L. Northrup Site


Site Function and Formation

The L. Northrup site excavations uncovered domestic/agricultural sheet midden in front of a historic standing house in St. Lawrence County. The sheet midden consists of a layer of accumulated discarded material below the current ground surface. Our excavations touched on the edge of an historic subsurface feature (Feature 2), but unfortunately the current project boundaries did not extend further into the interior of the feature.

The chronological placement of horizons, levels, units, and one feature were evaluated using a combination of mean artifact manufacture dates and terminus post quem (TPQ) information. TPQ dates are used by archaeologists to signal the latest date for a soil horizon or feature. Diagnostic artifacts included those with specific ranges (e.g., 1814-1830) and those with manufacturing ranges to the present (e.g., 1830-2008). The latest TPQ date for the site is 1964, which is not surprising as the site has been occupied throughout the twentieth century. The preponderance of TPQ evidence  suggests that deposition mainly occurred in the mid to late 19th century. This corresponds with trends of decreasing household use of front yards from the late 19th century on.

It is possible that the cessation of deposition on the site may have correlated with a transfer to new owners, such as the sale of the property to the Maltbys in 1854, or to the brief occupation around 1860 by Lewis H. Northrup. Later occupants may have restricted farm activities to areas behind the house, and may have reserved the front yard for display of the house and property.

Spatial Distribution

Spatial analysis shows some patterning within the current tested portion of the site. Overall, the sheet midden in the tested portion of the L. Northrup site contains fairly evenly distributed domestic refuse, concentrated more in the eastern half of the tested portion of the site.

Architectural artifacts (mainly window glass, cut nails and cut nail fragments) were found throughout the site, with two main density clusters. One cluster is near Feature 2, while the other is in the southeastern quadrant of the site, further from the house. Architectural artifacts appear to spread out from the direction of the house, and Feature 2, towards the southeast.

Food related artifacts were fairly evenly distributed across the site, with the highest density recovered from a unit in the southeastern quadrant. The food-related artifacts are largely made up of dishes used for meals or tea service, as well as vessels for food preparation and storage. The table- and tea-wares are fairly evenly distributed across the site, while the food preparation and storage vessels were more often found in the eastern half of the site. A minimum of four redware milk pan fragments were recovered from this area. The presence of recognizable fragments of this specialized type of vessel may indicate an activity area, or portion of an activity area, within the tested part of the L. Northrup site. This area east of the house, near the road, could have been used for milking cows in an earlier time when front yard work areas were more common. 

Site Chronology

The artifact evidence most strongly indicates an association with John and Elizabeth Best. The overwhelming majority (99.1%) of datable artifacts from our excavations have beginning manufacture dates prior to the sale of the property in 1854. The mean (average) manufacturing dates for the sheet midden, as well as for Feature 2, predate 1854. The earliest dated artifacts at the site with specific ranges are the six fragments of tin enamel glazed earthenware (1700-1750), followed by fine bodied redware (1725-1800), manganese-glazed redware (1750-1900), and white-slipped redware (1750-1900). Many of the tableware dishes are decorated with relatively early styles, including hand painted, annular banded, and shell edged. The mean ceramic manufacture date for these ceramics is 1848. Ceramic vessels were in much greater evidence than glass, as was typical before the introduction of automated glassware manufacture. In building materials, cut nails predominate (94% of all nails and nail fragments) over later wire nails. The dominance of cut nails would be consistent with the early 19th century occupation by the Best family. 

Feature 2 also has dates consistent with an early- to mid-19th century occupation. From the limited amount of testing possible in Feature 2, it would appear that the feature dates to the same period as the majority of the front yard deposits. It seems likely that the use period of this feature either coincided with, or possibly preceded, activity and deposition in the front yard of structure. 

John and Elizabeth Best occupied the L. Northrup site from 1831 to 1854, coinciding with the mean dates for most of the site’s datable artifacts. Few artifacts with beginning dates later than 1854 were recovered from the site. John and Elizabeth Best were middling farmers, with real estate valued slightly lower than the average within their neighborhood in the 1850 federal census records. Both were immigrants from England. They lived at the L. Northrup site from their mid-twenties through their late forties, raising a family of at least six children at the site. The date ranges of the artifacts correlate well with the documented occupation by John and Elizabeth Best, followed by a period of 6 to 10 years in which the site was either unoccupied or tenant-occupied. The few artifacts whose ranges fall after 1854 likely represent isolated discards, rather than primary sheet midden formation. 

The next long-term occupation of the site, by the Maltby family from approximately 1860 to 1894 would be expected to produce higher proportions of later ceramic types (ironstones, stonewares) and higher amounts of glass. There are no apparent vertical or horizontal separations within the A horizon that could be associated particularly with later site occupants. During the second half of the 19th century, front yards became more important areas for presenting a neat and tidy “face” to the general public, and activity areas concentrated more to the rear of a house and its outbuildings.  The lack of many artifacts tying in to the site’s later inhabitants may well reflect these changing concepts of the front yard. 

Rural Life in the Nineteenth Century

The consumption patterns of the L. Northrup site residents can tell us how this particular farming family lived on a daily basis in the early- to mid-19th century. The material culture from the sheet midden of the L. Northrup site reflects the daily existence of the site’s inhabitants. This existence was shaped by their position within this rural community and the larger region. Due to the spatial constraints of the current project area, large-scale conclusions about the lives of the site’s inhabitants will be limited to the evidence present in the front yard, which is mostly associated with the Best household. 

The artifact assemblage from the site exhibited a fairly high degree of diversity, with artifact types that are not uncommon for rural farmsteads. The L. Northrup site was a farm throughout most of the 19th century and into the 20th. One horseshoe nail, and a minimum of four redware milk pans testify to the agricultural pursuits at the site. Small finds such as a copper thimble point to the household contributions of women in the 19th century. Three glass marbles and one large clay marble recovered at the site point to the activities of children. Most of these small finds, including the four marbles, a 1964 nickel, an earring, and a plastic chess piece, were recovered from units at the western end of the site, closer to the house’s front door, while the main artifact densities were on the eastern half of the site. These locations suggest artifacts being dropped or lost in movement to and from the front door, or in children’s play near the front door. 

The vessel assemblage is the largest single block of related artifacts. The relative assessment of decoration types for ceramic vessels within the current project boundaries indicates that the site’s residents were able to purchase some pricier ceramics, as well as less expensive wares. For dishes used on the dining table or in tea service, the site had equal numbers of transfer printed and shell edged ceramic vessels, with somewhat lower frequencies of hand painted wares. The ceramic assemblage does not include more specialized vessels that would suggest elaborate dining practices. The least-expensive shell-edged wares were present as tablewares (mainly plates). However, tea wares, such as tea cups and saucers, were present with the relatively expensive transfer printed decoration, as well as mid-level hand painted decoration. This may show an interest in a status display through the serving of tea in social contexts with people outside the immediate household. 

The faunal assemblage at the L. Northrup site shows a fairly diverse array of domesticated species used for food or other products. The minimum numbers of 2 cows, 3 pigs, 3 sheep or goats, and 1 chicken suggest production of meat, milk, wool and eggs. Dairying became a very important enterprise in St. Lawrence County during the 19th century. Dairying was first attempted in the county in 1818. By the 1850s, it was on its way to becoming the branch of agriculture that would supersede all others in the region (Hough 1853:x). Faunal analysis suggests one goose (probably Canada goose) was butchered. The presence of fish bones and mussel shells indicate that these were eaten at the L. Northrup site. These may have been obtained from the nearby Tibbits Creek, from the Oswegatchie or St. Lawrence Rivers. Additionally, the minimum of one woodchuck may represent a wild food, as woodchucks have historically been used as food. 

Meat cut information suggests that the site’s inhabitants were raising and butchering their own animals. The faunal analysis also suggests that occupants of the L. Northrup site were butchering more animals than they were eating, and thus may have been selling some of the pork and beef at market. The presence of the Northrup Tavern across the road may have provided a market for this meat. While St. Lawrence County was still strengthening transportation networks with the larger world in the 1830s and 1840s, having a tavern and meeting place within the hamlet may have increased opportunities for the Best family to engage in trade. Products from the Bests’ farm may also have entered international trade networks through the port at Ogdensburg. 

One stamped pipestem at the L. Northrup site highlights the trade ties that existed between farmers in St. Lawrence County and markets in Canada. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, overland travel to the south was difficult. Travel was easiest in the winter when marshes and streams were frozen. Prior to 1850, transportation of goods and people to U.S. cities relied on traveling up or down the St. Lawrence River to reach canal networks via Oswego or Lake Champlain (Hough 1970 [1853]:ix). Trade connections with Canadian ports were easier to manage, though tensions between the countries interrupted traffic across the St. Lawrence River at times. Steamships first began to operate on the St. Lawrence River in 1816, and by the 1840s were plying regular routes with stops in U.S. and Canadian ports (Hough 1970 [1853]:563-7). One pipe stem fragment from the L. Northrup site is stamped “HEN... / ...REAL,” probably indicating the Henderson Company in Montreal, Quebec, in operation from 1847 through 1876 (Bradley 2000:117).  By the start of the Henderson Company’s pipe production, the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steam Boat Company ran a daily line of three steamers between Ogdensburg and Montreal. 

Within the current site boundaries, the L. Northrup site represents a slice of historic rural American middling farm life. The deposits within the current project boundaries are well dated to the period of occupation of the family of John and Elizabeth Best. The Best family ran a diverse farm in a small, developing crossroads community during the formative years of St. Lawrence County. The historical data available for the Best family showed that they were slightly below the average in their neighborhood for farm value. During their years at the L. Northrup site, John and Elizabeth Best raised six children. The L. Northrup site provides a window into the unwritten daily history of this family and their ties to local and international markets.  

Site History


Last Updated: 8/7/17