Plowed Fields and Historical Archaeology

Plowed Fields and Historical Archaeology:
The Petty Homestead
Kent Lightfoot, Susan Grzybowski, Frank Turano
Department of Anthropology
SUNY at Stony Brook

During September to December 1985, a team of Archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology, SUNY at Stony Brook undertook an intensive study of the Birchwood (Petty) property.

This investigation provided data on previous landowners and the land use practices they implemented at the Birchwood Site. The locations of all-historical buildings, roads, and agricultural fields were noted, along with other features constructed on the property.

The area presently known as Middle Island was settled by farmers from Setauket around 1730. Originally, this settlement was known as Middletown because of its geographic location. Later the name was changed briefly to Brookhaven until 1820, when it acquired its present name of Middle Island. The first post office in the township of Brookhaven was established here in 1796. The small farming village, which encompassed an area little more than three square miles, grew very slowly over the years. By 1885, Middle Island was described as a scattered set-tlement of 283 inhabitants on Middle Country Road with two stores, two churches and two district schools (Bayles 1874:261).

The earliest map of Middle Island and vicinity (Hulse 1797; Figure 2), clearly shows the beginning of a linear pattern of settlement at Middle Island. Along Post Road, now known as Middle County Road, there were a number of meeting houses, general stores and taverns in the vicinity of the project area. Just west of the project area a road is shown leading to a pond and structure owned by "S. Swezey". This is the beginning of what is later referred to as "Swezeytown" because of the many Swezey families who came to settle in the northwest section of Middle Island. The 1797 Hulse map, however, shows no roads or structures within the Birchwood property.

The first structure associated with the project area illustrated on the 1838 U.S. Coast map (Figure 3), indicates a road leading to a structure owned by "D. Petty". This single structure is set back approximately 1600 feet from the Middle Country Road within a cleared area probably used for farming.

A deed and title search of the project area revealed that the owner of this 1838 structure was Daniel Petty Jr. eldest son of Daniel Petty, Sr. The last will and testament of Daniel Petty, Sr., dated February 15. 1799, provides insight into the lives of the first documented residents of the area now Birchwood Park. While the project area was originally part of the Brookhaven Purchase in 1655, title to the land prior to 1776 is uncertain. It is most likely, however, that Daniel Petty, Sr. was in possession of this parcel by at least 1776 when his name appears in the census of the township of Brookhaven (Anon. 1984).

Although Daniel Petty, Sr. was of failing health at the age of 54, he apparently had been relatively successful in his endeavors. By 1799 Daniel Petty, Sr. had been able to establish what appears to be a fairly substantial farm for the period.

The house where I now live and all other buildings belonging to the same and my meadow at the southe that is all the meadow that my bills of sale or other writings mentions reference there to being had and also my cattle sheep horses and hogs and all my farming tackling and utensils of husbandry of every kind whatsoever... (Petty 1799).

Given the information provided in his will, it is obvious that most of Daniel Petty's land, time and energy were devoted to his livestock. This is supported by his description of himself in the second line of his will which reads, " . . . I Daniel Petty of the town of Brookhaven in the County of Suffolk and state of New York (yeomen) . . ." (Ibid.). It appears his land was used predominantly for grazing cattle and sheep. Furthermore, mention of his meadowland on the south shore of the island indicates that he was harvesting salt hay for his stock. The order of the animals in his will probably relates to total numbers and/or importance of each; i.e., cattle probably outnumbered sheep, sheep outnumbered horses, etc. It is most likely he also engaged in some subsistence farming in order to support his household. Finally, the monetary value listed in Daniel Petty's will totaled $750.00, which at the turn of the eighteenth century would have been a relatively substantial sum.

Daniel Petty, Sr.'s last will and testament provides genealogical information regarding the Petty family. Daniel Petty, Sr. (1) (b. 1745; d. 1799) and his wife Sarah Petty (b. 1746, d. 1823) had seven children-six boys and one girl. The eldest son, Daniel Petty, Jr. (II), named after his father was born in 1773 and was appointed executor and principal heir of his father's holdings at the age of 26. Daniel's (II) oldest brothers, Phenibus and John, as well as his sister Sarah, were each to be given $125.00 inheritance. On the other hand, his younger brothers, Benjamin. Isaac and Luther, who were all under age at the time of their father's death, were each given the "like sum of one hundred and twenty five dollars and to be at the expense of learning such a trade as they shall choose to learn" (Ibid.). Finally, Daniel Petty, Sr. bequeathed unto his well beloved wife Sarah Petty "all any house hold furniture of all kinds as long as she remains my widdow. . ." (Ibid.).

Additional information was discovered which provides further detail about the Daniel Petty family of Middle Island. Daniel Petty, Jr. (11), the owner of the farm on the 1838 U.S. Coast Survey map, died in 1839 at 66 years of age (Anon., 1970). He married and had a son who was also named Daniel Petty, Jr. (111) (b. 1803; d. 1875). In 1825, when Daniel Petty (II) was 52 years old, he sold the property within the project area to his son Daniel (III) for $1,200.00. The 1873 Beers map, Figure 4, indicates this second change of ownership whereby a third generation Petty is in residence. The transition of ownership from Daniel Petty Sr. (I) to his son Daniel (II), as indicated on the 1838 map, and finally to his son Daniel (III), as shown on the 1873 map, demonstrates that the house and property in the southern extent of the project area were kept within the Petty family for at least 100 years or more.

The 1838 U.S. Coast Survey Map. Figure 3. also indicates another structure located just west of Birchwood Park on Middle Country Road. Although owned by "Mrs. Ritch" in 1838, records from Old Bethpage Village Restoration and Union Cemetery indicate that in 1810 this was the location of the Lewis Ritch house and hat shop. Lewis Ritch came to Long Island about 1810 and shortly thereafter built the house.

After the death of his first wife, Lewis Ritch met Charity Hulse, the daughter of a prominent Long Island family. They were married in 18 10 and moved to Middle Island where Lewis continued in his business as a hat maker since he is listed as such in the census of 1820. He died in 1835 but the family, including his son and later descendants, continued to remain in the family homestead until 1966 (Beltrone 1980:28-29).

The Ritch house and hat shop can be seen today at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. The house had been restored to circa 1830 and the small shop building adjacent to the house serves as the village hatmaking shop.

The 1904 U.S.G.S. topographic map of the project area (Figure 5) shows an unimproved road running north off Middle Country Road, as well as a smaller road in the northern section of the Birchwood property running roughly west to east. In addition, this map shows one structure approximately 1620 feet north of Middle Country Road. Given the location of the "D. Petty" structure on the 1838 map (Figure 3), it is certain that the unidentified structure on the 1904 map is the "D. Petty" homestead.

The 1909 E. Belcher Hyde map (Figure 6) provides the greatest detail for the project area and vicinity. Once again the access roads leading into the property are illustrated as is the "D. Petty" structure. This map, however, also indicates another structure opposite the old Petty house. Furthermore, the owner of the lot comprising most of Birchwood Park (250 acres) is now "Chas. S. Miller". The owners of the remaining 63 acres slated for the Birchwood development are identified here as "Mrs. Elmira Swezey" and "Lewis Ritch".

The 1913 U.S.G.S. topographic map of Middle Island (Figure 7 also shows a trail running north off Middle Country Road along the eastern limit of the project area, as well as the northern west-east trail. Similarly, the "D. Petty" structure is still illustrated.

Finally, the 1917 Hyde map (Figure 8) demonstrates no discernible changes within the project area. The owner is still "Chas. S. Miller" and the access trails into the property remain. Unfortunately the two structures are obscured on the map by two arrows.


Subsurface survey work was implemented in an attempt to detect and study archaeological remains in the project area. The fieldwork provided the basis for determining the types of sites that are found at Birchwood Park and for predicting the density and spatial patterning of historical remains.

Over the last decade archaeologists have become increasingly concerned about the problems of detecting buried archaeological remains in the eastern Woodlands (McManamon 1984). Research undertaken on eastern Long Island suggests that many historic and prehistoric sites have been buried under 10 to 20 cm. of leaf litter, humus and soil (Lightfoot, et. al. 1985). At Birchwood these problems were compounded by thick underbrush covering some of the former agricultural fields. Under these conditions simple surface reconnaissance (i.e., walking along roads or in open fields) tends to miss all but the largest and most visible archaeological remains in a project area (McManamon 1984). To detect a representative sample of the archaeological remains one must implement probabilistically designed, intensive subsurface testing programs.

A total of 25% of the Birchwood property was selected for detailed examination by survey crews. Seventeen survey units, each measuring 100 by 100 meters (I hectare), were randomly placed across different soil strata in the study area (Figure 9). Each survey unit was then labeled by the distance in meters south, east, or west of a master datum established to the north of Birchwood Park. For each of the 17 units chosen, a survey crew of five archaeologists walked across the area spaced ten meters apart. At every ten meter interval walked, a small shovel probe, measuring 30 cm. in diameter, was excavated by each crew member to underlying sterile soil, usually 30 to 60 cm. below the modem ground surface. All soil was screened through 0.6 cm. wire cloth to aid in the recovery of cultural material. The survey crew walked one swath up and back across each survey unit, excavating 110 shovel probes per hectare unit. A total of 16 and 1/2 survey units were completed in this fashion, resulting in the excavation of 1815 shovel probes. For a more detailed discussion on the field methods employed, Lightfoot et. al., 1986.

Existing Structures
Sometime after 1913 the original Petty homestead was destroyed, probably to make room for additional agricultural fields. An initial surface reconnaissance of the area revealed no evidence of the former "D. Petty" structure. The location given in the above maps indicates that the homestead once sat on a low knoll, which is now in the middle of an active agricultural field. Furthermore, the former road across the northern portion of the project area, which served as a communications link between the settlers of Swezeytown Pond and those residing in the vicinity of Twin Ponds, has been partially obliterated. The present perimeter road along the eastern edge of the project area is the only conspicuous evidence of the old Petty homestead that exists today.

The expansion of the agricultural fields appears to be associated with the construction of farm buildings in the southern section of Birchwood Park during recent years. The construction work included at least six farm structures

The above information can be used to compute the expected number of shovel probes that might contain artifactual material in a survey unit. The predicted number is based on the following formula:
i/I 10 x 1364 = E
Where: i = number of shovel probes containing artifacts
E = expected number of shovel probes
Employing the above formula, it is clear that a considerable quantity of historic remains should be found at Birchwood if the entire area is surveyed. The expected number of artifact bearing shovel probes for the 16.5 hectares sampled is calculated (106/1815 X 22506 2.2 cubic meter units) to be 1314. Since the surveyed area represents a 25% sample, we expect that 5258 shovel probes would yield historic material if the entire area is tested.

Historic Land Use Patterns
An examination of the spatial distribution of the historic artifacts provided additional insights into the historic land use and occupation of Birchwood. The locational study of the artifacts was facilitated by SYMAP, a computer mapping program commonly used by archaeologists. The SYMAP program was employed to plot the density of specific artifact classes across the study area. The statistically generated SYMAPs illustrate the density figures as contour intervals. Each contour interval represents the number of artifacts detected per 110 shovel probes excavated.

Specifically, the distribution of the historic material appears to be associated with three loci: agricultural fields, the Petty homestead, and 20th Century farm buildings.

1) Agricultural Fields: The detection of marine shell in shovel probes may be the result of past agricultural practices. In a recent paper, Ceci (1984) cautions that Long Island farmers, especially during the 19th Century, fertilized their fields using shell refuse from prehistoric coastal middens. She documents that farmers carted tons of shell debris, some of which contained prehistoric tools, from large middens and scattered this material across interior ar-eas of Long Island. Although Ceci's paper is a cautionary statement for archaeologists studying prehistoric remains from Long Island's interior, it also has implications for historic fertilization practices.

Figure I I illustrates the spatial distribution of shell across Birchwood Park. Significantly, few shell fragments are found in the area which was never plowed (the northern one-quarter), while the central and southern sections con-tain the bulk of the shell found. This spatial pattern, which clearly shows the shell remains associated with the plowed fields, suggest the Petty family and/or later farmers were fertilizing their fields with marine shell. This finding dovetails with Daniel Petty (Ws description of his meadow holdings "at the southe" (Petty 1799).

It also appears that some of the agricultural fields were used as dumping grounds for broken, discarded materials. This appears to be true of the concentrated dump of bottles and refuse found in survey unit 800S 100W. Most of this material appears to date to the 1930s and 1940s.

2) Daniel Petty's Homestead: Our archival research suggests that the original Petty farm, first documented in the 1838 U.S.G.S. map (Figure 3) was located 1600 feet or 500 meters from Middle Country Road along the eastern edge of Birchwood Park. We calculated the structure's location on a slight rise in survey unit 1924s 118E. Our initial surface reconnaissance of this area was supplemented by the excavation of 110 shovel probes in the survey unit. The subsurface testing revealed no direct evidence of any structural features. These findings supported our interpretation that the original structure was destroyed as part of the continual modification of the existing agricultural fields.

Yet archaeological evidence of the Petty homestead still exists in the area. The spatial distributions of historic ceramics (Figure 12) and coal (Figure 13) show a dense concentration of material ringing the former structure in the southeast quadrant of Birchwood. It appears that materials from the homestead were deposited along the edge of the slight rise in survey unit 1924S I 18E. Much of the ceramic material appears to have washed into the adjacent unit 1924S OW. The ceramics consist of white glazed, black glazed and porcelain, and probably date to the mid 1800s to early 1900s. A profuse number of coal fragments were found in 1821S 100W: based on the subsurface sample (22/110) we expect as many as 273 shovel probes to contain coal in this 100 by 100 meter area. The coal may have been used as a source of fuel in the Petty homestead and may have been dumped on the unimproved access road to solidify its surface.

3) Twentieth Century Farm Buildings: The use, modification and abandonment of the farm buildings along the southern border were responsible for some of the artifactual material (Figure 10). One of our survey units (2349S OW) included the storage barn identified in our archival research. Most of the nails, tiles and glass found during the survey appear to be associated with these buildings. The spatial pattern of glass, excluding the trash dump of 800S I OOW, exhibits the highest contour intervals in the southernmost section of the property (Figure 14). A considerable amount of charcoal was found near some of the structures, suggesting that fire may have damaged the buildings in the past. The SYMAP of charcoal fragments (Figure 15) shows three clusters: one centered around the 20th Century farm buildings (one of which had burned), another around the central agricultural fields, and still another in the northern section.

In summary, the greatest density of historic material is found in the southern section of the Birchwood property associated with the agricultural fields, the location of the Petty homestead and the 20th Century farm buildings. The four northernmost survey units (359S 374W. 600S 500W. 700S 30OW, and 800S 40OW), which exhibited no evidence of former plow zones, yielded a total of 2 charcoal fragments. No other historical materials were detected.

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