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One Woman's Opinion

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“Sandwich”: Microcosm of Urbanna History

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— We who live in Urbanna are fortunate to be living in a Colonial port town (founded in the 1680s) with “history” literally under our every foot. We learned a bit more history recently when Dr. David Brown of the Fairfield Foundation offered a program on “Sandwich” in Urbanna. The meeting was held in Deltaville and sponsored by the Middlesex County Museum. It was a fascinating program.

Dr. Brown explained how archeology can discover history in a way that history books can’t. By actually digging into the earth for artifacts from the past, interesting accounts of previous settlements unfold.

Brown’s slideshow contained several early maps of Urbanna that indicated “Sandwich,” home of Robert Montague, at one time contained 4 to 6 town lots including a waterfront area once designated as a “fort lot.” Several roads once dissected the lots and a recent dig of one foot sample plats on the property turned up artifacts suggesting some earlier structures that were once there but have long since disappeared.

Montague told the group his grandparents purchased the home in 1934 and began a restoration program including replacing a “Victorian roof” to its original slate roof. They named the home “Sandwich” at that time after the 4th Earl of Sandwich (John Montagu), an ancestor. Montague went on to explain this man had been responsible for not getting backup naval units to Yorktown in time to help General Cornwallis. (We might thank the Earl because, according to Montague, the late arrival of British Naval ships made it possible for General Washington to defeat the British at Yorktown and win the Revolutionary War!)

Dr. Brown explained when samples are taken on a historic site the policy followed is nothing will be removed unless there is a plan to preserve the artifacts. The Sandwich dig mainly consisted of shallow sample squares across the property in order to identify what may be underneath the earth for future digs.

The dig turned up nails, shards of china, and pieces of plaster, tobacco pipe stems, fragments of Indian pottery and clay pipes, metal combs, belt buckles and glass from wine bottles. Montague had earlier personally discovered a fragment of a cannon ball on his property, which caused me to wonder when and how it had gotten there.

Dr. Brown said college archeology students have created maps of Sandwich which indicated areas with nails, glass shards or pieces of brick suggesting locations of earlier homes on the property. A map that showed oyster shell density could suggest an area where watermen once had worked or where warehouses may have once stood.

Dating artifacts provide specific time periods. Dr. Brown mentioned Delft shards of china, for example, denote Colonial times to the American Revolutionary War, cream ware was popular from 1760 to 1820, pearl ware from 1780s to the Civil War, white ware to the end of the 19th century when stone ware became fashionable. Coal can denote more modern times when coal became a major source of heat.

One particularly interesting tidbit that Montague mentioned was seeing a will of the first ordained Presbyterian minister in the area, Francis McKinney, who had died in 1720 leaving his home on the property to his daughter. Whether future digs can ever locate the exact location of that particular dwelling remains to be seen.

A member of the audience asked if any artifacts had been discovered as yet from slave quarters on the property. Dr. Brown said not as yet but, of course, we know there were slaves on the Sandwich property at one time.

Montague added at the time his grandparents purchased the home there were several buildings on the property that could have once served as slave quarters. His family used the buildings to house domestic help up until WWII before finally tearing them down.

Urbanna’s slave history preys on my mind. I think the town should try to discover the identity of slaves that once lived and worked in Urbanna and erect a memorial in honor of them. Our official acknowledgement of the slave population in Urbanna would be an important step to recovery from damage the slave society did to both white and black citizens. Such a memorial might be placed at the town marina or Taber Park.

History teaches the past and must never be forgotten. It also teaches tolerance, understanding and compassion for our fellow man. Every chapter of mankind is filled with horrendous deeds and injustices of our ancestors and we must not try to rewrite history in order to “feel good.”

History also should remind those living today that we are also capable of offending those in the future who one day may find our present day behavior unforgivable. Laws and moral standards change with changing times and few people think beyond the mentality of the times in which they live. Thus, finally, history teaches humility, a trait today’s society sorely needs.


posted 10.03.2018

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