Block House Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Artifacts of Abraham Block

by David M. Markus and Jamie C. Brandon (submitted to Field Notes: the Newsletter of the Arkansas Archeological Society)

As we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Arkansas Archeological Society is appropriate to look backward and revisit some of our important past projects.  The Kadohadacho Chapter and the Southern Arkansas University Research Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey have been doing just that at Historic Washington State Park (HWSP).

Dr. Leslie "Skip" Stewart-Abernathy screening with local youth during the 1982 excavations at the Block House in Historic Washington State Park.

Archeological investigations at HWSP have been intermittent for the past thirty years—including the 1981 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program at the Sanders House and the subsequent programs at the home of Abraham Block in 1982 and 1983. At the Block House excavations, under the direction of Dr. Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy (then the Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Station Archeologist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), society volunteers and Survey staff unearthed the remains of the Block family detached kitchen.

In 1827 Abraham and his wife Fanny along with their seven children moved to Washington, Arkansas in Hempstead County on the western frontier of America in search of economic opportunities. Originally from Bohemia and later from Richmond, Virginia Abraham was a merchant by trade and moved south and became an important regional merchant.  Abraham Block has also become famous in Arkansas and American Judaism as a very early Jew on the frontier and thus, the family figures strongly in the hagiography of Judaism in the United States.

Although many of the homes of prominent figures in the Washington community, Block included, have survived (the railroad went through Hope, eight miles away, and thus preserving Washington) the associated outbuilding such as kitchens, smokehouses, barns, privies, slave quarters and wells have been lost. Arguably these building are the most revealing in terms of the daily lives of their inhabitants.  The work of Dr. Stewart-Abernathy and the Society digs has done much to reconstruct the landscapes of these “urban farmsteads.”

During the 1982 and later 1983 society training programs held at the Block house, Dr. Stewart-Abernathy recovered the remains of a sealed trash deposit dating to the early 1840’s under the expected footprint of the Block kitchen. Within this pit were a variety of household ceramics that likely represent discards from the Block home as well as the family business and faunal remains related to food consumption. These remains provided an opportunity to closely examine the Blocks’ attitudes and adherence to a major tenet of traditional Judaism: the system of kashrut relating meat consumption. With the assistance of Dr. Barbara Ruff of the University of Georgia, Dr. Stewart-Abernathy analyzed the remains and found that despite kosher laws forbidding the consumption of pork and catfish, there were in fact a respectable amount of both recovered the pit. When this finding is taken in conjunction with documentary evidence, it is apparent that Block family efforts to adapt their Judaism to frontier conditions led to sometimes painful results closely similar to the currents and experiences that in turn led to Reform Judaism.

Kadohadacho Chapter volunteer Bob Campbell finishes cleaning out the mysterious chimney feature.

The archeological record became increasingly complex in 1998 when the Sponsored Research Program of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, under the direction of Randy Guendling, returned to the Block yard space as part of work done at the Park. Guendling, along with Mike Evans and Jared Pebworth, tested both the side and back yards with augers and based on those findings dug several backhoe trenches in an attempt to locate early nineteenth century features. One of the trenches skirted the base of a long-since dead tree where brick remains were being exposed due to soil erosion. This trench, dug not five meters from the location of the kitchen excavations in the 1980’s, revealed the intact base of a brick feature—possibly a chimney or pier. This complicated the view of the Block urban farmstead landscape. Is this possibly an earlier structure?  Is it an end chimney for the kitchen uncovered in the 1980’s? Is it a previously unknown building contemporaneous with that kitchen?  These questions, along with the further contextualization of the Block family yard space, will serve as the basis of the senior author’s Master’s Thesis in Anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

During Archeology Month in 2010, the Kadohadacho Chapter assisted the authors in answering these questions. Between March 22nd and March 27th and again on April 9th and 10th a total of 8 units (four 2×2 meter units and four 1×2 meter units) were dug surrounding the mystery brick feature. These excavations resulted in the complete exposure of the brick feature confirming that it is, in fact, a chimney. A sealed midden (probably protected beneath a structure) to the north of the chimney indicates that it likely relates to a building separate from the kitchen located to the east.  This was a dense deposit containing a multitude of artifacts including: many fragments of ceramics (often with the same transfer-print patterns as those excavated in the kitchen pit), nails, glass (including an etched glass goblet), food remains (animal bone ), artifacts of a more personal nature including children’s toys (marbles, toy teas sets and doll fragments), music-related artifacts (mouth harp and harmonica reed plate), armaments (gunflint, lead shot, bullets and cartridges), and objects related to personal adornment (i.e., buttons, small metal clasp, straight pins).  These artifacts are of a domestic nature (so this is not a barn, smoke house or privy) and date to the same period as the artifacts recovered in the 1980’s.  So…who is living in this structure? Likely candidates are enslaved Africans in the service of the Block Family.

You can see pictures of the Block House excavations at Farther Along’s Flickr site:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcbrandon/sets/72157623521464409/

The authors discovered documents in the historian’s files at Historic Washington State Park, specifically a hand drawn map from an informant named “Moss Rowe,” that seems to confirm that the building was used as a slave quarters. Such an interpretation fits with the idea of the Blocks’ as slave owners. While not terribly involved in the trafficking of slaves, the Blocks did own and sell slaves gained as collateral in their merchant ventures. Period documents show that at most the Blocks’ owned five slaves at any time, and given their location in an urban context this number seems correct.

We are currently processing the rather large number of artifacts that were recovered from these excavations.  Watch for future talks, and articles in Fields Notes and other journals for further interpretations as the senior author’s thesis develops.

Thanks to Historic Washington State Park for being great hosts—we appreciate all the hospitality.  Thanks to all of the Kadohadacho Chapter members, volunteers and staff who helped make the dig possible:  Hannah Berry, Joseph Berry, Maggie Berry, Finn Buckley, Hayes Buckley, Bob Campbell, Pritam Chowdhury, Rick Conkey, Charlotte Conkey, Daniel Conkey, Kyle Farmer, Canaan Gideon, Debra Hartley, Cole Herberg, Thomas Herberg, Holli Howard, Andre Levvorn, Connie Masters, Myrtle McGeehee, Duncan McKinnon, Karen Mills, Tom Purdin, and Sarah Wade.  A special thanks to Dr. Leslie “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy, who lead the excavations at the Block House in 1982-1984, for coming out and working with us during the dig!

Jamie Brandon screens with help from Finn Buckley, Hays Buckley, Cole Herberg, Thomas Herberg and HWSP Superintendent Joe Buckley.

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7 Comments on “Block House Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Artifacts of Abraham Block”

  1. Jannette Taylor
    May 30, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    Has anyone conducted further research to collect information regarding the Block slaves and possible extended family? We members of the Block family in DeAnn.

  2. May 30, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Jannette:

    I am not aware that anyone has previously collected information from the African-America Blocks….but…WE WOULD LOVE TO…

    We will be digging in Washington for two more weeks (until June 11th)….Monday through Thurs. 7:00 am until 3:30 pm….I’m love to visit with you about the Blocks..esp. while we are just down the road in Washington…contact me at the information below and let’s get in touch.

    Thanks for commenting on our blog,

    Jamie

  3. November 24, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    i like to buy children toys that are educational too, in this way, your kids can learn by playing ~:`

  4. Larry D Block
    February 19, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Hello,
    My name is Larry Block, and I am a direct decendent of Abraham Block. I am of african decent and I was born in Emmet Arkansas in 1951. My Grandfather was Tennyson Calvin Block, and he was well known in that area. I accidently came upon this websight and will be visiting it quite often. I have not visited my home town for over 20 years and am long overdue to visit.
    Larry D Block

  5. March 21, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Larry: I’d LOVE to meet you…give you a tour of what we’ve found…and talk about your family history…get in touch with us when you come to visit…jbrando@uark.edu…879-235-4229…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Digging for History: The Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program Returns to the Town of Washington in Southwest Arkansas | farther along… - February 24, 2011

    […] Station Archeologist in 2006.  Since that time he has lead excavations at the Royston House and a return to the home of Abraham Block using a combination of funded excavations, volunteer Arkansas Ar… These digs have produced interesting artifacts, interpretive results and—very […]

  2. Preliminary Results of the 2011 AAS Summer Training Program at Historic Washington, Arkansas | farther along… - September 14, 2011

    […] of the past work at Washington has been associated with domestic yards (e.g., Sanders House and the Abraham Block House) or public space (e.g., the 1836 Courthouse) next to standing structures. Little work has focused […]

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