In 2019, the Illinois State Archaeological Survey encountered a pre-1850 historic site on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River (at the town of Chester) as part of a bridge replacement project conducted by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Wedged between a gas pipeline and a modern highway right-of-way was a remarkably well-preserved footprint of an early 19th century structure, and as well as a rich deposit of material culture associated with what turned out to be tavern-keeping.
The town of Chester was platted on a low terrace along the Mississippi River in 1831, primarily as a landing and shipping port. The location was topographically strategic—the docks (which were actually included in the plat map) were located at one of the narrowest and deepest portions of the channel anywhere in the region. It was also strategic in a business sense, diverting trade from the old French town of Kaskaskia just 5 miles north. Settled over a century earlier near the junction of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers, the town was less accessible than the site of Chester.
Aside from mercantile warehouses, some of the first businesses to be established at Chester were slaughterhouses and packing houses, which processed hogs brought there by farmers and drovers, thus creating a more-easily transported commodity.
During the early 19th century, the term “tavern” referred to a boarding house or small hotel, as opposed to a “bar” or a “saloon” that we might think of today. Such businesses were often very informal ones, and are also difficult to spot in the archival record.
At Chester, young men driving cattle (as well as other merchants and travelers headed to Kaskaskia or further west) needed a place to get something to eat or to spend the night. Horace Francis, an entrepreneur with a background in both storekeeping and the hospitality business, filled that need shortly after Chester was founded. In 1834, he bought a piece of property just outside of town and along one of the principal trails that led from the Illinois uplands into the river valley. Here he built a tavern. While he probably superintended its operation, Francis himself lived in a stone house at the foot of the hill.
A rare lack of plowing at the site preserved a shallow but well-defined “shadow” of the structure itself. The project right-of-way landed squarely on the core of the building. The very front of the tavern—facing the road—had been truncated by modern ditch construction, and the “back yard” features were inaccessible due to utility lines. But what remained included a subfloor pit cellar, a very shallow crawlspace-like feature below the core of the building, evidence of two chimney footings, and “tromp” disturbances made by foot traffic behind the structure itself.
Extrapolating various elements of the features, we can see the basic plan of the ground floor of what was likely a two-story log building. This includes two large front rooms and a kitchen ell. From what we read about taverns, the front rooms probably served as general meeting, entrainment, and dining areas. These may have been heated by a triangular, two-bay stone fireplace (sometimes referred to as a "turkey breast”) in the corners of the two adjacent rooms. A crude cellar beneath the floor of the rear kitchen was accessible by a ramped, exterior entrance. The kitchen itself was equipped with a brick cooking fireplace.
Several aspects of the artifact assemblage as a whole are notable, and reflect the special function of the site. Firstly, the refined ceramic sample produced a pattern counter to that of the typical domestic setting of the era. At most farmsteads and rural dwellings, a surprisingly pervasive and rigid pattern of consumption has been observed.
In those settings, teawares (cups, saucers, teapots, sugar pots etc.) generally outnumber tablewares (plates, platters, pitchers and bowls) by a ratio of 3-to-2. At Deer Shed Bluff, tablewares and teawares are present in nearly equal numbers. Further, other documented tavern sites have produced a similar emphasis on tablewares. This seems to be a reflection of large, generalized meal service over the taking of tea—and an apparent irrelevance of the social display associated with tea and its customary trappings.
The sample of smoking pipes from the Deer Shed Bluff site is an unusually large one, consisting of a conservative minimum of 44 pipes from 170 fragments. In contrast, the average Euro-American farmstead in Illinois generally produces fewer than five such items from pre-1850 contexts. The tavern, then, produced over 10 times the average from coeval domestic sites in Illinois.
Most of the specimens are American “elbow” or “reed stem” pipes, as opposed to imported, long-stem, white clay pipes. Perhaps these less fragile pipes were more appropriate for travel. The specimens include a range of stoneware styles from the well-known, pre-industrial factories at Point Pleasant Ohio, as well as a number of earthenware examples that are more difficult to source.
The large and diverse sample of smoking pipes from the tavern is an important one. Not only does it reflect the importance of tobacco consumption in the social activities of the tavern experience, but its well-bracketed context provides insights into the chronologies and styles of a distinctive regional folk tradition that was emerging in the Ohio Valley during the 1830s.
An impressive total of 255 clothing buttons was recovered from the site. This is the largest sample of buttons recovered from pre-Civil War contexts in Illinois—outside of military settings. Generally, the average number of buttons recovered from early 19th century domestic sites in Illinois is less than 10, with larger samples still only yielding less than 15.
Button analysis in the archaeological literature has traditionally focused on typological classifications based on material and method of manufacture. Such an approach, however, renders little insight into the actual articles of clothing to which buttons were once fastened. This is a problem, as the style of garments and the fashions that they represented have the potential to speak of the wearer’s sense of identity, status, or general engagement in the rapidly-changing international fashions of the time.
To address this, we designed a new laboratory method to “translate” buttons into garments. Here, various archaeological metrics are compared to information from extant garments, the archival record, and period images. From the sample at the tavern, we found that the most visible types of garments represent "middle wear,” such as vests and trousers. These could be characterized as rather informal and also slightly “behind the times” with regards to then-current fashions. Buttons associated with outerwear (such as coats and greatcoats) could also be characterized as somewhat out-of-step with then-current fashion.
Meanwhile, an elevated number of buttons associated with shirts and underwear seems to reflect site function. That is, numerous people dressing and undressing (as well as sleeping in their undergarments) produces much more opportunity for button loss associated with these kinds of undergarments.
Others items found in unusual quantities at the tavern include lost jewelry, as well as coins and trade tokens. Again, the prevalence of such items in the assemblage probably reflects the large numbers of people coming and going, and the trade that was conducted there.
If there is a "model" for the signature of early nineteenth century tavern-keeping as expressed at Deer Shed Bluff (and also with the consideration of patterning from other documented tavern sites), it would include these points:
- A notably elevated percentage of ceramic tablewares over teawares.
- A slightly enhanced presence of glass drinking vessels, but not necessarily an enhanced signature of liquor bottles.
- Higher frequencies of clothing-related items, particularly buttons.
- Losses that reflect trade, including higher-than average numbers of coinage or writing implements.
- Forms of evidence that represent social exchange, including but not limited to tobacco pipes.
The tavern built in 1835 by Horace Francis served as a place of lodging, dining, and entertainment for a little over 10 years. Based on the temporarily sensitive artifacts found there, the site was closed between 1845 and 1850. Perhaps not coincidentally, this aligns with the catastrophic flood of 1844, which destroyed many of the businesses and homes along the river at Chester. The damage to commerce at the river port (which never fully recovered) must have seriously impacted the traffic at the tavern. At the time, Francis was in his 40s and was successful in many aspects of business and community life in Chester. The tavern on the bluff may have simply outlived its necessity.
The archaeological record suggests that for the brief 10 years of its operation, this particular site was a busy place. Its material environment was modest, and its inhabitants were average consumers. But they were not so frugal as to be too concerned about losing some buttons, pocket change, or even a finger ring.
Ultimately, the concentration of personal items found in the vicinity of the building reflects the concentration of humanity in the four or five rooms that overlooked the river. The place must have been close, fragrant, and noisy. And it seems likely that many of the visitors there were pleased by at least some of this commotion, as it provided conversation, food, games, songs, and social interaction that would have punctuated the relative isolation of dispersed family farmsteads in the uplands of southern Illinois. And due to a number of circumstances, the cumulative “noise” created by the debris left behind at this place of public entertainment is, in fact, an unusually intimate one.
Funding for this project was provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The contents of this article reflect the view of the author(s) who are responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or the policies of the Illinois Department of Transportation.