Colonial Period Archaeology at Silver Bluff ___________________________________________________________________________________

Native American groups like the Cherokee and Creek were instrumental in the early economic development of the South Carolina backcountry during the colonial period.  The backcountry extended approximately 50 miles inland from the Atlantic coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains (Figure 1).  In addition to previous archaeological studies that have investigated colonial period Native American material culture and communities, backcountry research has also focused upon sites occupied by European Americans who participated in the Indian trade.  Previous research has explored two interrelated types of European-American sites associated with the Indian trade, represented by forts established as part of government policy and privately operated trading posts. 

 During the first quarter of the 18th century when deerskins were a leading export commodity, the British colonial government in South Carolina attempted to regulate trade relations with local Native Americans, such as the Cherokee and Creek.  Regulation of the Indian trade centered upon two main objectives.  The first goal was designed to maintain amicable trade relations between local indigenous groups and both government and private traders.  The second objective pursued by the colonial government was to maintain a monopoly on the trade and prevent external groups in nearby colonies, such as Virginia traders, from infiltrating the South Carolina frontier economy.  An additional objective of the government was to maintain peaceful relations among the Native Americans which would encourage settlement of the frontier by colonists.  To regulate the Indian trade, the British government authorized the creation of two early frontier posts in the South Carolina backcountry, consisting of Fort Moore, near Augusta, and Old Fort Congaree, near present day Columbia.

In addition to early fortified trade complexes maintained by the South Carolina colonial government, numerous privately owned and licensed trading posts also existed in the backcountry, especially after an act in 1721 legalized private participation in the Indian trade among colonists.  It was not uncommon for individual households to maintain small stores of goods for trade with local Native Americans and neighboring settlers.  Besides small scale trading posts that supplied local communities, very substantial commercial trading operations that supplied entire regions also developed in the interior frontier during the 1730s and 1740s.  Galphin's trading post and Ninety Six are two examples of substantial, regional level trading establishments that existed in the backcountry.  Galphin's trading post (site 38AK7), later called Silver Bluff plantation, is located adjacent to the Savannah River in Aiken County near Jackson.  The site is an important, if not an atypical, example of a very large, privately owned post that initially catered to the Indian trade and later supplied settler households with manufactured goods.  The post's strategic location adjacent to the Savannah River provided Galphin direct access to Native Americans via water transportation such as canoes (Figure 1).  Also, deerskins and other frontier commodities could be shipped directly down river from Silver Bluff to Savannah on riverboats.  Goods were also transported overland to Charleston and Pensacola from Silver Bluff.



Figure 1. The South Carolina backcountry.


Silver Bluff was established by George Galphin, originally a native of Northern Ireland, as early as 1739 or during the 1740s.  Galphin, the son of a weaver, left Ireland early in his life in 1737 and served as an Indian interpreter for the colonial government during the 1740s.  By mid-century, Galphin was conducting a very lucrative business in the deerskin trade and was also involved in land speculation.  Besides the trade complex at Silver Bluff, Galphin also operated another post, called Old Town, along the Ogeechee River in east-central Georgia by the 1760s.  His early success in the Indian trade later allowed Galphin to expand his commercial operations, and he quickly established a large plantation at Silver Bluff.  By the 1760s, substantial quantities of corn, indigo, and tobacco were being produced at the plantation.  Upon his death in 1780, Galphin owned thousands of acres in South Carolina and Georgia along with 128 enslaved African Americans.

Silver Bluff is significant archaeologically because it is a relevant example of a large-scale frontier trading post.  The site is also important because it illustrates in miniature the economic transition from an early frontier trading post to a large, colonial-era plantation.  Hence, the landscape history associated with the site should reflect this economic trajectory.  Although a great deal of documentary information has survived to the present-era concerning Galphin's business activities at Silver Bluff, specifics concerning the spatial organization and landscape history associated with the trading post and plantation remain sketchy.  For example, it is known that the plantation contained at least two brick dwellings at different locations, one of which was possibly a two-story structure.  Galphin owned 128 slaves, so presumably the dwellings associated with a large slave community also existed at Silver Bluff, in addition to a trade complex and the above mentioned brick residences.

Today, circa 3,000 acres of Galphin's original property encompassing the trading post and plantation are maintained as the Silver Bluff Plantation Sanctuary by the National Audubon Society.  The preserve was established in the 1970s.  Two previous episodes of systematic site survey have been conducted at Silver Bluff by personnel with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), University of South Carolina.  In 1999, block excavations were also conducted at the site.  The first field effort at Silver Bluff was conducted by SCIAA personnel and volunteers with the University of South Carolina, Aiken, the Archaeological Society of South Carolina, and the Augusta Archaeological Society between November 1979 and March 1980.  The objective of site survey was to define the location and spatial distribution of colonial-period archaeological resources at Silver Bluff.  This goal was accomplished by systematically collecting artifacts on the ground surface from approximately 52 randomly distributed sampling units.  The collection units were 10 x 10 m in size.

Results from the first episode of fieldwork at Silver Bluff indicate that the site contains a substantial Mississippian-period prehistoric occupation located west of the main access road.  More importantly, the colonial-period occupation at the site encompasses an approximately rectangular area located immediately east of the main access road.  The historic occupation at the site appears to be concentrated in an area approximately 50 x 100 m in size.  Field data from the first episode of survey also indicates that the center area of the site, based on the spatial distribution of brick fragments, probably contains the remains of one or more brick structures (Figure 2).  Conversely, the southern portion of the site adjacent to the Savannah River contains a very prominent concentration of bottle glass and tobacco pipe fragments--consumption related artifacts associated with leisure time or social activities--suggesting trade activities probably occurred in the area near the river bluff and presumed river landing.  The southern portion of the site also contains high concentrations of nails and comparatively low proportions of brick fragments, further suggesting wooden frame storehouses or warehouses may have been located in this area of the trade complex.


  Figure 2.  Distribution of brick fragments at Silver Bluff defined by site survey conducted between 1979 and 1980.


A second episode of site survey and testing was later conducted at Silver Bluff by personnel with the SRARP, University of South Carolina, beginning in 1996.  This effort, conducted by David Crass, Tammy Forehand, and Bruce Penner, focused upon the 50 x 100 m area previously defined during site survey between 1979 and 1980.  Site investigations during 1996 included systematic, close-interval shovel tests and a ground- penetrating radar survey.  These efforts located a large number of subsurface features and anomalies at the site, further demonstrating the archaeological research potential of Silver Bluff.  The information recovered from subsurface sampling was subsequently analyzed using computer mapping techniques.  Spatial analysis in turn provided very fine-grained distribution maps of material at the site.  The results of spatial analysis (Figures 3 and 4) indicate that at least six structures, probably dwellings, were located in the large field near the river landing.  Interestingly, the structures appear to form a large, rectangular compound with the length of the compound oriented on a north‑south axis. 


Figure 3.  Spatial analysis of architectural artifacts at Silver Bluff defined by subsurface survey in 1996.


Figure 4.  Conjectural spatial arrangement of Silver Bluff based on current archaeological information.


Structure 1, located in the northeast corner of the rectangle, was initially discovered during the shovel test survey when personnel located and subsequently excavated a root cellar associated with the dwelling.  The structure is probably of heavy frame, post‑in‑ground or earthfast construction.  Based on the low occurrence of architectural artifacts associated with the dwelling and its insubstantial character, it may have been the residence of house slaves.  Structures 2 and 3 are located in the northwest quarter of the compound and were identified by a very heavy concentration of brick and domestic debris apparent in the spatial analysis results.  It was assumed that Structure 2, the larger concentration of brick, may have been the principal dwelling in the compound.  Further, Structure 3, the smaller brick cluster located to the southwest of Structure 2, may be the location of a detached kitchen or other type of outbuilding.  Structures 4 and 5, located near the southeast corner of the field, appear to be additional domestic residences, based on the moderate concentrations of architectural material and domestic refuse.  These structures are similar in size to Structure 1, suggesting they may have also been slave dwellings or public houses.  Structure 6, containing the densest concentration of artifacts yet defined at the site, is located in the southeast corner of the field.  The structure appears to have been an important building at the site, based on the very abundant concentration of consumption related artifacts—ceramics, bottle glass, and tobacco pipe fragments.  The identified artifact distribution indicates a very substantial amount of food, beverage, and tobacco consumption occurred near the river landing in the vicinity of Structure 6.  The structure may have been inhabited by one of Galphin's sons or his nephew who helped supervise the trading activities that occurred near the river landing.  Structure 6 was also perhaps the main trade house or store where business was conducted.  The large number of nails and very small amount of brick fragments recovered on the ground surface in the general vicinity of Structure 6 during the 1979 surface survey suggest it was constructed of wood rather than brick.

Site investigations were conducted again at Silver Bluff between May 12 and June 15, 1999 and focused upon block excavations in the area encompassing Structure 2, the heavy concentration of brick fragments identified through computer spatial analysis.  Excavations at the site were conducted through a field school sponsored by Augusta State University and the SRARP.  The field school was directed by Mark Groover, at the time an instructor in the Department of History and Anthropology at Augusta State University, and Tammy Forehand, Curator of Collections for the SRARP.  Immediately prior to the field school, a systematic steel probe survey was conducted in the area encompassing the Structure 2 brick concentration.  This survey resulted in the identification of a large subsurface brick feature, presumed to have been a cellar or chimney base.  The location of the brick feature was subsequently investigated during the field school through the excavation of a 4 x 5 m block of units (Figures 5 and 6).  The feature turned out to be the remains of a brick chimney base (Feature 18).  A builder's trench for a brick wall was not present near the chimney base.  Interestingly, however, several large structural postholes were located immediately adjacent to the chimney base, suggesting the structure was perhaps a half-timbered earthfast dwelling with brick-filled walls and a brick chimney.  The assumption of a brick dwelling is based on the high occurrence of brick fragments identified from spatial analysis.  Also, Galphin's will mentions that at least two of the dwellings at Silver Bluff were of brick construction.


Figure 5: Structure 2, 1999, palisade trench (left) and chimney base (right). 


Figure 6.  Base map of 1999 excavations, Structure 2.


Additional effort is certainly required to fully clarify the architectural details associated with the dwelling.  However, if the current, initial interpretation is correct, then Structure 2 at Silver Bluff possibly represents the first example of an earthfast dwelling with brick-filled walls identified for contexts associated with the interior frontier of South Carolina (Figure 7).  The few earthfast dwellings in the backcountry that have been investigated to date were clad in clapboards or possessed woven wattle walls that were plastered with daub.  The use of brick in combination with impermanent architecture, especially half-timbered earthfast dwellings, upon first consideration appears very contradictory and inefficient, especially since bricks could have been used as a sill or foundation for the framing elements.  This construction technique would have prevented the posts from rotting and having to be replaced.  However, this composite construction method, on the other hand, is consistent with what would be expected for a transitional vernacular form between impermanent and permanent structures, especially in a frontier setting.  Likewise, the seemingly contradictory use of brick in combination with earthfast construction methods also perhaps reveals both Galphin's humble background and the nouveau riche orientation that he adopted later in his life after financial success.  Put another way, the use of earthfast construction by Galphin illustrates reliance on an economical construction method familiar to middling households during the colonial period.  In turn, brick construction undoubtedly conveyed Galphin's economic success among visitors to the site and was certainly a very atypical construction material in the backcountry until after the Revolutionary War.  A few examples of colonial-period timber-and-brick dwellings are preserved in Old Salem, North Carolina (Figure 8).  Hence, this architectural style is consistent with the period of site occupation and also conveyed the economic resources of the landowner, albeit the construction method possibly illustrates a fascinating juxtaposition of architectural methods.


Figure 7.  Conjectural sketch of an earthfast structure with brick-filled walls.


Figure 8.  Sketch of an extant 18th-century timber-and-brick dwelling in Old Salem, North Carolina.


In addition to the chimney base and postholes associated with Structure 2, a section of defensive palisade trench was also encountered a few meters west of the dwelling in the excavation block (Feature 19).  A 1-x- 8 m section of units was then subsequently excavated immediately north of the main excavation block encompassing Structure 2.  Excavation of the palisade adjacent to Structure 2 revealed a continuous trench that also contained very large, intermittently spaced postholes for buttress posts.  The large size of  the buttress posts substantiated the presumed defensive function of the wooden wall.  The palisade appears to have been of post-and-paling construction and is very consistent with previously identified 17th- and 18th-century palisades, similar to examples identified in Virginia and South Carolina.  A section of palisade was first excavated in the main block and contained a trench and two very large postholes.  The two postholes were spaced approximately 8 ft. apart.  The trench also contained several molds associated with smaller, driven pales.

Similar to a very substantial picket fence, the palisade appears to have consisted of post-and-paling construction with large buttress posts seated in substantial postholes.  The spaces between the buttress posts were in turn filled with pales made from split rails that were seated in the trench.  The vertical pales would have been supported with horizontal spanners that extended between the buttress posts (Figure 9).  As revealed by the units located north of the original block, the palisade extends north from the dwelling.  A palisade corner with a bastion was also possibly located during excavation that appears to align with Structure 1 (Figure 4).  Extant information tentatively suggests that the site structure at Silver Bluff may consist of a large rectangular compound enclosed by a substantial palisade.  The north wall may have possessed a corner bastion in the northwest corner of the compound, whereas Structure 1 and Structure 5 may have been located near the northeast and southeast corners, respectively.  Structure 6 may have been located near the southwest corner of the compound.


Figure 9.  Illustration of a defensive palisade constructed with buttress posts and pales.


Additional information on the excavations at Silver Bluff can be found in the following article:

Forehand, Trammy R., Mark D. Groover, David C. Crass, and Robert Moon  2004  Bridging the Gap Between Archaeologists and the Public: Excavations at Silver Bluff Plantation, the George Galphin Site.  Early Georgia 32(1):51-73.


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