On Saturday, October 17, the NTRA Activities Committee sponsored a Town Talk on ZOOM given by David Lewes, project manager at the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research. Lora Caputo introduced the speaker to more than two dozen virtual attendees. The central topic was the history of habitation at Roper Homestead Park, but the presentation broadened to include interesting facts about James City County and the Tidewater region of Virginia and beyond.
Roper Park was examined on two occasions, first in 1990, and again in 2004, when New Town Associates, LLC, commissioned studies in anticipation of a US Army Corps of Engineers permit application for construction as part of their development of New Town. Mr. Lewes’ maps showed the location of archeological ‘hotspots’ and explained how the digs were conducted. Slides showed the location of building and farmstead remains, including a well-preserved brick foundation with brick hearth outline and a ‘robber hole,’ described as an area dug out to retrieve previously used and buried material. Types of household items found in the different dirt strata included nails and other building materials and ceramic fragments, largely pearlware and whiteware, which were in popular use in the first half of the 19th century. The sites have been covered up to preserve what remains underground and markers have been placed around Roper Park to provide some of its history. The items removed from the site are in storage at the William & Mary archeological lab.
2003 Roper Park Excavation
While most of the findings in New Town are from the mid-19th century Roper farm, Mr. Lewes said that sites of prehistoric occupation on local stream valleys, some as old as 8000 years ago, have been documented, including in an area near the commercial parking lot east of New Town Avenue. Another site of interest is behind Legacy Hall.
The period following the American Revolution was a time of decline in the Tidewater as the capital was moved to Richmond, the soil was depleted by overproduction of tobacco, plantations were divided and many people went west in search of better opportunity. Much information has been lost because James City County sent many records to a central warehouse near Richmond for safekeeping. These were destroyed during the southern retreat from Petersburg to Appomattox when the warehouse storing land records caught fire by mistake as the Confederates set fire to stores of tobacco and other valuable goods to keep them out of Union hands.
Military mapping from the Civil War era shows a wooded site where the Roper farmstead had been. Other items of interest on the maps are the names of local property owners. On one Confederate map is an area marked as ‘Negro’ with no name attribution. Mr. Lewes said there were many free blacks in the region, especially in the Centerville area. Confederate maps did not include names for these landholders, but many are believed to have come from Greensprings Plantation when its owner manumitted all his slaves for religious reasons and gave them property in the Jolly Pond area, where many descendants still reside.
Other information that was preserved through tax, census and court records show the changing ownership, make up and value of the Roper homestead, beginning with Randolph Roper in the early 1800’s. Only the owner’s name is provided in these records, the names of other residents, both free and enslaved, is not recorded. Records continue through a man named Tolliver (Taliaferro) who developed a plan for a residential subdivision in 1912 that never came to fruition. He then sold to the Caseys, owners of property near where Blair Middle School stands today. The Casey family held the tract until the late 20th century, and the rest is New Town history.
Also in response to questions about the prehistoric sites found in the New Town area, Mr. Lewes provided the following link to a report about nearby prehistoric sites that Center archeologists investigated as part of the planning process for the Route 199 project.
Additional information on Roper Homestead property ownership, occupation and the excavations can be found in a previous Town Crier article “History in Our Midst—Roper Park” from July 2019.