The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Stafford uncovers an early courthouse
BY KATIE THISDELL
An effort to update the streets around Stafford’s government complex has helped the county discover a major piece of its past.
Archaeologists uncovered remnants of one of the county’s early courthouses, once occupied by federal troops in the Civil War. The find happened during five weeks of excavation work for a project to make the courthouse area more pedestrian-friendly.
“There’s no question—this is the 1783 courthouse and clerk’s office. There’s no ambiguity here. We know what it is and where it is. And it’s in pretty good shape,” said Clifton Huston, principal archaeologist with Dominion Engineering Associates.
The dig was the second phase of archaeological work required by the state as part of the $2.7 million grant-funded Courthouse Area Streetscape Improvement project.
“We prefer not to blast through historic resources,” Huston said. “Better to find out about them with the archaeologists than the bulldozers.”
Last fall, Huston said crews conducted a survey where they dug holes every 50 feet on both sides of U.S. 1 and Courthouse Road for about 2 miles. They found broken tableware and shards of green-tinted glass from the 18th or 19th centuries.
“We recommended that given the historic location, there was a good possibility that there would be components related to the 1783 courthouse remaining,” Huston said.
Crucial in the discovery of the foundation was a 1909 photo depicting a well house, built the same year as the courthouse.
By studying angles and distances, Huston’s team was able to discover the northeast corner of the T–shaped building that once stood about 40 feet by 24 feet. The complete foundation couldn’t be uncovered, however, because the western portion lies beneath the present-day courthouse, built in 1922. Records show that earlier courthouses in Stafford were in the Potomac Creek and Marlborough Point areas.
Huston said it’s safe to say that the 18th-century courthouse stood through World War I, but it was the Civil War that caused lots of wear and tear on the building and neighboring Clerk of Court office, as federal cavalry and artillery troops occupied the area.
“That doesn’t do a lot for the structure—horses clomping around inside, not so good,” Huston said.
Civil War artifacts were discovered, including anthropomorphic clay pipes, musket balls and Spencer rifle cartridge cases.
“It’s a lot like detective work: You go through the historic records, you see what the people back then said about it, then you see what you can find today,” Huston said. “Without archaeology, we would know far less about the people that lived and died in Stafford County 200 years ago.”
Now the site is up for review for the National Register of Historic Places.
The findings will likely be incorporated into the pedestrian-friendly redesigned area in front of the courthouse, said Tim Baroody, deputy county administrator.
That could include the use of signs and displays of artifacts.
“We want to tell our story, and this gives us the details to show that,” Baroody said.
The four enhancement grants worth nearly $3 million can’t be used for the widening of U.S. 1, so the county is finalizing plans to use the money toward streetscape projects in front of the government complex and the School Board office across the highway.
Construction of the first phase could be done by December 2013.
The rebuild of the well house includes Plexiglas over the hole to the well. Baroody says meticulous masonry and stonework in the well will be visible.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975