Next in our student series is Kelly Westfield, who is leading our excavations at the Sorrel-Weed House.
The Sorrel-Weed House is a Greek-Revival mansion located at the corner of Harris and Bull Streets in downtown Savannah. The home, which towers over the northwest portion of Madison Square, was built for Francis Sorrel by Charles B. Cluskey and was completed about 1841. As the grandeur of the home suggests, with its three generous stories, multiple verandahs, elaborate ceiling medallions, and copious iron work, it was built for one of Savannah’s elite during a prosperous era in the city’s history, made possible largely by agriculture and slave labor. Francis Sorrel was a wealthy merchant and cotton factor, and like many of his contemporaries, a slave owner. The detached living quarters and former carriage house that sit directly behind the home are a living reminder of this. Built in the stately house’s shadow just a short distance across a narrow garden, the carriage house was likely where many of the home’s former slaves lived and worked.
Desirous of getting some hands-on experience in the field in my Historical Archaeology class this semester, I met with Professor Seifert to discuss possible projects. My interest was timed perfectly; the Sorrel-Weed House staff had just recently approached Professor Seifert about conducting an archaeological study in the basement of the carriage house to uncover the source of a curious depression in the floor. It was decided in January that we would dig one test unit in the basement, and over the course of four weekends between February and March, thanks to the generous help and expertise of my fellow classmates and Professor Seifert, we completed the first official archaeological excavation ever undertaken at the Sorrel-Weed Home. We are currently still processing the artifacts and other data, and a report will be forthcoming in April.
The Sorrel-Weed House currently operates as a “must-see” site in Savannah’s ghost tour industry. In fact—it’s probably better described as the must-see site for paranormal activity, notorious not just in Savannah but in the Southern United States. Sorrel family oral tradition describes tragic events, which are the foundation of the site’s public interpretation programs, are believed to hold the answers to these hauntings, and, it was theorized, to the cause the depression in the carriage house basement floor. As the story goes, Francis Sorrel’s wife was overcome by the grief of her husband’s affair with one of his slaves. In her despair, she took her own life by leaping from the home’s third floor balcony. Her death was followed shortly thereafter by that of the slave, Francis Sorrel’s ‘mistress’, found hung in the upper level of the carriage house, and as it is rumored, not by her own hand. For reasons that can only be guessed at, it was thought that the unfortunate slave was then interred underneath the basement floor.
We were guided by two notions going into this project. First, it was unlikely, and would be nothing short of extraordinary, that we would find human remains. Secondly, this was potentially a great opportunity to learn more about urban slavery in Savannah. As we had predicted, our excavations did not uncover any human remains, but we did discover the cause of the depression: a long, deep, subfloor pit. Our test unit did not run the length of the feature, but we hope to return in an upcoming semester and trowel our way through its remaining portion.
Although we did not find any artifacts to corroborate the tragic oral tradition about the Sorrel family, the story unequivocally illustrates pervasive and profound experiences in Savannah’s past. I would be lying if I said I came to this realization right away; for certain, the allure of the stately home and the sheer opportunity we were given preoccupied me from understanding the bigger picture. No doubt, my experience mirrors that of many visitors to the Sorrel-Weed House. But as I buried myself in research, I realized that even if we did not find any artifacts to corroborate the unfortunate events in the home’s history, the oral tradition and the site’s interpretation program have major implications for several painful realities in Savannah’s history. Sexual exploitation by slave owners, unilateral extramarital affairs, oppressive gender codes, and brutality towards slaves, including what would today be considered murder, were legion in the Antebellum South. These historical realities transcend ghost stories and the mystique of Antebellum mansions, and they are facets of our history that archaeology has the potential to teach us more about.
The Sorrel-Weed House project and the class itself has made me more culturally aware, and by doing so has fulfilled one of the most valuable goals of archaeological studies. More importantly, my experience is one that can occur on a larger level; when projects like ours continue to be undertaken and are open to the public, they have the ability to impart a larger cultural awareness within the community. When I imagine the experiences of the women in the Home’s oral tradition, and think about how I might have managed in their positions, I feel sadness and compassion for them, and the countless others who endured the same circumstances. I also now feel strongly that historians and archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to continue to learn more about these women and other muted groups, and to retell their stories. Future excavations at the Sorrel-Weed House have the potential to do just this. In the meantime, I would like to extend many thanks to Professor Seifert and to the folks at the Sorrel-Weed House for their unremitting hospitality and for seeking us out for archaeological investigations at their site.