Friday, September 26, 2014

M is for McAllister… Military, Master, Material Culture

Coinciding with our archaeological tribute to the letter “M” and our third week of excavations at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park this year, we will focus on small things forgotten and the McAllister family who owned and lived on the property from the mid-1780s to 1870. This era marks a turbulent time in early American history, from the forming of the Nation to the first years following the Civil War. Along with historical documents, the archaeological record left behind by the McAllisters reflects a period of dynamic change in frontier economies, the impact of slavery on the farming industry in central Pennsylvania, as well as the day to day hardships of life in the 19th century.

Captain Archibald McAllister (b.1756, d.1831), purchased what is now the park land and adjacent areas as a young man with a growing family in the mid-1780s. The son of Colonel Richard McAllister, a prominent civic leader, military figure and the founder of Hanover in the then undefined boundary between the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania, Archibald continued in his father’s footsteps. Both men served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and encouraged the settlement, development and growth of the Commonwealth’s south-central region throughout their lifetimes (Dickson, 2000). 

Fort Hunter was an abandoned French and Indian War period fort (1755-1763), and the location of a farm with adjoining grist and saw mills when Captain McAllister purchased it in 1787 after living as a tenant on the property for several years. Over the course of the McAllister family stewardship, the land was transformed into a “self-sufficient frontier village".  Many of Captain McAllister’s architectural improvements to the property are still maintained by the park—the stone constructed Federal-style front (1814) and central (1786) portions of the Mansion, and the ice house (1790s) directly behind. Some of these structures have undergone renovation as subsequent owners’ updated facilities, but original early nineteenth century features still remain of McAllister’s  Tavern, The Practical Farmer (circa 1800), attached stone stable with an English-style drive-through barn (1810) and spring house (circa 1800), speculated to have housed the distillery. (Dickson, 2000; Fort Hunter park walking tour brochure).The original milk house, also known as McAllister’s Dairy, no longer stands, but is reconstructed in the back yard of the Mansion in its approximate location. It was regaled for its many innovative features in 1835 issue of “The Cultivator” by an impressed visitor recollecting an 1828 outing and tour of the Captain’s grounds (Chronicler, Spring 2011).

Yearly excavations at Fort Hunter since 2006 have uncovered evidence of other out-buildings and structures buried just below the surface that may date to, or were restored and used during the McAllister era. 

East view of back yard ice house and 2006 excavation block with subsurface cut stone platform visible tothe upper left and eighteenth-nineteenth century bake oven feature also exposed below the topsoil.

This year we continue to investigate around the ice house behind the Mansion. A cut stone platform, possibly indicative of a former structure, was first uncovered on the side of the icehouse during 2006 excavations. We continue to record its perimeter to determine its function as our excavation block expands to the northeast.

Last week staff archaeologist, Jim Herbstritt, directed Franklin and Marshall students,opening investigation units on the north side of the cut stone feature discovered in 2006.

Previous postings have speculated that the well found adjacent and constructed along the west side of the ice house, was potentially dug in the 1750s to service the men stationed at the fort.Due to the well’s close association with the ice house and the lack of datable evidence to suggest otherwise, it was most likely improved upon substantially or constructed entirely under Captain McAllister’s oversight shortly after the purchase of the property.

Cultural deposits of artifacts found during the careful excavation of the bake oven southeast of the ice house would further suggest that this structure too, if originally built during the Fort period, was restored and in continual use for almost the entire 90 years of the McAllister family residency. A 1798 Direct Tax record lists a wooden smoke house among Captain McAllister’s improvements to the property (Dickson 2000). This subsurface feature of highly oxidized soil and burnt organic material, filled with butchered bone and eighteenth and nineteenth century pottery is a likely location for this structure.  

Examples of Mid-Late 18th century and Early to Mid-19th century pottery 
found in association with the bake oven

along with a copious amount of animal bone…….

The historical and archaeological evidence left behind stands testament to the vision of the McAllister family, and the skill and industry of the men and women who lived and worked on the property. In addition to hired laborers, Captain McAllister owned at least twenty-two African-American slaves over the course of his proprietorship at Fort Hunter. During that time, Pennsylvania passed the first gradual abolition law in the country, requiring the freedom of enslaved persons born after March 1, 1790 when they turned the age of 28. In 1828, less than three years prior to his death, Captain McAllister advertised for the sale of his remaining four slaves, three of which were born after 1790 and a 60 year old woman, Sall Craig, who was born into slavery prior to the law. The advertisements speak to the complexities of the gradual abolition laws and the complicated relationship between master and enslaved persons in Pennsylvania. Click here to view the original advertisements and learn more about the Fort Hunter African American Cemetery, and the Pennsylvanian abolition act of 1790. (Weis, Derek. October 2010.)

While our project goals and the scope of our excavations have not focused on finding the material culture of African-American household members or their quarters, these individuals farmed the land, served the McAllister household and performed domestic duties. They built and maintained the facilities, and managed and worked the various industries undertaken by the proprietor—“grist and sawmills, country store, blacksmith shop, school, artisan’s shops, tavern and distillery”. Their lives are as much a part of the story of Fort Hunter as the McAllister family members. 

Captain McAllister and second wife, Elizabeth had six children who grew up in the home and participated in the day to day operations of the property. His third son, John Carson McAllister (b.1790) inherited the estate and ran the property until his death in 1866. Archibald, Elizabeth and John are all buried in the family cemetery located on land east of the park. (Dickson 2000; Weis 2010).

Excavations this year have uncovered a personal item of Captain McAllister’s second son, Thomas Gates McAllister. Thomas, born in 1784, spent the formative years of his short life at Fort Hunter, dying of a protracted illness, five years prior to the addition on the Mansion’s front section.  

Thomas Gates McAllister’s “Double Gilt” brass naval button with thirteen stars surrounding emblem, circa 1805.

The Continental Navy was disbanded after the Revolutionary War, but was reinstated by Congress in 1798. Buttons of this period display an American eagle standing with head to its left and a lined oval encircling a fouled anchor on the eagle’s right. A circling ring of stars was added in 1802. (Hughes and Lester 1981: Plate 307:38 and 40, p. 718; Emilio 1911: Plate 1:26, p.7).

In 1805, Thomas was commissioned into the navy as a surgeon’s mate or acting surgeon where he served consecutive tours of the Mediterranean stationed on the James Adams, the Constitution, and the Enterprise (McAllister, Thomas Gates, diary 1805-1807; link below to PHMC Archives). His service was cut short by a chronic illness and he was returned stateside to a Washington D.C. military hospital in 1807, too weak to write home. A friend of the family happened upon Thomas and arrangements were made for his return. He convalesced for the last two years of his life at Fort Hunter, eventually succumbing to a debilitating disease. Captain McAllister wrote a month before his son’s death at the age of 24, “he continues extremely ill. His limbs are so contracted that he is drawn as it were in a lump. If ever he should recover, I am afraid he will be without the use of his limbs: his knee joints are out of place, also his ankle. You would think it impossible for [a] human being to have life and have so little flesh as he has (January 23, 1809).” (McKee 1991). 

Also last week staff archaeologists and volunteers mapped and excavated historic features behind the
 icehouse. The cut stone cluster on the bottom right was first uncovered during 2012 excavations, it 
appears to be a corner and extends south. The southern linear extension, not pictured here, was 
documented and removed in 2008; and suggests the presence of another historic building 
foundation that may date to the McAllister era or before.

 The remains of past structures and the restoration and conservation of historical buildings chronicle the passing of time and the evolving needs of running a profitable farm and merchant business in the late eighteenth through nineteenth centuries at Fort Hunter. Personal items, when found, provide a direct link back to the individuals, who profited, suffered, lived, loved and lost, reminding us how deep and rich our history is. The McAllisters left many documents to assist future generations in understanding who they were and how they lived. Archaeological investigations at Fort Hunter round out this picture, clarifying details that were not carefully recorded and providing greater insight into the lives of the McAllister household, the laborers and servants, both free and enslaved, who are under-represented in the historic record.

Special thanks to our daily volunteers and all who participated in Fort Hunter Day last Sunday. It was a highly successful event with over 3000 visitors stopping by the excavation. The education experience continues through October 3rd (Mon-Fri, 9am to 4pm). Come on out and see us!

Budding archaeologists screen for artifacts during Fort Hunter Day festivities.

Dickson, Carl
2000.     The Fort Hunter Story: A microcosm of American History. Masters Thesis. The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.

Emilio, Luis Fenollosa
1911       The Emilio Collection of Military Buttons: American, British, French and Spanish, with some of other Countries, and Non-Military in the Museum of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass. The Essex Institue. Salem, Mass.

Spring 2011         Vol 32:No.1. The Friends of Fort Hunter Inc, Fort Hunter Mansion and Park.

Hughes, Elizabeth and Marion Lester
1981       The Big Book of Buttons: p.718, Plate 307. 38. Boyestown, PA. Boyerstown Publishing Company.
McAllister, Archibald to Smith.
January 23, 1809   Columbian Centinel (Boston).

McKee, Christopher
1991       A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the United States Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute.

Links and Web References:

Fort Hunter Mansion and Park:, see also Fort Hunter walking tour downloadable brochure, Dauphin County Parks and Recreation.

Pennsylvania State Archive holdings, Colonel Richard McAllister and Relatives:

Fort Hunter African American Cemetery:
Weis, Derek
October 2010

Further Reading:

Dickson, Carl A.
2002       Fort Hunter Mansion and Park: A Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

McAllister, Mary Catharine.
1989       Descendants of Archibald McAllister, of West Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, Pa, 1730-1898. Harrisburg, PA: Schaeffer's Printing and Bookbinding House.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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