By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Photo Credits: Mitchelville Freedom Park | LMGS

The Lowcountry is so rich in history and Mitchelville is a big part of creating a direct line of historic assets via what should be a historic trail between Hilton Head and Charleston. According to Ahmad Ward, Executive Director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, “I have spent 21 years in cultural heritage tourism and I believe that we will be an attraction for people who would not necessarily come to the Lowcountry and will possibly be a significant [tourism] impact to our area which has 500 years of history.” What’s great is that the Mitchelville project is “poised to change how people view the island and its history.” 

At one time, over 3,000 people lived within Mitchelville and the town went on for miles. As a fully functioning and self-governed town, it had all the elements that it needed to be successful. 

One resident, March Gardner, was the largest landowner owned a cotton mill, a grist mill and store 200 acres and rented 500 homes as well as.  Back then, as today, “land ownership has always been a significant part of Mitchelville” and the Gullah community. Recently, what has been found though, is that along with the personal value of historic Gullah land that has been held on to for generations, it has increased and enhanced by what has been found within the land.  

As a part of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park’s current Master Planning process, they have been surveying the park’s 24 acres and mapping locations for potential building sites. Within the last few years, several exciting finds have been discovered throughout the footprint of the park. 

Led by Katherine Seeber, a graduate student from Binghamton University’s Department of Anthropology says, that the dig has been “pretty exciting. Mitchelville is a very special place.” The older trees on the property “are important because it’s where people gathered, cooked, made baskets and nets. The work that they are doing “is based on context. Imagine doing something repetitive in the same place. The depths of items found represent various time periods based on how compacted they are.” 

It’s very cool to make an educated guess as to where Mitchelville ancestors lived” and find hot-spots where activities were done. Eventually, they will “be able to have a map based on the surveys to see these hot-spots.”  

With the use of magnetometry and ground penetrating radar, they found a full brick hearth as well as the outlines of what they believe to be the footprint of a home, a praise house and several items of colonoware, which is a type of ceramic that was not produced by anyone other than slaves. 

Colonoware is a hand-built, unglazed, low-fired, locally made coarse earthenware found on many domestic archaeological sites in Virginia, South Carolina, the Caribbean and to a lesser extent in North Carolina and Georgia.

Items from the island have been compared to similar pieces found from Savannah to Charleston and each of them have been identified as being specific to Hilton Head. During that time, the Gullah would have considered pottery a prized possession that would have been passed down for generations. As they moved around the island, which would have been a 2 to 3-hour walk, they took their ancestral belongings with them. “You can’t take your ancestors with you, but you can take their items with you, it’s a way to remind you of a place that you came from. Some of the most powerful parts of what we have is items from our past. In the future, we might be able to track down the specific potter and where they lived.” 

This isn’t the first time that archeological work has been done on the site and that the current dig has yielded a lot more results than expected. In one area, they pulled several 100’s of a specific kind of artifact called ceramic vessels, which were known to be produced by slaves during the 1600-1700s in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and the Caribbean.  

“Enslaved people came with the knowledge of how to produce ceramic. Finding the ceramics was unexpected. We had thought that we would find other types of daily life like; nails, glass bones or other types of cooking ware and scattered pieces. So far, the Mitchelville dig has showed a serious intention or effort when one object, in particular, was found. As the dig was progressing, they realized that that area “was not only special, but also religious.” The types of ceramics that have been found where used in religious ceremonies and could have been bought or traded in the 1800s.  

So far, “we’ve pulled more than 400 pieces” and “we have found more objects than we expected. It wasn’t an accident to have found so many pieces within feet of each other.” Most of the items, including “whole pots” that have been made from island clay was due to the Gullah being isolated on the island. “It was very common for the skilled Gullah within the community to make things that they needed.” One pot in particular, “was found like it was dropped and left. It wasn’t a beautiful ceramic, but it was thick with designs.”

Seeber expects to have the raw results processed by the spring and be able to see the maps by May. The remainder of the project should be finished by November 2021, so that it can be added into the Master Plan.  

Through the dig and other project aspects, “Mitchelville offers more meat to the story of [what] South Carolina [means] to American history. Once we open [the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park], people can pull into the trail and come into the Lowcountry.” As people search for ancestral connections and a sense of self through DNA and genealogical research, “the timing is good for us. People are looking to connect to their lineage.” 

For more information about the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park and the First Families of Hilton Head, follow these links:

Documentary – Freedom Day | Exploring the Families of Historic Mitchelville

Mitchelville Freedom Park | The Birthplace of Freedom

Mitchelville | The First Self-Governed Town for Freed Slaves

National Park Service Adds Mitchelville Freedom Park to the Network of Freedom

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park Preservation Project

First Families of Hilton Head Series of Articles

Beaufort County | Ground Zero for our Nation’s Heritage Tourism

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