwellings revealed material traces of daily life. Artifacts recovered from cabin features disclose information about their diet, household tasks, and leisure activities.
Until this project, plantations received almost no archeological attention in northeast Texas. The excavation of the Hendrick and Ware plantations provided a rare opportunity to examine this little-studied but critical aspect of Texas and American history. These plantation sites were worthy of intensive investigation because they had intact deposits from mid-nineteenth-century slaveowners and the people they enslaved. These sites were particularly good candidates for excavation because the deposits, though mixed in some areas, had not been contaminated by materials from later occupations—an uncommon condition.
The period of historical significance for the Hendrick plantation is 1851–1882, beginning when Seaborn Jones Hendrick Sr. started amassing local land and ending with his death. The period for the Ware plantation is 1852–1860, from the date Levi Hill Ware began acquiring local land until two years after his death when his widow, Elizabeth Hinton Vinson Ware, remarried and moved from the plantation. These periods of significance are tethered to events in the lives of the Hendrick and Ware families, and therefore the operation of the plantations. These years and events were no less important to the many other plantation residents and community members who worked or visited there.
From the plantation investigations, researchers reconstructed the local mid-nineteenth-century cultural landscape. A cultural landscape approach to the study of the past considers how the natural and manmade environments intersect. For the Hendrick and Ware plantations, the archeology—including artifacts, building remnants and other features, and historic roads—as well as the local geology and soils, proximity to water, vegetation, and climate, were considered. The local cultural landscape situates the core of each plantation, where people lived and worked, within the larger farming enterprises and their connection to more-distant neighbors and commercial centers by roads and trails.
Together, the archeology, archival research, and cultural landscape approach reveal how theseplantations were laid out and provide insights into life before, during, and after the Civil War.
In This Exhibit
This exhibit introduces the social and political setting of rural northeast Texas plantation life, describes the Euro-American planter families, and details the patchwork history of the African Americans they enslaved. The Cultural Landscape section contains an interactive map that situates the plantations in their broader northeast Rusk County setting. Investigations describes the related archeological and historical studies completed between 2008 and 2021. Historic Rusk County summarizes the local setting, economy, and political context. Planter Families reviews the detailed histories of the Hendrick and Ware families uncovered during archival research. Enslaved Communities presents information about the enslaved African Americans who lived on the Ware and Hendrick plantations gleaned from archeology and archival records. The section also excerpts ethnographic accounts of people formerly enslaved in Rusk County. Hendrick Plantation Artifacts contains a discussion of how artifacts from this site inform archeologists' understanding of life there, including differences in the material culture of the planter family versus the enslaved. 1863 Visit follows an imaginary horseback rider visiting the Hendrick and Ware plantations at the end of winter 1863. Credits and Sources acknowledges the organizations and people who contributed to the project and this exhibit and provides references and links to additional sources.