Digging up Albemarle history

How do you lose a courthouse? It seems a lot more challenging than, say, losing your car keys, and yet Virginia has lost courthouses by the fistful to fire, age and poor record keeping. But in a cow pasture just outside Scottsville, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society is working with a team of archaeologists and volunteers to recover a small part of Albemarle’s dense history—the lost Albemarle County Courthouse.

Steve Thompson (left) and Nick Bon-Harper, archaeologists with Rivanna Archeological Services, may have hit paydirt in December, when they found a brick foundation that could help uncover Albemarle County’s lost courthouse.

In 1745, a council of magistrates that included Peter Jefferson (TJ’s dad) chose a field near Snowden, Jefferson’s James River plantation, as the seat of Albemarle County. Samuel Scott, whose family gave Scottsville its name, built a courthouse and prison on the site and then threw in a tavern because, as we all know, few things mix as well as convicts and alcohol. In 1761, the General Assembly shrank Albemarle by a third and moved the county seat to Charlottesville. Samuel Scott’s courthouse, prison and tavern entered a long, slow slide into disrepair and eventual collapse. During the Revolutionary War, the courthouse building was used as an ammunitions storehouse and for target practice. Thomas Jefferson would have ridden past the courthouse on his way to visiting his brother Randolph at Snowden, but that’s about where its brushes with capital-H History end.

Sometime before the 20th Century, the buildings collapsed or were torn down and barns were built on their foundations. By the 1970s, even the barns were demolished. The site is now just an open field, but the ground below is brimming with history.

Steven Meeks, president of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, says that local tradition has long claimed knowledge of the location of the old Albemarle County Courthouse. The Historical Society sought to confirm this and enlisted the help of Steve Thompson and Ben Ford, the co-directors and principal investigators at Rivanna Archaeological Services in Charlottesville. By the fall, Thompson, Ford and their coworker Nick Bon-Harper were volunteering their time and equipment to help the Historical Society excavate the property. Every weekend that the weather has allowed it, they’ve been out with a crew of archaeologists, history buffs and high schoolers, searching for the lost courthouse.

The hard part of any historical search, of course, is finding anything truly definitive. But in December, the crew planted shovels in the ground and hit a brick foundation right around where the tavern is thought to be, based on surveying maps from the 1700s. The apparent dimensions of the foundation, the density of artifacts found nearby, and the fact that it’s made of brick all strongly suggest that the tavern has been found.

Rivanna Archaeology and the Historical Society hope to continue the excavation, but they need more resources, says Ben Ford. He estimates that costs for Phase II of the project, which would be a much larger dig, would probably begin around $20,000. The project relies on grant money and donations to the Historical Society for funding. Everyone involved hopes to have something big to show for their efforts in time for Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary celebration in November 2012. Says Ford, “We don’t want a project of this significance to just die and go away.”

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