Dendrochronology test indicates slave quarters may have more historic significance that first thought

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Tree-ring dating found that this slave dwelling at Greenfield Plantation was built later than originally believed.
Photo by Mike Pulice, Virginia Department of Historic Resources

The slave quarters log building that has been the focus of attention at Botetourt Center at Greenfield may have more historical significance than first thought.

“We discovered that the kitchen was built in late 1844 or early 1845, and the slave quarters were built in 1864,” said Mike Pulice, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “In many ways, this is more exciting than confirming our original hypothesis. These might be the latest constructed slave quarters discovered to date, and it really sheds some light on what was going on right before the end of the Civil War.”

The slave quarters and kitchen were moved from their original site near where the Preston Plantation manor house once sat. The move made way for an industrial shell building that’s going up at the industrial park just north of Daleville.

The two structures are now on what is planned as a historic preservation area on the Greenfield property.

What’s interesting about the precise dating is how it was done— through dendrochronology [tree-ring dating] testing.

That testing was done through a partnership between Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, graduate students in Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver’s Advanced Forest Ecology class helped uncover mysteries of the past that have important implications for forestry and history, according to an article from Virginia Tech’s Lynn Davis.

Before the structures were moved, the contractor hired to do the job discovered that some of the lower logs had deteriorated too severely to survive the move and they needed to be replaced.

Pulice, who is very familiar with the Greenfield site and the log structures, saw the discarded logs as an opportunity to learn more about the structures and their history.

“People want to know this information,” Pulice said. “The history of slavery at Greenfield gets interpreted to the public through these buildings.”

According to Pulice, log structures are often difficult to date from an architectural perspective because most were built using the same techniques for hundreds of years.

“A lot of times, these buildings don’t leave a lot of clues about when they were built,” he said. “Dendrochronology is an absolute tool, and sometimes it’s the only way to precisely determine when a structure was built.”

The kitchen is a two-story structure measuring 16 feet by 18 feet on the first floor and features a 4-foot front overhang on the second story. A staircase went up into the overhang, providing access to living quarters above the workspace.

“There’s not another one like this that anyone I know has seen or heard about,” Pulice said of the layout.

Originally, Pulice believed that the kitchen and slave quarters were probably constructed in the 1830s; however, the dendrochronology work done by Copenheaver and her Va. Tech students helped pinpoint the timeframe.

Dendrochronology is a method of using tree rings to determine the age of a tree, or in this case, a wooden structure. Copenheaver and her students compared the tree-ring patterns in the logs from the historic buildings with those from two old-growth white oak forests in Montgomery County.

“It’s like taking a look into a picture of what was,” said Ben Poling of Salamanca, N.Y., a forestry graduate student who worked on the project, says in the Va. Tech article. “These samples can tell us so much about what was happening in the forested landscape in the 1700s and 1800s.”

Copenheaver said, “The cabins are what we call a ‘floating chronology.’ We don’t know where they fit in time. But by looking at the tree-ring patterns, we can match them with trees that have already been dated.”

Copenheaver and her team sanded the log samples, which are roughly the size of a milkshake straw, until they could clearly see the tree’s annual growth rings. From there, they ran the tree-ring measurements through a software program that compared the ring patterns against other samples to determine their exact age.

“Being able to work with samples that come from this far back in time and dealing with the floating chronologies to figure out when these samples were actually alive has been fascinating to me,” said Chance Raso, of Beckley, W.Va., a geography graduate student.

The results surprised both Pulice and Copenheaver.

The fact that the slave quarters date to when the Civil War was being fought is an interesting story.

With so many of the day-to-day operations at Greenfield Plantation relying on slave labor, the plantation owners likely realized that the operations there could not continue if the slave population left. Pulice said that the new slave quarters may have been built late in the Civil War as an incentive for slaves to stay and work at Greenfield after they were freed.

For Copenheaver, the project’s results are even more interesting when explored through a forestry perspective.

“Mike is interested in how old the cabins are, but these samples also provide an opportunity to see what forests in Southwest Virginia were like in the 1700s and 1800s,” she said.

According to Copenheaver, the tree rings from the log structures tell the story of European settlement in the area.

“There were two waves of European settlement,” she said. “When settlers arrived in the area in the late 1730s and 1740s, they cleared the forests to create agricultural land. Then, when the settlers were pushed back eastward during the French and Indian War, that agricultural land was abandoned and actually reforested.”

Westward European settlement resumed after the French and Indian War ended in 1763. More trees were felled to build villages, and, with more space and access to sunlight, the trees that were left standing experienced an increase in growth.

“We can see all of this activity reflected in the tree-ring records,” Copenheaver said.

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