An open house in Hampton history

HAMPTON — Beneath the topsoil at the former Harbor Square Apartments site downtown, archaeologists say they have found remnants of city history that date to the mid-1800s.

Archaeologists spent the spring and portions of the summer digging for remnants of the Grand Contraband Camp that formed between Lincoln Street and Pembroke Avenue after the Civil War.

They have found close to 170 features they deem significant to their research, and while digging through the dirt, have met descendents of people who lived on the site.

Friday afternoon, Mildred Thomas Walker stood on the site to learn more about property her great-great-great grandfather Merritt Thomas purchased in 1871.

Walker was among a small stream of people to visit the site during a six-hour open house. Staff from the Hampton History Museum and close to a dozen archaeologists answered questions and showed off what they'd found during the dig. Among those items were a navy button, pottery and copper utensils.

"I remember growing up here, it was alive," Walker said. "The families were young and they all had six, eight, 10 children. Everyone was poor but it was a community."

The items archaeologists are finding combined with property records and stories from relatives of people who may have lived in the contraband camp give historians such as Matthew Laird, of the James River Institute for Archaeology, an idea of how Hampton rebuilt itself in the post-war era.

"I thought it would take some time for us to notice significant features, and literally the first day we were finding things," he said.

The 18-acre site is considered prime land for redevelopment now that the mid-century apartment buildings have been razed.

A Circuit Court building is being constructed on the far east end of the property, leaving more than 12 acres of open area for planners to solicit private development.

Before any new construction begins, the City Council agreed that what lays beneath the soil should first be explored.

Archaeologists arrived in May at the site to look for remnants of the camp where close to 4,000 runaway slaves erected tents and shanties on what had been vacant land on the outskirts of Hampton during and after the Civil War.

Those homes eventually become permanent residences for some families who lived on the plots for generations.

The City Council agreed on July 9, in principle, to continue with a second phase of the dig. The history museum will raise private funds and the council agreed to earmark a not-yet-determined amount of funds for the project.

A timeline for the second phase has not yet been set.

Laird said a second phase could help researchers get a better idea of what life was like at the camp and how it was laid out. Historians are still unsure whether the initial camp had structure – like a military enmampment – or if it was scattered with shanties wherever people could find room.

Military officials later sold quarter-acre lots to freedmen within the camp, such as Walker's ancestors.

James River Institute principal investigator Nicholas Luccketti said archaeologists are examining the items found on the site and will draft a report for the City Council by mid-August. Archaeology firms will have a chance to submit bids to work on the second phase.

Brauchle can be reached by phone at 757-247-2827.

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